After a recommendation from a user experience specialist at Huge, I just finished reading The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity by Alan Cooper. I probably should have read it years ago, but my list of books is just too long…
The technology examples are a bit out of date since the book was written 10 years ago, but the core principles definitely still apply. People-centered design is a crucial for any project, whether its software, online marketing communications (such as your organization’s website) or even the simple alarm clock. Unfortunately, not enough products and services are designed with the user in mind. In fact, Cooper rejects the word user, instead insisting on personas with names and characteristics, bringing the people you are designing for to life.
Cooper definitely hates on programmers a lot in this book so if you are one, take his vitriol as a challenge and try not to get offended by his blazing, exaggerated stereotypes. Having worked with programmers, I can see why products have issues like the examples he mentions. And having done some programming myself, I can also understand why programmers shy away from usability. Creating user-centric products makes for a much more difficult challenge.
Here’s a very relevant example from a couple days ago –
Having just spent too many hours trying to print another set of business cards from what should have been an easy Avery online template (which has an interface from 1995), I had some “words” for the fourth Avery customer service representative I talked to. (“Words” in this case meaning both some frustrated negativity and some positive feedback that probably should have built into the program in the first place). I’m generally pretty good at figuring things out (Cooper may call me an Apologist for that but I definitely spend more time looking for ways to improve interfaces rather than rationalizing them). Without going into many details, this Avery experience has been pretty brutal and I am most likely never going to buy Avery products that require any customization again.
Going back to the book, my favorite quote –
“Most really breakthrough conceptual advances are opaque in foresight and transparent in hindsight”
-Alan Cooper, from The Inmates are Running the Asylum
This quote certainly applies to usability. With respect to online marketing communications, this applies to every user touch point – your organization’s website navigation, event tools, online donation system, online community, etc. Every place where you interact with people is a place for satisfaction or disaster. Not to sound too didactic, but please (please) test with people who are unfamiliar with your product or service before unleashing it to the masses. Problems can be solved only if you are aware of them and most likely you are too close to the problem to notice the most obvious ones.
I would recommend the book to anyone building a product or service and would like their users to be happy with the experience (and avoid calling customer support!) You can get it from your public library (my preferred method) or from Amazon.