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!