OLPC: rethinking the user interface

The folks working on the One Laptop Per Child project have decided that they need to rethink the user interface to take into account the needs of the kids who are its target users. “The desktop metaphor is so entrenched in personal computer users’ collective consciousness”, they write,

that it is easy to forget what a bold and radical innovation the GUI was and how it helped free the computer from the “professionals” who were appalled at the idea of computing for everyone.

OLPC is about to shake up things once more.

Beginning with Papert’s simple observation that children are knowledge workers like any adult, only more so, we decided they needed a user-interface tailored to their specific type of knowledge work: learning. So, working together with teams from Pentagram and Red Hat, we created SUGAR, a “zoom” interface that graphically captures their world of fellow learners and teachers as collaborators, emphasizing the connections within the community, among people, and their activities.

Looking at the design principles underpinning the new interface it’s clear that the team are indeed embarking on a radical re-think. Michael got SUGAR running on Ndiyo terminals (see picture)…

… and although we can’t obviously replicate the mesh-networking facility that’s built into the OLPC laptop, we’ve been able to play with the software. It’s fascinating to be forced to unlearn the desktop metaphor that we’ve all absorbed since the Xerox days.