From the “I should have pos­ted this months ago” vault…

When I led tech­no­logy devel­op­ment at One Laptop per Child Aus­tralia, I main­tained two golden rules:

  1. everything that we release must ‘just work’ from the per­spect­ive of the user (usu­ally a child or teach­er), and
  2. no spe­cial tech­nic­al expert­ise should ever be required to set-up, use or main­tain the technology.

In large part, I believe that we were successful.

Once the more obvi­ous chal­lenges have been iden­ti­fied and cleared, some more fun­da­ment­al prob­lems become evid­ent. Our goal was to improve edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tun­it­ies for chil­dren as young as pos­sible, but pro­fi­ciently using com­puters to input inform­a­tion can require a degree of literacy.

Sug­ar Labs have done stel­lar work in ques­tion­ing the rel­ev­ance of the desktop meta­phor for edu­ca­tion, and in com­ing up with a more suit­able altern­at­ive. This proved to be a remark­able plat­form for devel­op­ing a touch-screen laptop, in the form of the XO-4 Touch: the icons-based user inter­face meant that we could add touch cap­ab­il­it­ies with rel­at­ively few user-vis­ible tweaks. The screen can be swiv­elled and closed over the key­board as with pre­vi­ous mod­els, mean­ing that this new ver­sion can be eas­ily con­ver­ted into a pure tab­let at will.

Revisiting Our Assumptions

Still, a fun­da­ment­al assump­tion has long gone unchal­lenged on all com­puters: the default typeface and key­board. It doesn’t at all rep­res­ent how young chil­dren learn the Eng­lish alpha­bet or lit­er­acy. Moreover, at OLPC Aus­tralia we were often deal­ing with chil­dren who were behind on learn­ing out­comes, and who were attend­ing school with almost no expos­ure to Eng­lish (since they speak oth­er lan­guages at home). How are they sup­posed to learn the cur­riculum when they can barely com­mu­nic­ate in the classroom?

Look­ing at a stand­ard PC key­board, you’ll see that the keys are prin­ted with upper-case let­ters. And yet, that is not how let­ters are taught in Aus­trali­an schools. Ima­gine that you’re a child who still hasn’t grasped his/​her ABCs. You see a key­board full of unfa­mil­i­ar sym­bols. You press one, and on the screen pops up a com­pletely dif­fer­ent look­ing let­ter! The key­board may be in upper-case, but by default you’ll get the lower-case vari­ants on the screen.

A standard PC keyboard

A stand­ard PC keyboard

Unfor­tu­nately, the most pre­val­ent touch-screen key­board on the marke isn’t any bet­ter. Giv­en the large edu­ca­tion mar­ket for its par­ent com­pany, I’m astoun­ded that this has not been a priority.

The Apple iOS keyboard

The Apple iOS keyboard

Bet­ter altern­at­ives exist on oth­er plat­forms, but I still was not satisfied.

A Re-Think

The solu­tion required an exam­in­a­tion of how chil­dren learn, and the chal­lenges that they often face when doing so. The end res­ult is simple, yet effective.

The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)

The stand­ard OLPC XO mech­an­ic­al key­board (above) versus the OLPC Aus­tralia Lit­er­acy key­board (below)

This image con­trasts the stand­ard OLPC mech­an­ic­al key­board with the OLPC Aus­tralia Lit­er­acy key­board that we developed. Get­ting there required sev­er­al considerations:

  1. a new typeface, optim­ised for literacy
  2. a clean­er design, omit­ting char­ac­ters that are not com­mon in Eng­lish (they can still be entered with the Alt­Gr key)
  3. an emphas­is on lower-case
  4. upper-case let­ters prin­ted on the same keys, with the Shift arrow angled to indic­ate the relationship
  5. bet­ter use of sym­bols to aid instruction

One inter­est­ing user story with the old key­board that I came across was in a remote Aus­trali­an school, where Abori­gin­al chil­dren were try­ing to play the Maze activ­ity by press­ing the oppos­ite arrows that they were sup­posed to. Appar­ently they thought that the arrows rep­res­en­ted birds’ feet! You’ll see that we changed the arrow heads on the lit­er­acy key­board as a result.

We expli­citly chose not to change the QWERTY lay­out. That’s a dif­fer­ent debate for anoth­er time.

The Typeface

The abc123 typeface is largely the res­ult of work I did with John Great­orex. It is freely down­load­able (in TrueType and Font­Forge formats) and open source.

After much research and dis­cus­sions with edu­cat­ors, I was unim­pressed with the oth­er lit­er­acy-ori­ented fonts avail­able online. Char­ac­ters like ‘a’ and ‘9’ (just to men­tion a couple) are not rendered in the way that chil­dren are taught to write them. Young chil­dren are also sus­cept­ible to con­fu­sion over let­ters that look sim­il­ar, includ­ing mir­ror-images of let­ters. We worked to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, for instance, the lower-case L from the upper-case i, and the lower-case p from the lower-case q.

Typo­graphy is a won­der­fully com­plex inter­sec­tion of art and sci­ence, and it would have been fool­hardy for us to have star­ted from scratch. We used as our base the high-qual­ity DejaVu Sans typeface. This gave us a found­a­tion that worked well on screen and in print. Import­antly for us, it main­tained legib­il­ity at small point sizes on the 200dpi XO display.

On the Screen

abc123 is a suit­able sub­sti­tute for DejaVu Sans. I have been using it as the default user inter­face font in Ubuntu for over a year.

It looks great in Sug­ar as well. The let­ters are crisp and easy to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, even at small point sizes. We made abc123 the default font for both the user inter­face and in activ­it­ies (applic­a­tions).

The abc123 font in Sugar's Write activity, on an XO laptop screen

The abc123 font in Sugar’s Write activ­ity, on an XO laptop screen

Like­wise, the touch-screen key­board is clear and simple to use.

The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen

The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen key­board, on an XO laptop screen

The end res­ult is a more con­sist­ent lit­er­acy exper­i­ence across the whole device. What you press on the hard­ware or touch-screen key­board will be repro­duced exactly on the screen. What you see on the user inter­face is also what you see on the keyboards.

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