XO 1/3: Design Challenges

home-laptop_v2.jpgI’m a fan of the XO — the project, the goal, the educational ideas behind it. More than that, I’m fascinated by it.

I have a hard time thinking of what mass-market product has been launched since the PC that is more complex. And I don’t think there’s ever been a product launch as transparent as the XO’s. What a case study: a revolutionary piece of hardware, innovative open source software, designed for a market that may or may not welcome it and an incredibly broad audience.

I’ve got a Flickr photostream, with a bunch of screenshots, but wanted to capture some thoughts on the blog.

First, the project is enormous:

– $100 laptop (it’s now $200, and OLPC hopes to get it to $150)

– for children aged 6 – 12. I think this is the biggest challenge. This age range covers pre-literate kids up through pre-teens, playing simple games through programming.

– Integrated into school curriculum, appealing to government agencies

– be a substitute for textbooks (the swivel screen and glare-proof monitor support its use as a Kindle-like device. Textbooks are scarce in the US, and almost completely non-existent or out-of-date to the point of useless in many of the XO’s target markets.)

– EXPRESSIVE – stimulate the imagination (art, computation, narrative)

– APPROPRIATE – sturdy, stable, long battery life, outdoor use, theft-deterrence

– OPEN – the OS and software must be easy to develop, easy to adapt/upgrade, NOT dependent on another company’s development cycle or staff

Designing something for kids aged 6 – 12 is a massive challenge in and of itself. This challenge manifests itself immediately and viscerally in the keyboard:


(Click for larger image and comments on flickr.)

A snap, but fair, judgement to make is that boy, there sure are a lot of keys: quick keys, amplifier keys (CTRL, FN, etc.), the keyboard itself. To make matters trickier, some of the keys have three values assigned to them. Finally, there’s an inactive slider bar on the top and two types of input devices at the bottom (the middle is capacitive, the outer two resistive). So did they get it wrong? Is it, to quote one designer “a shining testament to the disastrous effects of theory-driven- and designer-driven-design”? Let’s look at what the keyboard needs to do:

– be useful to a 12 year old, who will word process, browse the web, play games, draw, and hopefullly program

– support languages with complex character systems and constructions (more than the US qwerty)

– provide quick key, shortcut usage that power-users expect (unless we think 3W kids can’t be power users)

So is the keyboard poorly designed? If so, is it cuz it’s theory-driven or because it strives to do too much? It still comes back to the age range 6 – 12 year olds. In the states, we can buy our kids different electronic devices at different ages, and the market is awash with chip-driven educational/entertainment devices. But this one has to do it all.

The second big design moment that peole confront in the first minutes with the device is the home screen.


This takes a few minutes to figure out … at least for all my interactive friends. The black border area is hidden from the user’s view, until the cursor is move to any of the four corners — it’s like Expose on OSX. The top black band contains quick links to system things like the network, or the home page, the bottom band contains links to all the applications on the machine. The left and right bands, and I like this, is a clipboard area. Anything the user adds to the clipboard is available here. That’s means a user can collect text, sounds, drawings, photos (from the camera) and have them available in eToyz, an authoring program on XO that has a lot of resemblance to HyperCard of old.


This is a busy home page, after the user has opened several applications. (Notice that the black border is missing, when the cursor is moved out of the corners the full screen is restored.) The ring contains all of the open applications in the form of graphic links, and right clicking allows the user to close the app without having to switch to it. What I love about this part of the interface is the way in which it graphically represents a machine whose RAM is full. Rather than a system resources message, the young user can see that things are pretty crowded and that they might need to balance/fix the situation.

There have been some questions around whether the XO should have a cheap version of Windows. As noted above, there was an early decision to go open-source. Part of the reason for open source is cost — there’s a lot of software and talent that can be leveraged with a Linux system. The other reason is that, with Linux, it’s possible to create a light-weight, clean interface like the one above.

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