transparent projects: making things simple to learn with.

22Oct08

I just got back from Maker Faire Austin. It was so much fun! I had a great time!

Oh man oh man oh man.

One of the highlights of it for me was watching the reaction to an intro electronics kit that I’m working on. Here’s a pic someone took of it at Maker Faire:

You can see big LEDs mounted onto foamcore there. The foam is cut-out to look like the part (in this case the LED,) but bigger, and then the part’s legs are soldered onto brads (paper fasteners) — and alligator clips are used to make connections. Also in the picture are a few giant buttons (the kind from arcade machines), a mounted knife switch, and a mounted resistor.

In talking to people at the fair about why I made this first version the way I did, I talked a lot about keeping the design of it obvious. My goal was to not let the electronic component be overshadowed by how it was mounted. I’ve seen some kits use brightly colored pieces of plastic to mount parts on, and I feel that this visually takes away from connecting what the part looks like to what it does. I think it’s hard to look at a part and make associations with it when there’s a bright piece of plastic right behind it.

Moreover, I wanted the construction of it to be obvious. There were a few reasons governing this. The first was that I wanted people who were really excited about it to understand they if they want to make their own kit or extend an existing one, all they have to is by some parts (from Radio Shack or wherever), get some foamcore or cardboard, some brads, and a soldering iron and solder and … voila! They can make it themselves!

The other reason for wanting the construction to be obvious is to make sure that someone who uses the kit, particularly a child, has nothing in their way from connecting the experience of how these pieces work to how actual electronic components work. I think that it’s easy for the design of an educational product — in an effort to make it more attractive, cleanly designed, or robust — to obscure the relationships between phenomena observed and components in the kit/product.

For example:!

The tornado tube story

When I was a kid (maybe eight or so), my dad got a Tornado Tube Adapter. It was a green piece of plastic and you could screw 2 2-L soda bottles into either end. The bottles were connected like two halves of an hour glass. After putting almost a bottle’s worth of water into one of the ends, you could stand up the bottles, swirl them around, and whoosh! The top bottle looked like a tornado!

If you’ve never seen this before, go google “Tornado Tube.” It’s pretty neat.

Anyhow, it’s really simple — the connector piece just holds the 2 bottles in place, allowing the top bottle to drain into the bottom as it gets swirled around, creating a tornado shape. As a child, I figured that there was something special in the connector piece that was making all this happen. I never really explored this belief — it seemed quite apparent that that was how it worked, and I think this belief would have gone unchallenged until I did this project again as an adult.

I did it again at the first year of camp. I quickly discovered that all you have to do to get this is to happen is to connect the two bottles. Duct tape worked well enough. I was shocked! I’d really thought that there was going to be something tricky in the connector piece — a belief held-over from being a kid — and it was so surprising to find out that the phenomenon was actually a very simple one. I hadn’t actually been aware that I’d had this understanding of how the piece worked as a child until having that belief so plainly contradicted as an adult.

I talked to a friend of mine about this — a similarly aged, similarly science-inclined college student — and she had had the same experience with it: it had also surprised her that there was nothing more to making tornado tubes beyond attaching 2 bottles together. With this I suddenly became aware of the effect of the tornado tube adapter being a ready-made, purchased object. As a child I had assumed that in the heart of that green connector there was some mechanism at work responsible for the really cool tornado effect. It seemed really natural to make the association between the green thing and the tornado tubes. There was something about it being made by someone slse, purchased and having come out of a package, that put it beyond my curiosity, beyond my sense that this was an object that I could understand.

How different that experience would have been if I’d taped the bottles together myself! Or connected them in some other way. Constructing the tool being used would have been akin to constructing my own knowledge of how the tornado tubes worked — somewhere along the way I would have understood the core relationship between connecting the bottles and the tornado shape.

Coming back to why I’m designing my electronics kit to have each piece’s construction be clear, I think the more transparent the design, the better. The more obvious the construction of each piece is and the more it suggests that you could make one too, the clearer the connections will between the parts of the kit (electronics components mounted on foam with brads) and the actual components themselves. It’s really easy for stylish product design to impede those connections being made. Hence designing for transparency and simplicity!

Back to Maker Faire for a paragraph or two

The kit was really well received. I am going to keep working on it and hopefully turn into something salable, complete with instruction as to how to make your own. I had a really pleasant experience with it where on Sat. (the fair’s first day), I spent 2 – 3 hours demoing it with kids. I did lots of explaining of how things worked, noted things that I thought could be improved, and felt a little burnt out by how much explaining I had to do. I wanted this to be a very self-directed kit, and it wasn’t quite there yet.

I went off to explore the fair for a few hours. I figured that without myself there, not many people would use the kit — it had seemed to me too tricky to use. I came back and found a pack of kids all around my table, really into it! It was a particularly neat moment because I just hadn’t expected it all. Others at the nublabs/FabLab booth told me that the table had been packed with kids since I’d gone. A few people over the course of the weekend wanted to buy a kit!

That was very exciting to me — it was a strong affirmation that the kit is going a good direction and that I ought to keep working on it. So I will!

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One Response to “transparent projects: making things simple to learn with.”

  1. 1 Mel

    Oh man, foamcore – *brilliant.* Way better than the overcomplicated “let’s laser-cut acrylic!” system I was thinking of…

    Can’t wait to visit pika and see this in person and tinker on v.2.0.


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