The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity


Imagine, at a terrifyingly aggressive rate, everything you regularly use is being equipped with computer technology. Think about your phone, cameras, cars-everything-being automated and programmed by people who in their rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, have abdicated their responsibility to make these products easy to use. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum argues that the business executives who make the decisions to develop these products are not the ones in control of the technology used ...

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Imagine, at a terrifyingly aggressive rate, everything you regularly use is being equipped with computer technology. Think about your phone, cameras, cars-everything-being automated and programmed by people who in their rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, have abdicated their responsibility to make these products easy to use. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum argues that the business executives who make the decisions to develop these products are not the ones in control of the technology used to create them. Insightful and entertaining, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum uses the author's experiences in corporate America to illustrate how talented people continuously design bad software-based products and why we need technology to work the way average people think. Somewhere out there is a happy medium that makes these types of products both user and bottom-line friendly; this book discusses why we need to quickly find that medium.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Software’s everywhere: in your PC, your car, your camera, your alarm clock. Why is so much of it so darned infuriating? Because the inmates, a.k.a. programmers, are running the asylum, says Alan Cooper. He thinks it’s about time we became far more sophisticated, far more conscious about designing our software -- not just coding and shipping it.

The first edition of Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum became an instant classic. It’s helped drive significant improvements in software usability -- among the fraction of business and technical leaders who’ve taken it to heart. Now the book’s returned, with a thoughtful new preface. If you missed it the first time, don’t miss it this time: Its message is more urgent and compelling than ever. Bill Camarda

Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2003 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks for Dummies, Second Edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780672326141
  • Publisher: Sams
  • Publication date: 2/24/2004
  • Edition description: New Foreword Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 255
  • Sales rank: 688,286
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

As a software inventor in the mid-70s, Alan Cooper got it into his head that there must be a better approach to software construction. This new approach would free users from annoying, difficult and inappropriate software behavior by applying a design and engineering process that focuses on the user first and silicon second. Using this process, engineering teams could build better products faster by doing it right the first time.

His determination paid off. In 1990 he founded Cooper, a technology product design firm. Today, Cooper's innovative approach to software design is recognized as an industry standard. Over a decade after Cooper opened its doors for business, the San Francisco firm has provided innovative, user-focused solutions for companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Align Technologies, Discover Financial Services, Dolby, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Fujitsu Softek, Hewlett Packard, Informatica, IBM, Logitech, Merck-Medco, Microsoft, Overture, SAP, SHS Healthcare, Sony, Sun Microsystems, the Toro Company, Varian and VISA. The Cooper team offers training courses for the Goal-Directed® interaction design tools they have invented and perfected over the years, including the revolutionary technique for modeling and simulating users called personas, first introduced to the public in 1999 via the first edition of The Inmates.

In 1994, Bill Gates presented Alan with a Windows Pioneer Award for his invention of the visual programming concept behind Visual Basic, and in 1998 Alan received the prestigious Software Visionary Award from the Software Developer's Forum. Alan introduced a taxonomy for software design in 1995 with his best-selling first book, About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design. Alan and co-author Robert Reimann published a significantly revised edition, About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, in 2003.

Alan's wife, Susan Cooper, is President and CEO of Cooper. They have two teenage sons, Scott and Marty, neither of whom is a nerd. In addition to software design, Alan is passionate about general aviation, urban planning, architecture, motor scooters, cooking, model trains and disc golf, among other things. Please send him email at or visit Cooper's Web site at

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Table of Contents



1. Riddles for the Information Age.

What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with an Airplane? What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with a Camera? What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with an Alarm Clock? What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with a Car? What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with a Bank? Computers Make It Easy to Get into Trouble. Commercial Software Suffers, Too. What Do You Get When You Cross a Computer with a Warship? Techno-Rage. An Industry in Denial. The Origins of This Book.

2. Cognitive Friction.

Behavior Unconnected to Physical Forces. Design Is a Big Word. The Relationship Between Programmers and Designers. Most Software Is Designed by Accident. "Interaction" Versus "Interface" Design. Why Software-Based Products Are Different. The Dancing Bear. The Cost of Features. Apologists and Survivors. How We React to Cognitive Friction. The Democratization of Consumer Power. Blaming the User. Software Apartheid.


3. Wasting Money.

Deadline Management. What Does "Done" Look Like? Parkinson's Law. The Product That Never Ships. Shipping Late Doesn't Hurt. Feature-List Bargaining. Programmers Are in Control. Features Are Not Necessarily Good. Iteration and the Myth of the Unpredictable Market. The Hidden Costs of Bad Software. The Only Thing More Expensive Than Writing Software Is Writing Bad Software. Opportunity Cost. The Cost of Prototyping.

4. The Dancing Bear.

If It Were a Problem, Wouldn't It Have Been Solved by Now? Consumer Electronics Victim. How Email Programs Fail. How Scheduling Programs Fail. How Calendar Software Fails. Mass Web Hysteria. What's Wrong with Software? Software Forgets. Software Is Lazy. Software Is Parsimonious with Information. Software Is Inflexible. Software Blames Users. Software Won't Take Responsibility.

5. Customer Disloyalty.

Desirability. A Comparison. Time to Market.


6. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

Driving from the Backseat. Hatching a Catastrophe. Computers Versus Humans. Teaching Dogs to Be Cats.

7. Homo Logicus.

The Jetway Test. The Psychology of Computer Programmers. Programmers Trade Simplicity for Control. Programmers Exchange Success for Understanding. Programmers Focus on What Is Possible to the Exclusion of What Is Probable. Programmers Act Like Jocks.

8. An Obsolete Culture.

The Culture of Programming. Reusing Code. The Common Culture. Programming Culture at Microsoft. Cultural Isolation. Skin in the Game. Scarcity Thinking. The Process Is Dehumanizing, Not the Technology.


9. Designing for Pleasure.

Personas. Design for Just One Person. The Roll-Aboard Suitcase and Sticky Notes. The Elastic User. Be Specific. Hypothetical. Precision, Not Accuracy. A Realistic Look at Skill Levels. Personas End Feature Debates. Both Designers and Programmers Need Personas. It's a User Persona, Not a Buyer Persona. The Cast of Characters. Primary Personas. Case Study: Sony Trans Com's P@ssport. The Conventional Solution. Personas. Designing for Clevis.

10. Designing for Power.

Goals Are the Reason Why We Perform Tasks. Tasks Are Not Goals. Programmers Do Task-Directed Design. Goal-Directed Design. Goal-Directed Television News. Goal-Directed Classroom Management. Personal and Practical Goals. The Principle of Commensurate Effort. Personal Goals. Corporate Goals. Practical Goals. False Goals. Computers Are Human, Too. Designing for Politeness. What Is Polite? What Makes Software Polite? Polite Software Is Interested in Me. Polite Software Is Deferential to Me. Polite Software Is Forthcoming. Polite Software Has Common Sense. Polite Software Anticipates My Needs. Polite Software Is Responsive. Polite Software Is Taciturn About Its Personal Problems. Polite Software Is Well Informed. Polite Software Is Perceptive. Polite Software Is Self-Confident. Polite Software Stays Focused. Polite Software Is Fudgable. Polite Software Gives Instant Gratification. Polite Software Is Trustworthy. Case Study: Elemental Drumbeat. The Investigation. Who Serves Whom. The Design. Pushback. Other Issues.

11. Designing for People.

Scenarios. Daily-Use Scenarios. Necessary-Use Scenarios. Edge-Case Scenario. Inflecting the Interface. Perpetual Intermediates. "Pretend It's Magic". Vocabulary. Breaking Through with Language. Reality Bats Last. Case Study: Logitech ScanMan. Malcolm, the Web-Warrior. Chad Marchetti, Boy. Magnum, DPI. Playing "Pretend It's Magic". World-Class Cropping. World-Class Image Resize. World-Class Image Reorient. World-Class Results. Bridging Hardware and Software. Less Is More.


12. Desperately Seeking Usability.

The Timing. User Testing. User Testing Before Programming. Fitting Usability Testing into the Process. Multidisciplinary Teams. Programmers Designing. How Do You Know? Style Guides. Conflict of Interest. Focus Groups. Visual Design. Industrial Design. Cool New Technology. Iteration.

13. A Managed Process.

Who Really Has the Most Influence? The Customer-Driven Death Spiral. Conceptual Integrity Is a Core Competence. A Faustian Bargain. Taking a Longer View. Taking Responsibility. Taking Time. Taking Control. Finding Bedrock. Knowing Where to Cut. Making Movies. The Deal. Document Design to Get It Built. Design Affects the Code. Design Documents Benefit Programmers. Design Documents Benefit Marketing. Design Documents Help Documenters and Tech Support. Design Documents Help Managers. Design Documents Benefit the Whole Company. Who Owns Product Quality? Creating a Design-Friendly Process. Where Interaction Designers Come From. Building Design Teams.

14. Power and Pleasure.

An Example of a Well-Run Project. A Companywide Awareness of Design. Benefits of Change. Let Them Eat Cake. Changing the Process.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2005

    Think you know what your customers want...think again!

    An excellent read and very well written. Alan walks you eloquently through the issues that plague the industry and defines common sense practice for good interaction design. Valuable lessens seep from each page. Unfortunately, 6 years after the release the industry is still suffering from those with too much skin in the game and resist the light of change. The book is a wake up call for the industry to practice more K.I.S.S. development and adds clarity to the reason why Software companies are fueling their Tech Support bonfires with poor design implementation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2000

    Couldn't Put it Down

    I believe all of his theories and I just hope I can embue his philosphies in my own consulting company.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2000

    Don't Give Up, Its Not Your Fault; Blame it on the Programmers

    If you¿ve ever tried learning how to use a new piece of software or to program your digital telephone & answering machine only to give up angry and frustrated, this is the book for you. After reading this book, you won¿t feel so inadequate or technologically challenged. No, it¿s not your fault. Blame it on the programmers and the dysfunctional technology design industry. Cooper speaks from experience. He¿s an insider who decided to blow the whistle on the problematic nature of the software development industry. Cooper offers an explanation of why humans are having such difficulty working with many of the ¿wonders¿ of technology. The problem is that the programmers are running the industry. As a programmer of products like Visual Basic, Cooper discovered that the programmers are calling the shots. He explains that the problem is that programmers think like programmers not like the typical technology user. So, when we look at an alarm clock or a software title that we just can¿t seem to figure out, the problem isn¿t with the user it is with the designer. Cooper¿s book examines the structure of software development and the need for interactive designers to play a key role in this process. This book offers a design methodology that calls for ¿identifying who all the key users and other stakeholders [are] and write up profiles on them, and then develop statements of their goals and the tasks they would go through to accomplish those goals.¿ I particularly liked Cooper¿s discussion of the culture of different key players in the software development industry. I found Cooper¿s process of developing fictitious personas to gear the design process towards very useful. I think that this book could be of value to writers, designers, programmers, artist, and anyone else who tries to create a product that will be used by another person.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2000

    Notes on the Asylum

    The toughest obstacle to overcoming bad software interface design, according to Alan Cooper, are programmers (the inmates). Unfortunately, these programmers are also given almost complete power in the software development process because of the skills they possess. The result is a situation where the inmates are allowed to run the software development asylum because no one else can stop them once they've begun writing code. Interested primarily in interactive design (the design of the environemnt for users), Cooper makes the case for dis-empowering programmers and requiring them to pay more attention to how users interact with software, rather than continuing to operate in the vacuum of the programming community. The implications of this shift in power would be more intuitive programs that don't test users' patience and drive them crazy with unwanted (or unnecessary) functions and procedures. Cooper proposes that these kinds of friendly interfaces can (and are) quite easy to develop once the programmers are kept in check. This is an interesting and eye-opening read for anyone interested in computing, or for those frustrated with the entire computing process. A must-read for anyone who wants a fresh perspective on interface design.

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