Design is how it works

A few months ago, I hacked together a kano system to give the children an introduction to computers and what everyone seems to want to call 'coding'. I like the idea, and the style of the kano kit , but I was a little bit dubious about dropping a couple of hundred quid on a 'edutainment' project that might prove to be of little lasting interest. I'm not particularly hung up on the kids achieving productivity with the thing, but if I'm going to increase my pile of computery devices, I'd prefer to invest in things that are going to be useful.

I hacked together my own Kano

Like so many recent consumer 'DIY' hardware kits, the kano systems are built over the super-popular Raspberry Pi single board computer system. The nice kano people provide downloads for their base system (which is built over linux), as well as all their educational software. So, you can fairly cheaply assemble a scratch-build system from parts, especially if you have most of the parts already lying around in your gigantic pile of computery devices, which of course, I mostly do. You just need a screen, a Pi, some input devices, and a suitably-sized SD card to flash an OS image to. (Use this app!)

It all works fairly well. They bundle a collection of educational free software, including the usual suspects (Sonic Pi, Scratch), some slightly more suprising and fun inclusions (Minecraft Pi Edition), and their own 'Kano Blocks' programming system, a kind of scratch-like skin over maybe Python and JavaScript (I haven't really looked into it too much). Most of the value add comes with the user interface kano have used to tie all this together - it's got a nice colourful simplified desktop, and an onboarding script that uses a charming story-telling metaphor with an unfolding narrative (that starts out in a UNIX shell!) to nudge you into a 'learn to program' RPG style adventure. This takes the form of a Zelda style game that walks you through various scripted programming assignments, with a kind of quest structure. The backstory is sort of an updated spin on 'little computer people'. Overall it's quirky, charming, and seems to be quite engaging. Certainly, more appealing and welcoming to younger children than something like a bare Raspbian desktop with the various apps installed.

I think designing user interfaces is really hard. I've done a bit of it myself. To my mind, it is at least as hard, perhaps harder, than writing computer software. On this front, despite a few rough edges, I've been really impressed with how well the Kano design caters to it's audience. By and large, it's pretty suitable for reading-age children to work with mostly unsupervised. (Pleasingly, there's no requirement for a network connection). That's quite a feat. It's not iPad-easy, but it's offering a significantly more freestyle, open-ended computer experience. I had a tiny bit of troubleshooting with WiFi drivers, and sound initially (hey, it's linux on the desktop after all). I expect these wouldn't present if you were using the official hardware kit. I would give a gentle recommendation of kano to anyone that was thinking of introducing a 6-8 year old child to 'computing' in a useful sense. Most of our interface struggles came from a less expected direction...

Intuition

Kano uses a tradtional desktop metaphor, which expects you to have a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad. It's straightforward adding these to a Pi. You can use any standard keyboard or mouse. Your options are USB type A, or Bluetooth. As you might expect, I have piles of these lying around. As it turns out, mostly these are Apple devices, because of historical reasons. These seem ideal. Apple! The fĂȘted industrial design company. Really well built, attractive equipment. Attractive. Robust. World-beating, reliable Bluetooth stack. I had a small parts bin to choose from. Wireless and wired. Mice and trackpads. Aluminium and polycarbonate.

They kind of worked as well as you'd expect. Except the children found them too confusing to use. It turns out, they're riddled with implied behaviour. Multitouch click behaviour for left and right clicks. Or completely invisible mouse 'buttons'. Weird icons for SHIFT, and TAB, and ENTER, and CAPS that are mostly subtle variations on the same symbol. Granted, I'm using the devices outside their expected context, but I was struck by the irony of how unintuitive all of this was, and also how unneccessary. I can appreciate that there's an aesthetic at play here. From a decorative perspective, there's a tasteful and consistent minimalism that ties it all together. I don't think it exhibits good design. I think it's just pseudy, pretentious, and fake.

I like things to be pretty, and I value design. Both concepts are linked, but they ain't the same thing. Minimal interface design is a laudable goal. If you remove complexity from the interface medium, you remove boundaries, lower overheads, and make a system that's quicker, effective, and less taxing to use. If you do this, and you succeed in doing it well enough, there's an inherent beauty to any well considered tool, that sits somewhere beyond visual proportionality and materials. All these Apple peripherals fail to deliver much of this, sometimes quite badly. I was a bit surpised that I never noticed this so directly in the ten years or so I worked with these tools. But I was already an expert user, these flaws were a couple of layers lower than I was used to looking. Admittedly, some of the mice were pretty terrible, but I have famously always been more of a keyboard man.

After a couple of months of rotating the devices, and patiently explaining that you press over here for this kind of click with this finger, and over there for the other purpose, with a different finger, and this kind of arrow is SHIFT, but that kind of arrow is CAPS LOCK, and scrolling happens this way, I caved and bought a Logitech K-400. It is battleship grey, and not particularly pretty. It uses a dongle for wireless, not bluetooth. The integrated touchpad works fine, and has two differentiated physical buttons. The SHIFT key is labelled with the word 'Shift'. It has been immediately popular, and I have not yet had to field a single question about how the keyboard or pointer works.

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