Skip the Head Strap
< THINKING

Skip the Head Strap

words:
Keren Ruth Wong
visuals:
Jeremy Chen
read time:
5 minutes
published:
February
2024

Almost a decade ago, when we were all exploring VR of the early aughts, Mattel set out to redesign its classic View-Master as an affordable VR headset for a new generation of kids. The toymaker came to us to figure out how to make the device safe and fun. We started thinking not just in terms of physical usability (though designing for tiny hands and making sure products can survive a drop on the ground is our bread and butter), but also about how we encourage healthy engagement patterns.

A lot of VR headsets are designed to be super sticky—so engaging that users don’t want to take them off. But when we design for kids, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can create healthy interactions. We wanted the design of the View-Master to help children intuit when it was time to put the toy down. So, we decided not to include a head strap—or any other means of attaching the headset to little bodies. When kids felt their arms get tired or their eyes start to cross, they would know it was time to take a break.

Over the past four decades, the IDEO Play Lab has designed and licensed more than 250 toys and games, from classics like the Barbie Camper to the first set of Sesame Workshop smartphone apps for kids.

With every product, we think about how to design fun and engaging experiences that delight parents, entertain kids, and lead to success for our partners. But we also put a lot of thought into making design decisions that support healthy habits, and help kids—and their families—thrive. 

Here are a few examples of how we’ve navigated those design choices.

Designing for movement: Dusty Wing Control

Most of us have learned to use a joystick or a set of arrows to drive a remote-controlled toy or move a character around a screen. But when we set out to help bring the character “Dusty” from the popular Disney movie Planes to life in an action-oriented vehicle toy, we took a step back to rethink how littler kids would engage with it.

As we tested designs, we saw that small children not only struggled with small buttons and the spatial skills necessary to operate the typical remote control joystick, but also that there was no fun in sitting still and tapping buttons. Instead, during our design research sessions, kids pretended to be the characters: They went full airplane mode, hands stretched out, zooming around the living room, dodging furniture. 

Taking a cue from their play patterns, we put Dusty’s remote control mechanism in toy wing tips that fit on little hands, enabling them to interact in a way that is not only more fun, but also instinctive, better mirroring how they naturally play. Players drive Dusty forward by pressing and holding a controller button, enabling his propellers to spin. When they bank left and right, Dusty matches their every move. Dusty even calls out flying commands that they can perform together.  The toy is not just easy for them to operate; it also gets them off the couch and moving, playing the main character in their own stories.

Designing for confidence: Pictionary Air

When we set out to re-invent the classic drawing game for the digital age, we had to figure out how to bring the core interaction to life in a new way. During ethnographic research, we noticed that when players were under pressure, they would often stare at their drawings looking embarrassed, and hesitate to keep drawing. To get people out of their heads and back in the game, we designed a new interaction that keeps participants looking up and laughing with each other. We combined a light pen and a smart device’s camera to allow picturists to create life-size illustrations in the air in front of them, an early foray into AR for classic games. For another layer of fun—and another option for those with less confidence in their drawing skills—players could interact with their sketches to provide more clues, much like in charades. We also decided to make drawings disappear quickly after each round was finished, to lower the stakes for self-conscious players.

Designing for all ages: Twister Air

In classic Twister, the fun hits when players are frozen in contortionist poses, hovering and balancing over each other. Our challenge from Hasbro: What does Twister look like in the TikTok era? And how do we make it fun for everyone? As we tested out potential interactions, we observed that for younger kids and older adults (basically everyone but the teenagers), the choreography on most popular dances was a bit much to learn or to even attempt. While kids found it hilarious when parents messed up (you’ll see lots of dance flops posted online!), we also wanted to find a way to create a sense of achievement for all ages. We started looking for the sweet spot between silly fun and accessibility, stretching players just enough to make them feel challenged, but not too overwhelmed to keep trying. In our prototypes, we preserved the classic Twister interaction while building in opportunities for rockstar moments where players can flop or shine. The footage made for viral family group chat nuggets, helping everyone feel part of the fun.

Designing for development: Little People Klip Klops

Preschoolers love the action of cars zipping down racetracks. But typical matchbox cars move too quickly for their little hands and slow reaction times.  When we set out to create a similar action-oriented—but also character-driven—toy for Little People, we needed to figure out how to slow down the experience, without sacrificing the action. Through several rounds of prototyping, we built out Klip Klops, leveraging a very simple mechanism that allowed princesses on ponies to teeter back and forth down a ridged downward track. By centering  the “clip clop” sounds of the hooves and building out a multi-story castle setting where the princesses and their steeds would live, we created opportunities for kids to enjoy the intentionality of the movement and built in the space for layered storytelling, allowing little kids to practice multiple development skills at once.

Navigating your own toy design journey, or trying to get your team at work to stretch its imagination? Get in touch at helloplaylab@ideo.com. We’d love to collaborate.

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Keren Ruth Wong
Senior Partnerships Lead
Keren supports partners at the IDEO Play Lab to enable experiences that spark joy, growth and connection through purposeful play. Prior to IDEO, she was based in the Bay Area and Beijing developing products for the education sector.
Jeremy Chen
Interaction Designer
Jeremy is an interaction designer at IDEO’s Play Lab. Standing across the intersection of technology and design, his work focuses on exploring, defining and recreating the feeling, sensation and experience in multiple physical and digital mediums. He holds an MFA in Media Design from ArtCenter College of Design.

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