A book by Alan Cooper, the guy who basically invented Visual Basic. The subtitle is "Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity".

Cooper has an extremely good grasp of the inadequacies of modern day interface design. Fully half of the book is taken up with descriptions of "what happens when you cross a book/camera/car with a computer." In almost all cases, the resulting product is embarrassingly unusable because not enough time has been put into who is actually using the tool.

Cooper then proceeds with a devastatingly accurate picture of the programmer, who he calls homo logicus, a species of humanity which wants total control and is willing to accept complexity to achieve it. Cooper's thesis is that because the programmers are designing the product, they use themselves as the ideal user instead of the person who is just trying to get the work done. This explains why most of the world doesn't use Emacs.

I think that Cooper's points are valid, and his emphasis on interaction design -- determining how the product is used, rather than interface design (which he defines as "determining how the product looks") is something which has bothered me for a long time about computers. However, I do think that Cooper lets the designer off the hook too lightly: the designers I work with personally are excellent, but I have also seen numerous examples of work where the designer was more interested in visual design and how the product LOOKED than in how it ACTED. You can take any one of Kai Krause's products as example... the interface is beautiful to look at, but almost impossible to use.

However, this book clearly nails an important idea and points out the problem head on that computers shouldn't make you feel stupid. On that level, I would place it next to The Mythical Man-Month in terms of significance, because it's not only an important issue, but something which cripples the industry on a daily basis.

Q: "what happens when you cross a book/camera/car with a computer."

A: A Police cruiser!

A word from the peanut gallery...

But seriously, this realistically applies to "open source" developers, who are usually the lead programmer, Quality Assurance and Project Leader all in one. And after all, to really think about the needs or concerns of the end-user would be dropping to their level...note sarcasm.

I figure, with these types of programs, (Emacs, Pppd, whatever), there are basically two schools of thought:

  • The "Hey man, why don't you make it easier for Joe Idiot" school. They of course, think of the end user (who may even be them). They'll end up writing X front ends.
  • The other, school(duh), would be the "psycho 1337 hacker d00d" school (pardon the generalization, all hackers aren't teenage script kiddies{them're what ya call cracka's!}). I would think these people tend to think something along the lines of "Hey, I can figure it out, why can't you?" ... Zork, anyone? The other, more offensive line of thought might be, "Hey fuck you, I don't care if you can't use the program, this shit is meant for the guys who can figure it out." Sounds kinda like the first one tho, oh well.

    But anyways, to cut to the chase, should every software project out there have a corporate "Project oriented" team-player blah blah setup? Or should the lone programmers be more considerate of the end-user? Insert Choice-C here.

    I'll let you be the judge
  • Only a programmer would make such a dubious comparison.

    Inmates are in prison, incarcerated. Some (about 25%) mental patients are in hospitals, in treatment.

    Note: the word asylum has not been used in reference to the mentally ill in the United States since the 1960s. (and I am assuming that Mr.Cooper is American).

    It is used in reference to aliens seeking political asylum.

    Jeez, so much lost in translation.

    Also a play- not related to the book- and quite possibly the worst play EVER. It's a look-at-what's-wrong-with-the-world-let's-fix-it! declaration, in the spirit of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, except not a fraction as focused, sincere, or well excecuted. In the case of "Inmates", what it wrong with the world is that it is- you guessed it- crazy. The play has a laundry list of unrelated complaints: Giuliani and his decency commission object to art, the oil industry is despoiling the environment, the election was stolen, Dubya is a mental child and a pawn of the oil industry and of Dick Cheney, community gardens are destroyed, patients cannot get health care from their HMOs, Vieques is being bombed, and the Star Wars Missile shield is going into place. Each issue is addressed in childish, unmelodious song, and the play begins with a drawn out, pathetically unoriginal dance. The plot: for drawing attention to these issues, city college psychology teacher professor Midlife has been kidnapped and imprisoned. One of his old students sets out to rescue him. Musical accompaniment is live smooth jazz.

    The entire performance has the feel of a fourth grade (maybe) school play, written by the most popular airhead in the class. Except these are adults, and it's embarrassing to watch them, not least because they can be seen to squander their very impressive resources in the scenery, costumes, and sound department. "Inmates" is being put on by Theater for the New City in various outdoor locations around New York City in August 2001. At least it's free.

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