Episode 1: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

For the first episode of the Cleary Product Book Club Podcast, we chose an Alan Cooper (of Cooper Design) standard, published back in 1999. The book dives into why software needs to start with design, and explains some of the core problems associated with building software that make it easy to build overly complicated, non-user-friendly products. While many of the ideas presented in the book have become norms across the tech industry over the past 17 years since it was first published, the core concepts are extremely important. If anything, their commonness causes the ideas to be forgotten — and the book offers a first-principles refresher on exactly why design has maintained it’s stronghold on the early stages of building software today.

Some of the core ideas that we talk about include:

  • All users are not the same! Some are beginners, some are intermediate, and some are advanced in terms of their understanding of and how they use your product. To design for only one class of user is setting any of the other two groups up for failure, or at least a non-optimal experience.
  • Working in tech, we’re often blinded to the fact that not everyone experiences technology in the same way. The core understandings of how products work are often very different. It’s quite rare to build for a user that understands technology in the same way that you do. For most users? Technology is much more difficult and confusing for them than for the people who are building it. What may seem like an easy obvious fix for people working in Product may in fact be too much cognitive friction for users.
“He makes a major point that around how hard computers are and how hard they don’t have to be.… We’re living in this world where we’re blinded to it because it’s so much better to have a computer involved in so many things that we’re willing to overlook its downfalls.” — Anna Marie Clifton
  • Designing product requires a ton of communication across the team. Product people need to recognize that all of those people are very different, and while it’s often known that they each use different modes and styles of communication, the actual words that a team use are the same… but the undersanding of what those words mean can be drastically different. If you don’t ‘come to terms’ with the people you’re working with, it’s impossible to have clarity around what you’re actually building and how you’ll get there.
“…when you start working on a project, a certain feature or an entire product together with a team, it’s extremely important to start from first principles in terms of what are the actual words that you’re using, what do they mean and what do people think that they mean.” — Sandi MacPherson
  • Adding features is not the way to solve problems. Full stop. Cooper compares how we solve user problems to that of a Swiss Army Knife — with a physical object, you can’t just keep adding tools. Unfortunately software makes it overly easy to add and add and add features, ultimately leading to feature bloat.

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