Why the OLPC needs lots of usability work

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in November 2006

olpc_grab_small1.gifThis post is a collection of my concerns about the usability of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child, aka the “Hundred Dollar Laptop”) and how well suited it is to its target user groups. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the video, or if you want to read more about the UI concept (named “Sugar”) from the horse’s mouth, read about it here.

Involvement of the users

Building a UI is like making a pair of shoes. Creativity is all well and good, but ultimately they have to fit the person you are making them for or they aren’t walking anywhere. While lots of hard work has gone into the UI design so far, it seems they are getting ahead of themselves and chasing their own dreams. The whole ‘breaking away from the desktop’ smacks heavily of academics who have finally found an outlet for their wacky ideas. Creativity is of course very important, but it has to be tempered within the requirements of the target audience. You gather requirements by speaking to the target audience, testing your designs on them and generally involving them in the design process. I wonder exactly how much of this is going on. The eToys application, for example, currently seems very raw and most appropriate for teaching programming to educated kids.

Transferability of skills.

The Sugar UI seems weird and back to front to us now, after a lifetime of traditional UIs. What will a traditional UI seem like to kids who grew up with the Sugar UI? Weirdly upside down? It reminds me of that psychology experiment you can do with prism glasses. These glasses make everything look upside down. Wear them for long enough and everything seems the right way up – until you take them off and then the world seems upside down without the glasses. You have trained your mind to look at everything in a upside down way. Is the OLPC Sugar UI like prism glasses?

What kind of foundation are we giving these kids when they eventually get faced with a ‘normal’ desktop?

Are the collaborative concepts half baked?

The community features of the OLPC seems to re-invent some of the tried and tested techniques we already have. Traditional list style presence indicators and discussion boards are very effective. The graffiti wall ‘do anything’ style discussion board offered on the OLPC has popped up many times in the past but never caught on. The concept is quite lovely but in practice the result is often very messy and anarchic. Structure helps, it doesn’t hinder.

One size doesn’t fit all

Maybe it’s just me but there seems to be some real vagueness about target audience. Who is it really for? And what are they actually going to use it for? The difference between an 8 year old and an 11 year old is huge. So is level of literacy. Computers aren’t a silver bullet to education. At best they can be considered a small but important lynchpin. Where in the bigger picture of educational policy will the OLPC fit? An old saying comes to mind: Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime. Well, give a man an OLPC and … what exactly?

Is the UI Patronising?

I can’t help thinking that the Sugar UI talks down to the users. It seems to be saying “You aren’t ever going to be able to cope with the computers we use in the west, so here, have this special one with cut down features!”

I’ve heard that users will also have access to the command line. I don’t see this as a solution, it’s almost like giving them a soldering iron and saying look – once they used the device fully for a few years and outgrow it, they can solder some new functionality onto the motherboard. Some middle ground is needed here.