Book Review: The Inmates Are Running The Asylum

Originally Posted April 11th 2018

For the past few months I’ve been working through a goal of reading 30 books in a year. I made a list sourced from books that I’d wanted to read in a while, and books that friends recommended, and I’ve been working through it. For the most part I’ve gotten through books pretty quickly as they’ve been generally fascinating. Last month was the first time I hit a book that I struggled to get through a bit. Fortunately I stuck with it, and it was worth it in the end.

The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper is a book that I’d seen recommended all over the place by design-savvy developers and product folk. Cooper is the creator of Visual Basic, a highly regarded programmer who became an even more high regarded designer, pioneering the field of interaction design (laid out in his other book About Face) and the use of personas in software design. While About Face is his explanation of the techniques behind interaction design, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum is his case for why interaction design is necessary as part of the software development process. As somebody who has been working in a partial design role for the past year, it seemed like a great fit.

Unfortunately, the first few chapters were a struggle. The first 4 chapters of the book are devoted to laying out the poor “current situation” for technology when the book was written in the late 90s. Cooper goes through a long list of poor experiences in devices and software like TVs, email clients, car remotes, alarm clocks and more. The problem is that almost universally his examples are out of date. People certainly still write software with bad UX, and struggle especially with software that is replacing hardware. But they struggle in different ways now than they did 15 years ago. Possibly due to the influence of the author, and partially due to some maturation in the field and changes in technology, the particular examples listed in these chapters fail to land. It’s possible to extrapolate some things to present day, but it makes for choppy reading. At minimum the book would benefit greatly from a second edition.

A second issue that made the book harder to apply was also related to the publish date. This is a book that is firmly rooted in a waterfall/long release cycle view of the software development process. In fact if anything it is advocating for a more waterfall-like approach than the waterfall status quo of 2004. I’m genuinely curious how the author would choose to communicate his critiques today in light of the normalization of agile techniques.

If I haven’t scared you off yet, you’re at the same place I was 4 chapters in, wondering if I should cut my losses and give up on a great but outdated work. Fortunately I stuck with it and reaped the benefits. The last 10 chapters are as relevant as ever in todays world.

Chapter 5 describes the complementary roles of design, engineering, and business acumen in successful businesses. Chapters 6-8 make the case for interaction designers being a distinct field that can’t easily be filled by industrial designers, visual designers, marketers or programmers. There is a particular focus on the problems of developers designing the code that they’re implementing. Chapters 9-11 are a high level view of the principals of interaction design. Finally chapters 12-14 describe what implementing design into a software culture looks like. There is a ton of great content in these chapters.

As a programmer who has been designing and implementing for the last year, the critiques of chapters 6-8 rang quite true. I see all the tendencies outlined in the book dragging me away from user-focused design, and it’s a constant battle to remind myself to build for the user and not development convenience.

I was familiar with many of the ideas in chapters 9 through 11 as techniques but these chapters did a really good job of laying out the heart behind them as well as making a business case for their use. Frankly they also made me much more interested in reading About Face, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a review of that up sometime soon (after I finish my current list of books).

Finally, while the implementation chapters at the end struggled a bit due to being written in a pre-agile world, it holds up because it focuses a lot on creating a design culture and isn’t just stuck on prescriptive steps for integrating designers.

Overall I can definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in learning more about the role of design in a healthy software development organization and you know enough about the industry to contextualize the 90s-era advice in 2018. It is definitely a high-level book; Cooper describes it as the “business case for interaction design”, and it is written at a “business level”. If you want a more practical and in the weeds design resource, then About Face is probably a better bet. But The Inmates Are Running The Asylum is still solid reading.

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