Father of Visual Basic begs: Stop the insanity!

It’s no surprise that the man known as the Father of Visual Basic has some strong opinions on user interfaces. After all, Alan Cooper developed some of the tools that create the “”visual”” part of them.

His opinion itself, however, may raise an eyebrow or two: he thinks that, on the whole,

user interfaces stink.

In The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, Cooper explains that software is just too hard to use, and the reason is that programmers and engineers design the interfaces for programmers and engineers, not for the actual users.

He notes, “”Despite appearances, business executives are simply not the ones in control of the high-tech industry. It is the engineers who are running the show. In our rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, we have abdicated our responsibilities. We have let the inmates run the asylum.””

The inmates — programmers — have totally different goals from the end users, according to Cooper. They want the programming process to be smooth and easy, while users want operation to be smooth and easy. In fact, he says, most software is designed by accident. He calls it dancing bearware — software whose main recommendation is, as with the ursine hoofer, not that it dances well, but that it can dance at all.

He splits users into two groups: apologists and survivors. Apologists, he says, “”tout the benefits while downplaying the disadvantages with unabashed partisanship””. They’re the power users, who will dutifully learn a 14-key sequence to activate a function because they love the challenge.

Survivors, on the other hand, don’t know much about computers, but, Cooper says, “”know what hard is, and know what easy is, and they know full well that computers are hard””.

“”However,”” he goes on, “”just like everybody else, they cannot simply abandon the computer; they need it to do their jobs. They grit their teeth and put up with the abuse inflicted on them by the dancing bearware.””

Cooper spends the first half of the book describing bearware, and the reasons behind it. He talks about the culture of programming (programmers, he says, act like jocks), and why it clashes with the rest of the world. He discusses how and why various types of software fail users, and states that letting software engineers address these problems is “”like asking the fox to solve henhouse security problems.””

This, of course, inevitably leads to Cooper’s recommended solution: interaction design (a solution Cooper has been successfully selling for several years).

It’s an interesting concept — creating biographies of probable users of a product-in-progress, describing their needs and skill sets, then tailoring the interface and feature set to their needs. Developers don’t think of a hypothetical generic “”user”” when they’re designing a feature — they think of Sue the clerk, or John the executive, or Betsy the graphic artist turned Web designer, whose lives they have looked at and learned. They run through scenarios of typical usage for each persona, and through this determine the best features and the most effective interface for the target audience.

The technique has been successfully used on a number of products, including the software for the Logitech ScanMan scanner. Cooper describes the design process for this and other products in a series of detailed case studies that show how totally off-base initial assumptions can be, and how, by looking at a persona’s usage, a design can be improved. For example, the original software for the ScanMan contained many advanced features that, they discovered, their personas would neither want nor use. Even the most advanced persona, a professional designer, had other, more familiar tools to do the job. Consequently, the interaction design process allowed Logitech to provide simpler, more appropriate software instead of succumbing to feature-itis.

My major issue with this book is that it first came out in 1999, and the current edition, although it appears to have been updated in some spots, still talks about problems that have actually been addressed. For example, Cooper complains that no e-mail programs allow users to manage messages as threads (a thread consists of an original message, and its subsequent back-and-forth dialogue of replies and replies to replies), yet several programs, including newer versions of Microsoft Outlook, perform this function with a couple of clicks.

Still, it is outrageously readable, and even while you’re shaking your head at some of Cooper’s points, his irresistible dialogue and glib turn of a phrase keep you turning the pages. He has a wicked way with an anecdote, and no-one is safe from his acid pen, even his former employer, Microsoft. (He says, for example, “”Microsoft does little or no design, and its products are famous for making people feel stupid. They are also famous for giving people good value with a robust feature set.””) He even takes jabs at some of his own pre-enlightenment work. And, in the process, he makes you think about things you’ve been taking for granted in a new way.

This is a perfect book to take to the hammock on a summer day.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, by Alan Cooper. Sams Publishing, 2004. $23,95.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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