The Story Behind the One Laptop per Child PC: An Inteview with Yves Béhar

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 by UX Magazine

Yves Béhar is the designer behind the One Laptop per Child Personal Computer (OLPC). Originally, the scaled-down, $100 laptop was greeted with skepticism by key industry players. But with the support and advocacy of OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte, Béhar designed a computer specifically for children, for use in schools and homes throughout the world. More than two million computers later, Béhar talks with User Experience guest editor Cynthia Kamishlian about his process for innovative design, designing for usability, and why creating technology products for children rather than adults results in a better design.

first XO laptop

The XO-1, the first OLPC laptop.

User Experience: What were some of the design challenges in creating the XO-1, the first OLPC laptop?

Yves Béhar: I think the biggest obstacle in doing any good design, especially in the computer space, is essentially the narrow-mindedness of a company and how they interpret the market that they are supposed to be playing in. The conventionality of thinking that exists at big hardware manufacturers—basically everything has to be done the way it has been done, or was done last year—means there is very little to no evolution, and very little new thinking in computers.

When Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, told me about the features of the laptop and how the product would be designed for children, I thought, “Wow, finally someone is thinking about designing a product for a specific group of individuals. Not a product that is just for anyone, but rather for a specific condition, which is the developing world, and a specific user, which is kids.” Nicholas Negroponte became a huge advocate of the design itself because he saw the way it was going to be adopted into the kids’ lives: not as a hand-me-down, but rather as something that was specifically designed and conceived for the kids’ use.

But of course we had to work through incredible challenges of manufacturing a low-cost product at a time when, by the way, nobody believed a low-cost product could be made into a desirable object. In so many ways, I think the $100 laptop really ushered in the era of the netbook and the web book and the smaller-sized computers that are actually now the lion’s share of the market. It really made it something that people wanted and that businesses were not giving them. So when we got derided by Bill Gates, for example, and Intel, because they said people will want ever-bigger hard drives with a CD drive and a DVD drive, etcetera—they were playing to what they knew, and what they knew how to do—but not what consumers actually wanted.

children using XO-1 laptops

Top: The XO-1 during classroom use.

UX: As you were designing the OLPC, how did you perform testing to see if the product met the needs you set out to address?

YB: Well, we built essentially a couple of thousand laptops just for testing. They went to places like Nigeria, Uruguay—different countries that were considering being early adopters. So we had a very large test going on in the field with kids using them in far-away and remote places. We also had OLPC people in those classrooms observing and recording feedback. Based on this, we made some fundamental changes to the hardware and some changes to the materials we were using

We watched classrooms in full sessions—every kid with a laptop for months at a time. The kids were using the laptop exactly as it was conceived: they had to take it home and experience the laptop there. In some places, the laptop was the only light the kids had in their homes. Our belief is that there is learning that happens in the classroom, but there is a lot of learning that happens outside the classroom. When kids start teaching others—the laptop is not just a tool for learning—it is actually a tool for teaching others. So essentially when we officially launched, in November or December 2007, we already had about eight to nine months of full tests behind us.

UX: When the OLPC was first conceived, a lot of this technology was either not available or not cost-effective, am I correct in that?

YB: Yes, our goal was to push technology to be appropriate for the children. So in many ways, we showed things before they launched, we shared our plans with the world, because this is the way for us to move the manufacturers and component makers towards what we believe is a vision that fits the aim of giving an educational tool to children. Of course, this is not what a commercial, for-profit company would do. They would keep everything secret and hide it from everybody as a way to have an advantage in the market. We wanted simply to have many of these products in the hands of kids around the world; hence we could break all the rules of commercial enterprises that launch electronic products.

tablet style XO-3

Bottom: THe XO-3, the next generation of the OLPC.

UX: The new tablet, XO-3, looks very different than the XO-1, the original laptop. How did you arrive at the new design? 

YB: There are unique forward steps that we made with the XO-1 that we continued to build on for the XO-3. For example, we committed to the ability to use the product outdoors by having a screen that is both backlit and non-backlit. This also means that the screen uses as little amount of energy as possible. We also committed to make the product as durable as possible—to have it be water-resistant and shockproof.

All these commitments are improved upon in the XO-3. We are planning to use plastic screens so that the screen is unbreakable—you can actually bend the whole unit. We are using less material in the new version so that we can lower the cost even further by not using a keyboard and by not having a hinge found in a traditional laptop. Moving to a tablet is something that, from a cost standpoint, is possible to do now, even going below the $100 threshold. It’s a very simple, promising configuration for kids and a further enhancement of things that were initiated in the XO-1: it is lighter, it can be read in sunlight, it has a front-facing and a rear-facing camera. We can now integrate all these technologies and make them a part of this next-generation device.

UX: What are your thoughts on a child’s emotional response when using this product?

YB: To me, it is so critical for children to feel that the XO is designed for them, with a sense of scale, a sense of tactility, a sense of discovery in the design itself that speaks directly to them, speaks personally to them. They immediately say, “This is smart. This is designed for ME.” It is not some kind of hand-me-down, it is not some kind of lower-grade technology, it is not some kind of recycled product.

Most products designed for the developing world are lesser quality, lesser technologies, lesser design, or less healthy or less sustainable in the way they’re built. To me, we should just do the reverse—we have to design things that are more technically and technologically advanced to adapt to these new types of conditions and for very specific users. So, I think when the kids get the laptop, they’re like, “Wow, this looks fun and engaging.” And that’s the whole point—it isn’t standard. Kids everywhere, from kids here in the U.S. to kids in Peru, Uruguay, or Rwanda, are absolutely smitten with the fact that the XO-1 is a friendly, unique object that is made exactly for their needs. That’s a huge part of the teacher’s feedback that we get—that the laptop is loved as a tool by the kids: to learn and to teach others.

UX: What is the most important or surprising lesson you learned in designing and testing with children?

YB: One of the very principles—we have five or six principles with OLPC—is that children have to own these laptops; the laptops don’t stay in the classroom, they don’t stay at the school. They take them home. We won’t distribute laptops to organizations that don’t let the kids own the laptops. It’s a very important part of why we think these are a great educational tool: because they live and teach and are a tool beyond the hours that the kids are in the classroom. Children want to explain what they know and communicate what they have learned to others.

In every case we’ve seen kids just completely left to their own devices with the laptop teaching others how to read and write, taking the knowledge that is acquired at school back home. They now have a tool with which they can teach others—their siblings and their parents. And that is really an amazing sight—to see these kids very quickly figuring things out in the classrooms and then figuring things out further by themselves, and then immediately wanting to just simply show others. It’s such a natural human instinct to want to do that, and it’s still alive in children who want to share, and want others to benefit from what they feel very special having just received themselves. Knowledge is really a gift—it is a gift that is both received and a gift that is given. Once you give that gift to someone, they are very likely to want to give it to others.

UX: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our User Experience community regarding designing technology for children?

YB: The reason I find designing technology for children in general so compelling is that children will learn new behaviors and new technologies so much faster than adults. Adults have to adapt, and that’s hard to do later in life. So all of the constraints and all of the idiosyncrasies that we are used to—legacies of past stages of computers—can just be taken away when you design for kids. You can design the best product possible because you won’t have an adult saying, “Oh, but it’s hard for me to do it this way because I am used to doing it the other way,” even though the “other way” is much more complicated than the new way. You essentially have a much more open, much less legacy-constrained learner in a child than you have in an adult. It means that designers can design a more direct, smarter, future interface for a child.

Technology has made it so hard for us to adapt to something new, and to adapt to smarter ways of doing things. The reason we’re scared of moving from a PC to a Mac, or from a regular phone to a smartphone, is because technology companies have done such a huge disservice in designing things that are so complex and are so riddled with legacy behavior and processes, that people dread even getting a new computer or new device. Maybe from a processing standpoint things are better or faster, but from a usability standpoint, we’re way behind. I mean, how we use computers today is almost no different from how we used computers nearly twenty years ago. That’s because technology companies continually perpetuate the same style of interface, because we as users are scared to adapt—to learn something new. Children don’t have that fear.