What Laptops Should Be

If I were designing computer interfaces, I’d be paying attention to visual anthropology coming from the kids such as these mockups from a series created by the Laptop Club. Kids in a Montessori school, ages 7 to 9, who did not have computers in their classroom started to make their own “laptops” out of construction paper. Many of the kids were girls (all the samples shown in the link are by girls.) 

Blogger Amy Tiemann, who knew the kids from an after-school program discovered the Club and collected the constructions. She also interviewed the creators, and reported the results on CNET.

A group of kids from one of our local elementary schools has formed a “mini-laptop club.” They don’t use electronic machines. Instead, these first-, second- and third-graders draw their own laptops on construction paper and pretend to e-mail each other. They dedicate a surprising amount of time to this activity. I once had a chance to examine one of their “keyboards.” I was fascinated to learn which Internet functions had sunk into the minds of these kids, who are just getting their first exposure to computers from watching their parents work, and from using kid-friendly sites.


She reports some of the keyboard buttons on the “laptops” are

…assigned to “Barbie.com,” “best friends” next to “friends,” “HP [Harry Potter] trivia,” and “werd games” as well as “rily werd games.”   

The kids have seen and used computer keyboards. Their designs are partly their own memory of what computer keys they’ve seen, party keys they would like to see, and partly keys they feel ought to be.  It is this aspirational aspect of design that I think is most telling. Why shouldn’t our keyboard have a button that evokes “best friend”?  Tiemann writes:

Knowing who your friends are, and either committing to a best friend or figuring out how to remain friends with everyone, are very important. That’s what fascinated me about their laptops. It was a way to demonstrate their knowledge of pop culture and social networks. Having your name on your friend’s keyboard is a little like being in someone’s “Top 8 friends” on MySpace. And yet these kids most likely don’t even know about MySpace yet.

They reveal an easy confusion between what buttons on a screen and buttons on a keyboard do. But when you think about it, it’s sort of an illogical difference. Tiemann offered another important observation:

The inevitability of it all drew me to the paper laptops. Parents may want to delay their children’s computer use, but here they are drawing their own designs. It reminded me of taking away toy guns and seeing the kids make guns out of sticks instead.Kids are intensely social creatures and you can really see what is important to them by looking at their designs. I love all the keys dedicated to pets. Where my friends and I used to have imaginary horses, now these girls have imaginary pets with an online identity.


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