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There Are No Staples in Rwanda

Apr 13, 2007, 22:30 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

As I'm sure many of you already know, I'm just a middle-class kid from Indiana. And while I consider myself educated and open minded, I am fully aware that where I come from and where I was raised makes a big impact on how I look at the world.

This came up in my family recently when I was talking to my daughters about cultural differences. We are all going to take a vacation to Italy this year, and I was trying to prepare them for some of the things that they might experience. Nothing too deep and socio-political, mind you, just the tourist-y stuff. Well, that was my plan. What started as a "here's why you can't wear shorts when we visit the Vatican" discussion turned into an hour-long round-robin debate on what makes a culture our own.

Essentially, for a while, my family was trying to think outside of the box, and examine things in our society that they take for granted. Like the way Americans eat. Or the kinds of cars we drive. Or how we treat one another. Those things, I said, and many more, are done differently in other parts of the world. Even where we live now, things can be done differently. In this community, we celebrate Dyngus Day, a Polish version of Easter Monday. (And brother, I mean celebrate!)

Culture is dependent on the society that spawns it. How we look at things--really see them--that's a part of the society we live in.

This conversation I've related to you has been weighing on me a bit as I have seen all of the recent negative reviews of the upcoming Sugar user interface designed for the One Laptop Per Child machines. Uniformly, everyone who has downloaded it has indicated a lot of problems with the interface. It's too different, not intuitive enough, no really useful applications, reviewers have written.

Linux Today has (and will) link to reviews of this product, negative or positive, because that's the job of this site--to show you what people are writing about Linux. But after seeing the interface myself and fooling around with it, I have to wonder if all of these reviews that don't like Sugar are completely and unavoidably biased.

I'll admit it; it was hard for me to use Sugar, because the iconic interface was very unfamiliar. Navigating wasn't easy, and I concluded that this was not an ideal interface... for me.

But I am a 40-year-old white man from the Midwest who has nearly 25 years of exposure to computers. What in the world would I possibly know about how a child from Nigeria, or Libya, or Uruguay would intuit a computer interface?

You and I have experience with graphical interfaces that mimic, to a great degree, an office environment. We have desktops. We have files. We have folders. And then we add some other unique interface tools: menus, windows, dialog boxes. I do not see how these interface qualities can easily translate for people that have rarely or even never seen the office environments that our "modern" interfaces emulate so well.

In other words, they don't have a Staples in Rwanda. To expect children from a different culture to quickly intuit an interface based on such a Western concept is just as silly as expecting techies in the West to quickly intuit the Sugar interface. They need something else; something better for them.

To be clear, I am not 100% sure that the Sugar interface is the right thing, either. But, I think that enough culturally sensitive people are working on it that I am willing to take a leap of faith that they know more about what they are doing with this interface design than I.

The best reviewers of a product like this are going to be the children for whom the interface is designed.