OLPC, Again

I downloaded a recent bootable OLPC image and ran it on VMWare Player. The custom UI is disgusting, in terms of usability. It just ain’t good. And I am not talking about the “client” apps (Abiword, PenguinTV, Gecko, Gaim), but the Sugar shell itself is just not as easy and self-explanatory as it should have been. And why the hell the Squeak UI needs to be there? Squeak was hip in the ’90s with their “object” programming, but it’s pretty useless today. Not only that, but it’s extremely ugly and the UI is notoriously difficult to figure out most of the time. I maintain the opinion that Sugar is a big mistake, Squeak UI an even bigger mistake and after actually using the whole package, I believe this even more firmly. And don’t give me that “it’s still beta” shit, the basic Sugar UI ain’t gonna change all that much in production.

OLPC running Squeak

They should have modified Gnome’s UI to be more focused to what they wanted to do, instead of creating this toy. For example, they could remove all of the gnome-applets (only leave in the volume and networking notification items) and Nautilus (replaced by the “presense” bg), put the taskbar in that single gnome-panel at the bottom of the screen, and have icons with mouse-over explanation to launch the various apps needed on the left of that panel too. Alternatively, they could rewrite a less-heavy gnome-panel (so they don’t have to use HAL, DBUS and other stuff that usually gnome-panel requires and eats lots of memory). I don’t see how this is worse or more difficult to use than Sugar (which has hide-out menus that are only enabled via special keys in the keyboard or by moving your mouse cursor in the screen corners — not obvious at all). It is easier to do, will cost less money, and it will be closer to real-world computing.

OLPC mockup

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This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 1:01 AM PST:

The default screen on Sugar is equally clean. But it starts up with the menus and buttons completely hidden. The user must either press a special key on the keyboard or navigate the mouse pointer at the corners of the screen to bring up these icons. Not straight-forward at all.

billg wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 2:05 AM PST:

Ugh. Looks like a toy, a cheap patronizing toy.

Anonymous wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 2:35 AM PST:

Why is squeak in there? Without including their
pet projects, how else would luminaries such
as Alan Kay get involved with this thing?

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 6:46 AM PST:

Kitty, I don’t want the taskbar to autohide. And if that’s not enough for the UI, they should redesign their apps UI to fit better. I don’t like UIs that autohide, it’s bad usability!

Dan Brokeau wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 7:22 AM PST:

I know that Sugar is clean (or empty?) by default, but one thing I like about your Gnome is how it has that stuff without getting in the way.

Harry wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 8:46 AM PST:

You say that it “ain’t gonna change all that much in production”. Is this actually true? How much time / manpower have they got left before they deploy the first OLPCs?

Kitty wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 9:06 AM PST:

I don’t like UIs that autohide, it’s bad usability!

Can’t really see why this would be worse usability than say your run-of-the-mill menu, that when closed does not really show all of its content, does it?
Some autohiding UIs are bad because they offer poor discoverability when the user has to actively look for some feature he’s not entirely familiar with (an example: Microssoft’s menu voices that hide when less used).
This is not the case because the user will know exactly what is on every edge of the frame after a minute of use (there’s a dozen icons after all, and each edge contains specific items).
And there’s an actual button on the laptop with the specific function of showing the frame, that will be appropriately marked and that will be used hundreds of time per day. I find it hard to believe that any user of this laptop might stare at the screen and feel lost because the frame is not constantly on.

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 9:16 AM PST:

>your run-of-the-mill menu

I don’t think you understand. My mockup did not have any “menu” at all. It’s a bunch of icons that load apps, a taskbar and 3-4 more notification icons. It has no menus and submenus. ALL of the Sugar abilities that require to press buttons or navigate to screen corners in order to view, are available to the user at all times. My version is actually more straightforward and closer to a normal computing environment than Sugar is.

[sarcasm] If MIT wanted an appliance with a non-standard UI maybe they should have given these children DVD players. You can get a DVD player today for just $40. [/sarcasm]

Kitty wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 9:47 AM PST:

About your mockup: you have very strong constraints on screen estate, as the OLPC screen when in colour mode has an effective resolution that is quite low. If you remember this work about OLPC look and feel the suggested font size is between 16 and 18, and enlarging of most GUI elements was suggested. Thus any panel-like object should really be auto-hiding.

As for it being not straightforward, that’s only true if you are already used to always-on edge panels. If you have a dedicated key on the laptop and you’re taught about hitting corners with the pointer, it will be straightforward in 30 seconds.

Also note that the taskbar in the usual form is not as useful as the pie-chart thing that in OLPC is shown around the XO icon on the “desktop”. The pie-chart instantly shows the resource usage, that is again very useful on the resource constrained machine, where a windows/kde/gnome taskbar is more geared towards switching between _lots_ of windows, that I don’t think will be the case as multitasking will be probably kept to a minimum.

So, if your mockup ultimately has to become a lighter version of the panel, that auto-hides, and without a taskbar… isn’t that very similar to the OLPC frame thing?

Kitty wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 10:58 AM PST:

Btw, useful link to the interface guidelines and rationale for whoever missed it

Dan Brokeau wrote on November 28th, 2006 at 12:50 PM PST:

Another thing I prefer about your mockup is how clean it is. You don’t have a bunch of buttons and switches taking up half the screen like Squeak.

Ciprian Mustiata wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 4:28 AM PST:

Kitty, from my knowledge two interfaces are world known as very usable and are very very similar: Mac OS X and GNOME. The guidelines are made for usability. You need less things to do to understand how to open a file, how to apply a setting etc.

Thinking about OpenSource, I realy believe that GNOME remains a good option, and enough good to not reinvent the well. Secondly, the experience that they get using a GNOME interface may be used to the computer that may be afford later at home.

For me Sugar Interface is like Windows 3.1, ugly and non standard, which makes the poor kids (not financial at this moment) to learn a thing that probably never need to learn, and lately to go to a computer and say: I don’t know how to use a computer, which is far far away from the scope of using a computer from my point of view! And I can say that a Laptop for a Child may became a Strange Laptop = toy for a Child.

Kitty wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 5:35 AM PST:

(Note: Something went wrong with italics starting with my own previous note, sorry about that…)

to Ciprian:
I would never use a sugar-like interface on my desktop, of course and I am an OS X /GNOME user myself, finding lots to like in them every day.
That said, your usual WIMP desktop is geared to be a shell to certain class of use cases, the point being that it’s a way more general class of activities than the OLPC seems to be thought for (computers are almost by definition universal machines).
I’m sure you’d agree that WIMP would be useless for a cell phone that only had the functions of voice calls and address book. Or that other interfaces might be better than WIMP on an e-book reader appliance. The more universal your device becomes, the more abstract your interface has to get.
But I think the OLPC is still in a position in which a reduced interface is quicker and clearer and adds no useless metaphors (like windows) that make little sense in the context of its hardware restrictions.
I’m not saying it’s perfect, mind you… I’m pretty sure it will change over time. I just don’t think you should compare it to OS X or Gnome or windows 3.1… but just see it as the answer to a different question. Not all GUI questions have a toned down WIMP interface as the only possible answer.

As for the kids learning this and not the usage of a real desktop, as I said yet they’ll learn to use this tool quickly enough so that they will use it for its real goal: reading, writing, drawing, learning maths and history and geography. If at the age of 15 they’ll use for the first time a different GUI I doubt they’ll have more troubles with it than every 15-years old kid, ie pratically none. Meanwhile they won’t have to deal with window management on a 7 inches screen, they’ll have dedicated buttons on their computer and prominent GUI elements to share urls, drawing or texts with the other kids in their class or group…
All things that with a dumbed-down gnome would not be as practical.

Kitty wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 6:19 AM PST:

The “your” in “your run-of-the-mill-menu” did not mean that you had used a menu in the mockup. It was an impersonal construct as in “for example, if you take a normal menu”.

Your version is not more straightforward, it’s only more windows-like. Functionally, it has only flaws when compared to sugar.

-it takes up precious screen space, where sugar’s frame doesn’t
-it mixes launchers and icons of different kinds (tasks/people/notifications) where each edge in sugar has a meaning
-it is mainly filled with a taskbar that is useful only for windows management, where sugar has no need of that using full-screen applications and quick ways to cycle among them. Oh, and has a better task/resources indicator in that desktop pie chart

There are many interesting points in that HCI wiki document they’ve put together that would have required writing a new and different panel container anyway. Not only _lighter_, mind you, but with extended functionality:
-notifications have a policy so that only the system ones can auto-open the frame
-notification icons appear on different edges depending on their meaning.
-notifications and invitations that appear on an edge do so in an ordered way. The most recent one is always closer to a corner so that it will be nearest to Fitt’s easiest points.

Basically, it looks to me like a good work. They sat down, defined their objectives and tried to find a way to attain those objectives (pervasive sharing, action vs application etc) given the very strict constraints.
Please read that wiki. Trying the gui 5 minutes without understanding the ideas behind it, scoffing at the UI with comments like “it’s ugly” and slapping together a screenshot of a gnome desktop is not discussing usability. Sounds more like shallow arrogance.

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 6:41 AM PST:

Kitty, I am not going to spell out for you to analyze Sugar to hell, just to satisfy you. This is my blog, and I simply STATE that I do not like the Sugar interface, I do not find it easy to use and I do not find it as useful as a real-world computing interface to teach kids how to use a computer in general. I am not sure how much more analysis you want. I won’t give you anything more because I am not going to waste any more time with this issue.

So, take it or leave it. This is a personal opinion on the matter. If you want to see it as arrogance, be my guest. But it ain’t arrogance, it’s an opinion on a UI that I actually USED and I have FIRST PERSON experience on, and also, this is my blog, where I state my opinions about everything I feel like it to. If you can’t agree to disagree get the hell out of my blog and don’t bother visiting again. Save yourself the trouble and mine.

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 7:37 AM PST:

>Trying the gui 5 minutes without understanding the ideas behind it

That’s the point. If something is not intuitive enough within the first 30 seconds, it’s useless in my world. 5 minutes to learn such a little GUI is WAY too long of a time.

>Sounds more like shallow arrogance.

No, it sounds more like a personal opinion. I suggest you be careful of your mouth over here.

I DO NOT like the Sugar interface. I USED it and I did not like it, not in the least. Deal with it. You don’t agree? Fine. But don’t tell me that it’s because of arrogance. It’s because I found it difficult to use, and non-intuitive.

Kitty wrote on November 29th, 2006 at 12:27 PM PST:

That’s the point. If something is not intuitive enough within the first 30 seconds, it’s useless in my world.5 minutes to learn such a little GUI is WAY too long of a time.
That’s shallow. The interface was designed for people that will take their 5 minutes to learn and then spend years using it.

The custom UI is disgusting, in terms of usability. It just ain’t good.
That’s arrogant, because it states as a fact that the work of someone else was of poor quality, with no basis for such statement save a quick, superficial impression and no analysis.

There’s a big difference between an opinion and facts,as well as between an impression and an educated opinion. We all have first impressions, but then we can build an informed opinion with some effort (research, debate).

Promoting our impressions to informed opinions without first incurring the effort or even worse stating them as facts is shallow and arrogant.

I am always careful with my choice of words. I can explain each and every one I use. Can you stand behind yours with some logical analysis? Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen you rebutting specific points. And no, “I DO NOT like the Sugar interface” says little about why it wouldn’t be good for the target audience.

julian Cellini wrote on November 30th, 2006 at 2:15 AM PST:


I know some guy that is working with Squeak in Spain in the proyect linex (by the way it’s the owner of the site you linked http://www.consultar.com for Squeak UI). I know he changed a lot the UI of the squeak, but some things remains still. I don´t think Squeak “it’s pretty useless today”, but that another topic…

I find the squeak UI difficult to gasp in the firts 30 seconds, as you say, but I understand it has to be different from an usual UI, by the very nature of the things you can do with it.

I think there is a way to arrange/change the UI, and I don´t think it is too late to change that. One of the powerful things of squeak is the possibility to do such thing with easy.

For example: you present 2 images: one is squeak and the other is your mockup of the sugar UI. They serve differents goals, I think it´s clear you won’t manage others applications in squeak, or launch a browser. but you must have the power to “inspect” an object, or access the program behind it, and that operations apply for every little part of the squeak UI.

Having using squeak, as you say, you realize that this is important, and the teachers using it in the classrooms are using this power to alter the way squeak behave. That´s part of the goals of squeak itself.

The usual notice: I’m from Argentina: sorry for my english.

memson wrote on November 30th, 2006 at 3:28 AM PST:

What Eugenia has completely missed is that the UI will be used by kids who have never used a computer before. Why the hell would they care if it is clunky to Eugenia?

With Eugenia, this is not an uncommon situation. This is one of those situations where she has made a big sweeping statement and because she believes only Eugenia is correct, will not back down.

To Eugenia: you are often right and I do admire your opinions on many subjects, on this you are absolutely wrong. You are viewing the device as a lapton running LINUX, where as it is actually a device running applications to help/aid kids in the third world to better themselves. The UI of the desktop is seriously not any way an issue.

memson wrote on November 30th, 2006 at 5:48 AM PST:

Okay, so I just played with a generic squeak desktop build Windows. Wow.. Squeak is a superiour choice to Gnome because it is basically a programming enviroment as well as a shell. I absolutley hated Smalltalk – did it at university, but I can see how this is actually a truely sane idea. There’s no way you could do half the things you could with Squeak if you used Gnome. I think that is the real point.

Kitty wrote on November 30th, 2006 at 7:06 AM PST:

This is your soapbox. You are standing on it and you can say whatever you like from it. But since we have a comment space, we can also cheer and clap or boo at your speech. That’s the soapbox in the park for you.

I just encourage you to be more analytical if you want to work in technical fields. Weaseling out of questions and yelling “because I said so” or “because I don’t like it” won’t cut it.

Anyway, lighten up, it’s a beautiful morning outside.

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