Are Your Inmates out of Touch?

2000 Product Development Management Columns

Alan Cooper, author of the provocative book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (SAMS, 1999), clarifies why modern software is frustrating to use. Though we might be inclined to blame our own stupidity, Cooper demonstrates that these issues stem from the programmers: they live in another world, and their managers allow them to take up residence there. This would not be so serious if we were just talking about packaged software, such as Windows, Acrobat, or Netscape. Unfortunately, it extends to a much broader group of products that incorporate software: VCRs, ATMs, car-entry systems, telephones, and cameras.

For instance, Cooper, himself an engineer who loves electronic gadgets, has owned several VCRs over a twenty-year period. Today, with all of his experience in using them, his success rate in recording a delayed broadcast is less than 50-50!

Our products can be better. If I go to the ATM at my local (Portland, Oregon) bank, I find it slow and frustrating. However, if I fly halfway around the world, instead of the communication delay I expect due to the distance and language issues involved, I am delighted to find that I can withdraw cash from the ATM in the main hall of the Singapore airport in half the time, with fewer than half the keystrokes, and with a much greater sense of dignity. My USBank ATM always asks me if I want Español, even though I always opt for English; it keeps asking me if I want a receipt, ignoring my track record of always answering “yes;” and it continually asks me if I want to withdraw from checking or savings, when I don’t even have a savings account. Once, I did hit the savings key by mistake, and I received a stern warning that I had screwed up, not that USBank had made a mistake in offering me that option.

These issues come to a head with software. This is partially due to the complexity of software development, but also because adding extra features often seems easy-a situation that leads to feature proliferation. However, the root cause is that the folks who develop these products (in this case, the programmers) are out of touch with their users. Cooper shows that programmers live in a world of logic inhabited mostly by other programmers. In this world, it is difficult for them to imagine that anyone would have difficulty in understanding how the software’s logic works.

In Developing Products in Half the Time (pp. 94-95), we illustrate how developers build products to meet the needs of surrogate users that exist in the mind of each developer. If developers lack contact with genuine users, the developers themselves serve as the “default” surrogate users. This “default” surrogate user gets replaced only when the developer experiences real users. We offer two principles for building such realistic user surrogates (p. 93):

  • The developers themselves – those who are making the daily design decisions – must be the ones in touch with users (not through middlepeople, such as marketing).
  • This contact must occur before development begins (not on field calls afterwards).

Cooper offers additional tools. These are aimed at software development but could be adapted to hardware projects as well. His most powerful tool is personas. A persona is a carefully constructed description of a user, including a name, a portrait, and a description of certain idiosyncrasies that help render this individual real to the developers. For instance, in designing an airline in-flight entertainment system, the key persona was Clevis McCloud, a crotchety 65-year-old Texan with a touch of arthritis, who had never used a computer. If Clevis could enjoy the system, anyone could. To ensure that the resulting design didn’t rule out others, the team also built personas for Ethan Scott, a 9-year-old whose only interest was playing games on the screen from takeoff to touchdown, and Amanda Hopper, the flight attendant who had to keep the system running and the passengers happy throughout the trip.

Notice carefully that these personas turn normal project objectives on their heads. Normally, programmers work to a long list of features required by marketing, offered by competitors, or demanded by certain customers. Here, the goal is unwritten but far more focused: “all” they have to do is make Clevis happy and ensure that they don’t annoy Ethan, Amanda and a few other specified personas. The “inmates” featured in Cooper’s book are now in touch!

How about your “inmates?