Designing the PenPal: Blending Hardware and Software in a User-Interface for Children

Reference: Piernot, P. P.; Felciano, R. M.; Stancel, R.; Marsh, J.; & Yvon, M. Designing the PenPal: Blending Hardware and Software in a User-Interface for Children. Knowledge Systems Laboratory, January, 1995.

Abstract: As part of the 1994 Apple Interface Design Competition, we designed and prototyped the PenPal, a portable communications device for children aged four to six. The PenPal enables children to learn by creating images and sending them across the Internet to a real audience of friends, classmates, and teachers. A built-in camera and microphone allow children to take pictures and add sounds or voice annotations. The pictures can be modified by plugging different tools into the PenPal, and sent through the Internet using the PenPal Dock. The limited symbolic reasoning and planning abilities, short attention span, and pre-literacy of children in this age range were taken into account in the PenPal design. The central design philosophy and main contribution of the project was to create a single interface based on continuity of action between hardware and software elements. The physical interface flows smoothly into the software interface, with a fuzzy boundary between the two. We discuss the design process and usability tests that went into designing the PenPal, and the insights we gained from the project.

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