Alan Kay Looks Into Tennis Lessons

Written by Haig | May 2nd, 2009 | articles

Recently on our podcast with Mike Bernard I told the story of how usability killed John Denver. If you haven’t heard it, click here. I have always thought some of the most valuable lessons in interaction design come from areas of study outside the fields of usability or design. This is why I like to show an old Alan Kay video from 1987 in my Interaction Design courses. The video is from a lecture at Cornell University on The Psychology of User Interface Design. The video is called “Doing with Images Makes Symbols” and can be found at


Kay is one of the fathers of the idea of object-oriented programming, which he named, along with some colleagues at PARC and predecessors at the Norwegian Computing Center. He conceived the Dynabook concept which defined the conceptual basics for laptop and tablet computers and E-books, and is the architect of the modern overlapping windowing graphical user interface (GUI)[2]. Because the Dynabook was conceived as an educational platform, Kay is considered to be one of the first researchers into mobile learning, and indeed, many features of the Dynabook concept have been adopted in the design of the One Laptop Per Child educational platform, with which Kay is actively involved.

The excerpt I’ve chosen shows a much younger mustached Alan Kay explaining what User Interface designers can learn from “The Inner Game of Tennis”, a book and concept created by Tim Gallwey.

Alan Kay’s main points:

1. Learning happens when attention is focused – help users focus by reducing mental interference.
2. Teaching can be most effective when communicating to the appropriate channel. For instance, teaching tennis to the body not the mind. i.e. instructing people to watch the tennis ball by following it’s trajectory and saying “bounce” when the ball bounces, or using sound and rhythm to internalize a physical motion as is illustrated by the “Serve Dance”.
3. Encourage a participant to skip the beginner phase.
“The problem with being a be beginner is you get a lot of practice staying a beginner”. The goal is to bring users directly to the intermediate phase of using an interface.

This video is a huge hit with my interaction design students. What do you think?

One response to “Alan Kay Looks Into Tennis Lessons”

  1. Leon Bolier says:

    I seem to be having a problem , subscribing to your RSS feed. It comes up with error 404. Let me know if its a known error or if its just me . Ive tried opera and firefox. Im using Bullguard Firewall and im not sure if its turned on . Im not that good with Netbooks. Ill bookmark your site and see if you have responded. all the best