Book Review: the Inmates are Running the Asylum

Alan Cooper’s Book About the Value of Interactive Design Offers Rich Insight and Practical Ideas for Running Technology Projects

  • Rating: 4.5/5

In July this year I attended a week-long seminar series in San Francisco called “Usability Week” which is designed to offer new ideas for improving the user experience on websites, in products and software.

One of the most intriguing workshops I attended was the Constructing Data Driven Personas session run by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin, who are authors of The Persona Lifecycle. As often happens, their presentation referenced the writings of another expert in their field, Alan Cooper, and his thought-provoking book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum. Adlin and Pruitt had mentioned that the user-centric concept of personas mentioned in Cooper’s book was the spark that led to the formulation of their own thinking on the development and use of personas. I thought it only fitting that before reading their book, I should take a look at Cooper’s.

What starts out as a lecture about the failings of the high-tech engineering community, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum quickly turns into an absorbing thesis on how to make better technology products. It provides a thoughtful case for how technology companies can design products that people actually want to use.

For marketing practitioners working in the IT field, this book offers rich insight into the motivations and attitudes of the engineering departments they work with. For engineers, it explains why it is so important to hand over responsibility for product design to a new team of Interactive Design experts. For IT business owners it argues the case that better design processes deliver better products and therefore better business outcomes.

The main ideas of the book are valuable references for anyone involved in the development of tech products, especially software. That vague definitions of the “user” must be replaced by a “primary persona” that embodies real user goals. That the engineering culture of high-tech companies that typically dominates product development must change, which means inserting a design phase into the beginning of every project before production (ie coding) begins. Re-engineering the product development process with a clear focus on personas ensures better products are made for the people who are going to use them. Finally, that senior management needs to enforce this new design phase and transfer the responsibility for design quality to a new team of interactive designers. In doing so they strengthen the product relevance to end-users’ needs by thwarting the conflicts of interest that exist among engineers when relied on to design a product. A complete design phase also improves internal communication during product development, provides useful resources for marketing and customer support teams to later utilize, and builds customer loyalty from products that actually help users achieve their goals.

Postscript: Having worked in the PC industry for over 10 years, including over six in the software industry, I highly recommend The Inmates Are Running the Asylum to non-engineers working in the high-tech industry. The book offers a lot of insight into the world of software development from an influential insider’s perspective. Software engineers will also gain from Alan Cooper’s ideas.

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