$100 Laptop’s/OLPC’s user interface looks good, but …

I again spent some time to update myself with the One Laptop per Child project. I have been – and I am still – critical about the design process and the idea of dumping the laptops for the governments of developing countries without a clear vision how they will be used in local educational settings. But there are some nice things coming out, too.

The OLPC Human Interface Guidelines looks very good. In some extent there is people and activity centered touch in it. In the user interface design there are many ideas I like, even that I would expect there to be at least some references to user experience studies. The lack of this makes me wonder how well do they know their users really.

At first I’ll list the things I like in the OLPC’s UI ideas. Then some minor critics. Finally my major concern.

In the center of the user interface there is the “owner of the laptop”. Around the owner there are friends, neighborhood, etc. In the main view you see all the other users of OLPC’s in a reach of the laptop’s mesh network. With these people you may then do things together.

In the interface you may zoom to different areas and have different things going on in different locations of the user interface. I like spatial interfaces and there are many good reason why not to use the desktop, folders and file metaphors.

The user interface does not have the concept of applications. Basically you work with activities and create and modify objects with other people in some places (see the zooming). The point is on “things you do” with other people: you draw with someone or you chat with someone in somewhere in the UI.

The document also presents ideas of one specific activity that actually seems to work more as an “application” than an activity. Each place have its own Bulletin Board for chatting and sharing objects. The bulletin board is spatially contextual interface. You may freely locate your chat bubbles to any place in the screen. In a way it remind of the new interface of the Fle3 knowledge building we are currently developing.

Then the critics.

Having the child in the center is nice, but why they are represented in the UI with an icons (XO icon they call it)? Why not an image of the child, especially when there is an in-build camera in the laptop? We people are hard-wired to recognize faces. Having faces in the UI would make the social networking with the laptops much easier for the users.

Spatial UI which you may zoom in and out is very good idea. But I do not understand why the four zoom levels are: Activity, Home, Friends and Neighborhood? Why the metaphors are in some levels places (home, neighborhood) and in another levels people (friends) and then finally something very abstract (activity). One should be consistent with these. This solution makes me ask can’t my friends come in my home? What about my family? Where do they belong? I would use only place metaphors in here, which could be edited by the users (default could be: home, neighborhood, country, and world). People I would let to locate themselves in any of the places regardless their physical location. A color code could tell if the person is in a reach of the network or not.

Focusing on activities is good, but when you have activities you need also tools – those mediating instruments. I would not fully forget the idea of “application” but would rather use the concept of “tool”. You could primary start adn have activities but in them you should then use some tools. For instance you decide to draw with your friends and then you choose what tools you will use to do it.

I think the description of the Bulletin Board is still rather draft. There is not any pedagogical idea behind it, except the thought that dialogue among the learners is a good thing. The Bulletin Board could be developed more to the direction of being a tool for scaffolded knowledge building than just being ..well.. a bulletin board.

Finally, my major concern.

It looks that the UI of the OLPC laptops will great a ghetto of its own. The UI design shows that there will no be interoperability with other computer systems. What this means? If I am a father using Linux/Win/Mac laptop and my child will have OLPC laptop we will not “see” each other through our interfaces. To chat with my daughter I should get OLPC, too. This is very bad! This is very non-FLOSS!

There is also a simple solution to make the OLPC laptop to work with other systems. Make the whole UI to work on a web browser on a web-server run on each laptop. Simply make the UI web-based. Use the latest web 2.0 widgets to implement the zooming etc. It’s a lot of work but obviously the right thing to do.

2 thoughts on “$100 Laptop’s/OLPC’s user interface looks good, but …

  1. "obviously the right thing to do"… Hmmm, that's some assumption. Alot of what you say makes sense, but on the interoperability issue, just because the laptop utilises a customised linux OS does not mean it can't "talk" to other machines. The OLPC has three USB ports and applications/activities can use standard protocols. There are a lot of possibilities with this project, but the most important, in my opinion, is opening up access of education/information. The fact that they can't send a photo to their dads Mac to print out is probably not a major immediate concern. Anthony

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