But I’m a little sour about it. It feels like I have read nothing but breathless praise for the design and implementation of the devices, both the hardware and the software. Mixed with the kudos there have been some critiques of the methodology and pedagogy behind the whole project, questioning the idea of giving laptops to third-world kids in the first place and criticizing the designers for arrogantly avoiding user research and for not testing the device with real third-world kids. But even the harshest critics of the project seem to have nothing but praise for the design and even for the usability of the devices.
So why am I not excited? Well, to put it bluntly, I find the positive reviews of the UI design extremely hard to believe. From what I’ve seen, the UI bears all the hallmarks of a user interface disaster, a case study in designer-driven design. I don’t understand why the whole UX world isn’t awash in skepticism over an OS that looks all the world like a Microsoft BOB for the Wallpaper* set.
At some level I suspect there is a certain degree of reluctance on the part of user experience critics to stand up and say something bad about a project whose objectives seem so noble and generous. Maybe it’s a “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” thing.
So I have a challenge for UX pundits and professionals who are also proud new owners of the XO: Say something nice about the Sugar UI. Or say something critical. But talk about the user interface for real, in detail, and don’t hold back.
Don’t just talk about how awesome the project itself is, about the great minds behind it, or about the clever hardware and the cool mesh network functionality. Talk about the usability of the software. Think of how the design might be different, how it might work better.
I’ve not actually used an OLPC yet (I hope to very soon). I have seen a lot of screenshots and videos, however, and have used the emulator a little bit. But even the screenshots give me a deep, gut feeling that something is very wrong with this user experience. To wit:
- The game-like and oft-abused spatial metaphor, suggesting that the relative positions on the screen are where other people actually are in the real world.
- The circular menu — a darling of academia, unproven in any real-world context. As with the spacial metaphor, I think this idea has promise, but seeing it on the XO tells me that the designers simply want to prove a point.
- The idealistic and haphazard usage of language-agnostic iconography, which falls apart at every turn whenever words become unavoidable, defeating the whole point of using icons.
- The frequent lapses into a menagerie of half-baked and crappy open source user interfaces.
- The exposure of hard-core programming tools to extreme novice users (especially the choice of the ubergeek language Python!).
And, oh, those icons!
I can’t get over the creepy similarity between the Sugar UI’s icon for a person and the internationally-familiar “skull and crossbones” symbol, in particular its incarnation as the icon for minefield warning signage. Wealthy first-worlders might not see it this way, but if you live somewhere where minefields actually exist, and where children have been injured and killed by them, this might not be such an extreme connection. Not to push this too far, but the military term for a minefield/landmine is “UXO” (unexploded ordinance).
I hate to come across as bitter or petty here — I am actually quite sympathetic to the idea that technology can play a big part in the education of kids living in poverty around the world. I actually hope to be able to read some convincing arguments that the Sugar UI is great. In particular I would love to hear that it can and does work well for third-world kids.
The key word here is “convincing”. So far, much of the design commentary has been praise based on the pedigree of the team behind it — MIT Media Lab, Pentagram, Fuse Project etc. I want to get beyond that and talk about the UI itself and how people use it. Of course, this may take a while to emerge as the devices make their ways into the hands of children around the world. This is obviously a developing story.