Educational (low-priced) laptops and cross-cultural Human Factors

In the past year, there has been an explosion of interest in the very low end of portable computing. This started with the introduction of the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC). Quickly followed by the Asus EEE pc, Intel Classmate PC, and Everex Cloudbook. These bare bones and ultra portable laptop computers are ostensibly targeting users who would like a computer but can’t afford one. But one topic I have yet to hear about is an analysis of the usability or human factors aspects of these machines.Only the education-focused OLPC (and maybe the Classmate PC) is explicitly targeting an international, student-aged audience. Incidentally, only the OLPC has a somewhat novel interface (dubbed Sugar). The interface is dominated by pictographs with little use of text:

OLPC screen shot

Given the extremely wide audience for these types of computers, I wonder how much work has gone into testing the usability of Sugar, or the other operating systems in these machines. In addition, given the extremely varied audience (in age, educational level, technological skill level, socio-economic status, just to name a few), does this one-size-fits-all strategy work? There has been research illustrating that even within a culture, pictograms are not universally understood.

My experience with open-source software (which all of these machines can run) has been that ease of use has never been a priority. Here is a quick visual comparison of the current machines.

Device External
OLPC running Sugar (a custom Linux-based operating system) olpc
Asus eee pc (Linux or Windows XP) eee1.jpg
Everex Cloudbook (Linux or XP) cloudbook.jpg
Intel Classmate PC (Linux or Windows XP) classmate.jpg

6 thoughts on “Educational (low-priced) laptops and cross-cultural Human Factors”

  1. I got to play with the OLPC a few weeks ago. The first thing the owner mentioned was that no one can open them without being told how. 🙂

    I’d have to play more with the OS to have any judgment call on the icons, though.

  2. Here’s an interesting follow-up regarding the external ergonomics:

    “A few of the commenters in the forums (no doubt just regular folks buying them for their kids) say that their units were developing rips within days. If this is happening in the relatively safe conditions in the US, how are these laptops going to fare in the harsh conditions they were supposedly designed for?”

  3. The short answer is that for the OLPC, yes, testing was done and guidelines were produced for the UI. If’n I wasn’t a guy who was lazy I would dig up the emails that were being passed around a year or two ago at my work linking to some of the research. IIRC, the research into the UI was done not on the specific machines (predating the prototypes I assume), so issues about external ergonomics did not come into play there. I do recall Wired, or one of the other tech sites doing an interview with someone who talked about why they designed the antennas, colors, etc, how they did. I remember thinking “wow that is brilliant” about one of the things they mentioned, but now I cannot recall what it was.

    I do take issue with the statement that “These bare bones and ultra portable laptop computers are ostensibly targeting users who would like a computer but can’t afford one.” The target for OLPC and the Classmate might be used in that capacity, but the other ultraportables are filling a niche primarily for highly advanced computer users who want a device that allows them ultraportability at reasonable price. For this reason, as some of these devices move into their second generation, the focus is on increasing the input methods (touchscreen/multi-touch), larger screens and greater power… including offering MS Windows.

    Even the OLPC and Intel Classmate are not really being aimed at the poor people directly; I assume most of the purchases will be done in bulk by schools and governments to provide to children. The keys here will be easy “fleet” maintenance in the field, and simplicity of integration into lesson plans/learning programs.

    For me, the biggest question with something like Sugar is whether is does children a service or disservice to provide them with computing tools that will not expose them to many of the UI conventions used worldwide. I understand the desire not to impose MS or Apple operating systems on other countries (building future customers in the name of empowerment), but I also worry about negative transfer. Of course, if the programs are really successful, then we might end up seeing things swing the other way, and we will be using future generations of software built on a straining UI model designed for simplicity not versatility.

  4. I agree with Travis… I played with one of these at a friend’s house (7 and 5 year old daughters), and it was a definitely a challenge to figure out what the elements were. The girls had had the PC’s for a month and had found some items they liked to play with (notably, not the games, but 1) a microphone/screen interface that showed the frequency of their voice (yelling was particularly fun) and 2) the text editor, on which they randomly typed letters and enjoyed filling up the screen. My friend asked me to figure out how to network the PCs to their wireless LAN (their father, a pretty tech math guy, couldn’t interpret the icons). Interesting that even after getting them on their favorite disney web site, they were most impressed when I showed them how to change the color & size & font of their typing (these features were fairly close transfers from Word).

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