"Reaction [beta]"

OLPC field research reveals more laptop flaws 12 Dec 2007

As you may know, the OLPC team shipped its first major laptop order to Uruguay last Tuesday. Despite this however, a number of threats to the project remain. These threats include the laptop's spiralling price (the $100 laptop is currently selling for $188!); lack of training and after-sales support; and competition from industry heavyweights like Microsoft and Intel. And now - as if these weren't enough - it seems that the low-cost laptops may fail to meet users' needs.

Last month, the BBC published a great article on the results of a small-scale OLPC deployment in Nigeria. This study marked the first time that the OLPC laptops had been tested in the field with end users and involved giving a school 300 laptops - along with a VSAT satellite internet link, a power generator and solar panels - and observing them in the context of real-life use. The idea was to see if the machines would survive the ultimate test: children. The study proved insightful:

"The children - most of whom had never seen a computer before March - have clearly embraced the green and white machines.

"Even before entering the school grounds, visitors are accosted by hordes of animated children waving their laptops, eager to show what they can do with them.

"Children stream from doorways and alleys wanting to take a 'snap' with the laptop's onboard camera whilst others shoot video files and then excitedly show each other the results.

"The more studious show off the graphs and pictures they have drawn and the notes they have typed in class.

"There is a clear sense of enjoyment and pride in both ownership and use of the machines.

"One girl was even wearing the power cord as a necklace."

Yet despite this positive reception, Nigeria has so far failed to honour its pledge to purchase a million of these laptops. Why? Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek (commenting on the BBC's report) has a few ideas:

"Clearly, children love the machine. Most of them had never seen a computer before and the great design of the laptop was compelling. They are learning about technology even as they play. But why do they like it? By far, the most used function of the one laptop designed specifically for the world's poorest children is taking pictures. The webcam -- taking pictures and sharing them with friends -- is the most discussed computer function. That's cool and great, but is it the highest priority for 'education?'

"Then there is the cost. I personally hadn't added up all the money that goes into the $100 laptop. What, in fact, is the true bottom line cost of the OLPC? Will governments that accept the OLPC subsidize the operating cost - electricity, repairs, etc.?

"Finally, there is the actual teaching. The laptops in Nigeria came with pre-loaded learning programs. The BBC story doesn't say who wrote these lessons and where they came from. The teachers appear to like them and perhaps that is enough. But is it? Were the lessons written by teachers in Nigeria? Would you accept lesson plans from another country for your kids?"

The fact that these ill-considered issues are only emerging now is a direct result of the design approach adopted by the OLPC team, as Putting People First points out:

"The project clearly suffers from a top-down approach, where 'designing for' is the paradigm rather than 'designing with' or 'designing from'. There was as far as I know no structured needs analysis here, no contextual studies, no ethnography, no qualitative insights [prior to the Nigerian study]. Such an approach cannot lead to anything but unintended consequences and may be potentially undermining the project itself."

There's a lesson for all companies here: get your products and services in front of your users early - while changes can still be made without great effort and expense. If you don't, then you can hardly complain when your users turn out to have different needs, desires and expectations than you'd anticipated.

Related: We first voiced our concerns about the OLPC's lack of user testing / involvement back in January.

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