When faced with the challenge of designing a computer-input device for children 2 to 6, Microsoft Corp. turned to the experts: kids. The result is EasyBall, a bright, oversized trackball that's durable, functional, and most important, fun. If it's not fun, kids won't use it, says Edie Adams, lead ergonomist for the Microsoft Input Device Group.
Adams and her group spent a year testing 15 devices with more than 50 children. They tried everything from traditional mice to light pens to trackballs.
The group found children had difficulty with the mouse. When they wanted the cursor to go up, most would lift the mouse off the table. With a light pen, they didn't understand why they couldn't continue to write off the screen. But a trackball made sense. The motion of their hands coordinated with cursor movement.
But not just any trackball. In tests, the designers saw that kids threw their whole bodies into maneuvering the ball. So Adams' team designed a bigger-than-normal device. One child even lay down so he could maneuver the EasyBall with his cheek.
The testing, which was done through a one-way mirror, was a riot, confesses Adams. And it produced a winner for both the kids and Microsoft. "I loved it," says juror Tom Mason of Fisher-Price Inc. "The design is a simple communication that says this product is for you, kids. In an industry known for being conservative, this really is a pie-in-the-face design."
A unique challenge was making the product appeal to adults as well as kids. Although kids may use it, parents buy it. The team was cautioned not to make it "too fun" by parents who feared kids would start treating the PCs like toys. Also, they didn't want the home office to look like a playroom.
The concession to the killjoy adult attitude was a toning down of colors. EasyBall has a white base, so it looks good in a home office. However, the part the children touch is bright yellow. The effect: a giant fried egg. The price tag, $54.95, is something most parents can swallow. It's about the same price as other high-end "mice."
Microsoft includes Pointerland software with the EasyBall, which allows kids to point and click in a farm scene full of sound and animation. Children can pick their own cursor shape from a whole series of icons, including baby chicks, rockets, stars, ants, and airplanes. The cursors are large and easy to see. One feature stops the cursor when it reaches the edge of the screen, so a child doesn't lose sight of it.
The materials and processes used to make the EasyBall tend to be ecologically responsible. Because the product is expected to be dropped or even thrown on occasion on the floor, the hardware is simplified and the parts minimized. The injection-molded plastic parts are easy to disassemble and are recyclable. Ultrasonic welding was used in place of casting the trackball with hazardous catalysts.
Extensive research was critical to the development of the EasyBall. This trackball was designed specifically for the emotional, cognitive, and physical needs of small children. The design was not focused on user productivity, as is common in designing computer-input devices for adults, but on the experience of a child.
With EasyBall, Microsoft has pleased both parents and kids by creating a product that tackles the three Fs---form, function, and fun.