The Worst Software Book Ever

by Krishna on October 4, 2009

There are some books (“Peopleware”, “The Innovator's Dilemma”, “The Halo Effect”)  that you want to hug and never let go. And then there are others that you want to tear apart and dance on its fragments. Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” belongs strongly to the second category.

But first some meta: I am actually a huge fan of Cooper’s “About Face 3″, a great book about user interface and interaction design. Alan Cooper was behind the initial release of Visual Basic and then turned his attention towards interaction design. His company, Cooper Interaction Design, has done work for many of the top technology companies in the United States. Naturally, I expected this book to be a good resource.

Unfortunately, “The Inmates” has more in common with a political screed than a software book. It has some of the most hateful language about programmers that I have ever read. Even the good portions of the book are marked by scorn and viciousness towards software developers who the author blames for all the usability problems created by software.

Cooper devotes 7 (yes, SEVEN!) chapters to explaining why programmers are the scum of the earth. You would think the material gets thinner as he goes, but actually he manages to thicken the abuse culminating in the most mind-blowing and asinine analysis of programmer psychology ever:

[Programmers Act Like Jocks]

The jocks, who were so powerful in high school, find themselves utterly at the mercy of their former victims [ed: nerds]. The humbling process of becoming an adult makes most jocks become decent humans […] the 5‑foot 7‑inch former Astronomy Club treasurer finds his mental prowess allows him to weave and jab and punch with unmatched agility. […]

[T]hey see nothing wrong with humiliating users with dauntingly complex products. They sneer, joke and laugh about the “lusers” who simply are not smart enough to use computers.

All of this vitriol and what for? Apparently, Cooper wants to make the point that programmers practically hold the strings of the software development process in companies, even though executives and product managers are supposedly in charge. Programmers oppose software design. So executives have to put their foot down, grant great power to interaction designers and absolve programmers of any responsibility for the success or failure of the project.

There is a distinct conflict of interest here given that Cooper runs an interaction design firm. A more sincere approach would be to explain how someone could learn interaction design (“About Face” did a better job of this). But Cooper mostly promotes the theory that programmers are genetically incapable of doing that, going so far to call them “Homo logicus” as opposed to “Homo sapiens”. And he doesn’t mean that as a compliment.

There are times in the book where Cooper discusses why many software products have poor usability, but instead of taking his analysis to proper conclusions, he reverts back to his main thesis that programmers are to blame. He fails to look at processes, individual capabilities, knowledge, awareness, experience, incentives and other aspects of software development that contribute to poor products.

Finally, keeping in the spirit of the book, he takes a Goebbelsian preemptive strike at critics by calling them “apologists”. Incredible and despicable!


Mike Marshall October 5, 2009 at 10:39 am

I couldn't disagree more with your post. I read "Inmates..." when it first was published after seeing Cooper speak. I viewed the book as a call to action for the industry to pay attention to how we're treating our users. I don't have a copy at my fingertips, so I couldn't re-read the sections that you point out, but I suggest that the fact that the book invokes a response at all (after 10 years) can be attributed to its value. While I admit that Cooper's writing style is often over the top, the message in this book is as good today as it was back then.

Possibly, the friction stems from seeing this as a "Software Book". The book was more targeted at the cultural aspects of design and development. Who really is guiding software development in your environment? Is it stakeholders, designers, or the line developer? Who should be? How is that reflected in your product?

I'll give you a litmus test. When a developer suggests one approach will be "easier" than another, ask him WHO will benefit from this "easier approach". Is it the user? The support group? The customer? In my experience, when a developer says something will be easier - he means for himself.

Krishna October 5, 2009 at 10:57 am

Mike, the call to action was already done by Cooper in "About Face". That was a great book because it explained how software failed and what we could do to improve it. Concrete examples, solid solutions.

In "Inmates", he was trying to nail down the cause of such failure and he landed upon programmers as the cause. I do not deny that some programmer blindness is part of the cause, but to ignore every other factor in the software development process is, to be very kind, myopic.

As for software developers suggesting something is "easier", I agree it is "easier" for the software developers, not the users. But it is their job as software developers to provide the information as to which approach is more time or cost effective. Management has to step in and say, we have to do it and so we have to take on the burden of additional resources or provide more time. Otherwise, what is management there for?

Mike Marshall October 5, 2009 at 11:46 am

Fair points. In my view, I think that Cooper was less blaming developers and more explaining their motivations and behaviors. These cultural aspects are often overlooked in the technical arena, and something we discuss at the Politics of Design

Good thought-provoking post, though. I'll dig up my copy of the book and review it - and see if my viewpoints have changed.

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