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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.The recurring metaphor in The Inmates are Running the Asylum is that of the dancing bear--the circus bear that shuffles clumsily for the amusement of the audience. Such bears, says author Alan Cooper, don't dance well, as everyone at the circus can see. What amazes the crowd is that the bear dances at all. Cooper argues that technology (videocassette recorders, car alarms, most software applications for personal computers) consists largely of dancing bears--pieces that work, but not at all well. He goes on to say that this is more often than not the fault of poorly designed user interfaces, and he makes a good argument that way too many devices (perhaps as a result of the designers' subconscious wish to bully the people who tormented them as children) ask too much of their users. Too many systems (like the famous unprogrammable VCR) make their users feel stupid when they can't get the job done.
Cooper, who designed Visual Basic (the programming environment Microsoft promotes for the purpose of creating good user interfaces), indulges in too much name-dropping and self-congratulation (Cooper attributes the quote, "How did you do that?" to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, upon looking at one of Cooper's creations)--but this appears to be de rigueur in books about the software industry. But those asides are minor. More valuable is the discourse about software design and implementation ("[O]bject orientation divides the 1000-brick tower into 10 100-brick towers."). Read this book for an idea of what's wrong with UI design. --David Wall
Topics covered: User interfaces--good ones and bad ones--and where they come from. Also, how to improve the ones you create.