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Alan Cooper is an idiot

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Alan Cooper is an idiot.

Yes, that Alan Cooper, ‘About Face’, ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’, etc.

Ten years ago a friend and colleague recommended About Face to me. I didn’t buy it. To be honest, I was put off by his rants in the interviews that he did at the time. However, the following year I was in a bookshop in the US looking through a bin of discounted books and I found a hardback copy of The Inmates are Running the Asylum. It was reduced from $24 to $12.50 and I should have realised that there was a good reason for that but, based on my friend’s recommendation, I decided to give Cooper a chance and read at least one of his books. Big mistake.

But that was ten years ago and I’d happily forgotten Cooper and his dreadful book until I was having a clear out last weekend and found it at the back of a cupboard. I picked it up and opened it at random. Page 94 has a section titled, “The Psychology of Computer Programmers”. Over several pages Cooper explains that programmers are hung up on handling edge cases that most users of their software will only occasionally encounter. His view is that programmers spend too much time worrying about stuff that will only rarely happen. Without actually stating it explicitly, he’s saying that most users would prefer to have cheaper or more functional programs that occasionally crash than expensive robust programs. He’s saying that, for example, people would be happy to lose several hours work when their word processor crashes because they mistakenly tried to save a document to a read-only CD-ROM drive (and the programmer hadn’t allowed for this possibility) because the program was a few dollars cheaper than a competitor product. Idiot.

Let’s try another random selection: page 214. There’s a screen shot showing the UI of what looks like a telephony application. It looks like an integrated telephone and answering machine. That’s because that’s what it is. At a superficial level at least, this makes sense. If it’s a telephony program that mimics a telephone and answering machine then it’s reasonable that the developer should use a UI that’s familiar to anyone who’s used the real thing. But according to Cooper: “The interface is undeniably beautiful, particularly if you’re a gadget-loving technophile, but its use is inscrutable.” What ? Has Cooper not used a telephone before ? It has a telephone keypad and some buttons that you’d expect to see on a telephone/answering machine like Screen, Mute, Hold, etc. It’s not that hard Cooper. What’s wrong with you ?

Again, I don’t doubt that if the developer had devised a completely new and innovative UI for a telephone answering application, it’d be Cooper screaming the loudest that the developer had ignored a common and familiar real-world interface and invented a poorly designed and unintuitive UI. You can’t have it both ways Cooper.

I know I’m being more than a little unfair and the bombast is ‘Cooper-style’ to give him some of his own medicine but if this book is typical then he’s very arbitrary and inconsistent in his criticisms. Which is exactly why I consigned his book to a dark cupboard and forgot about it for ten years.


Written by Sea Monkey

February 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Books

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