By Todd Bishop
Microsoft user experience designer Mike LaManna remembers feeling like a mad scientist as he tried to design a computer mouse that would let children with cognitive and physical disabilities keep their fingers properly positioned to point and click. He brought home old mice, took them apart, and tried everything from clay to Velcro straps. He even baked some of the mice to reshape the plastic.
"I don’t think my family cared for that very much, the fumes and everything," LaManna admits with a chuckle.
In the end, he found the answer in a party ring.
After trying all sorts of high-tech approaches, LaManna and his collaborators on the volunteer project discovered a simple way to remove the decorations from plastic party favors and attach the loops to notebook mice in a way that secures the pointing fingers of children who otherwise have problems using them.
That simplicity means Microsoft won't be turning the project into a product, and LaManna won't be making millions from the concept. But that wasn't the original idea anyway.
The process started two years ago when LaManna was talking on the phone with his mom, Janice, who worked at the time in special education at the North Tonawanda City School District in New York. She told him that children in her classes who were rewarded with computer time often ended up frustrated because they didn't have the dexterity to handle the mice.
Mike LaManna's DIY guide to building a better kids' mouse
Materials: Plastic party rings, elastic, Velcro, and parts of children toys can be used to replicate the solution, which is best described as a loop or ring.
Scissors or X-acto knife, fine grained sand paper, adhesive and/or glue-gun.
All materials can be found at a craft store, party store, and hardware store.
Build: Remove the decorative portion of chosen object. The goal is to be left with a ring/loop-like object. Ensure edges are smooth. Using the sand paper, rough up the surface of the area of the mouse where the ring/loop solution will be adhered.
Attach: Before attaching the modification to the mouse, consider where to place it on the mouse’s left-button. Once the most ideal area has been identified, prepare the surface. Roughing up the area of the mouse where the modification will be attached with sandpaper helps the adhesive to stick. A hot-glue gun provides immediate results. However, a stronger adhesive should be considered for long-term usage.
LaManna, who works for the Redmond company's Platform Components, Creation and Collaboration team (PC3), started looking for specialty mice on the market that could solve the problem. He didn't find any. So he decided to create one on his own, as a volunteer project.
He collaborated along the way with many people at the company. Key were Annuska Perkins, a senior accessibility strategist, and former Microsoft employee Hugh McLoone, a user experience researcher.
Working together, they ultimately arrived at the solution -- which involves gluing the plastic ring or loop toward the back edge of the left mouse button. They verified the effectiveness through prototyping and testing with students in the North Tonawanda and Bellevue school districts, which LaManna described as pivotal to the process.
His time on the project was matched by the company in the form of donations to the schools, under Microsoft's employee volunteer program and giving campaign.
Now LaManna, 39, is working to publicize the findings and distribute a simple set of do-it-yourself instructions for parents and teachers to customize mice themselves. The approach may also work for elderly computer users with similar problems controlling mice.
His memories include walking around his Microsoft building with a box spilling over with fabric and clay, before finding the simpler solution.
"We’re a very high-tech company, very polished, so I kind of felt like an arts-and-crafts teacher," he said. "But it worked in the end