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The dos and don’ts of interactive kids toys

Is 2020 the year you plan to launch that ridiculously cool new toy or device for kids? If so, take heed of lessons from some award-winning products.
January 8, 2020

Product innovation should be top of mind for the kids industry. But the number of new, shiny and teched out toys can be overwhelming—not just to kids and their parents, but to retailers as well. How can you help your innovative gizmo stand out in a crowded shelf?

The Kids@Play conference is almost upon us. Celebrating its 12th year at the annual CES show in Las Vegas this coming January 9, 2020, its mission is to spotlight the best of the best of interactive media products for kids. Each year, we also dish out KAPi’s, awarding a small number of products for outstanding achievements in digital youth products. Past winners include big names, like Facebook Messenger, Star Wars VR experiences and Pokemon Go, as well as smaller, yet equally impressive products, like Anki’s Cosmo robot and VTech’s kid-friendly smartwatch.

So what makes an award-winning product? Over the years, we’ve noticed a couple key traits shared by all KAPi Award winners.

Do know and respect your user:
In order for any product to be successful, it must first be the right experience for the right age. Products that fare best tend to have at least a basic understanding of child development stages. Importantly, they must be ethical and free from any hidden agenda. Remove unnecessary data collection and deceptive sales/marketing/advertising practices. Any in-app purchases need to be called out and made completely transparent before a user purchases your product…or better yet, skip the in-app purchases all together.

Do think about reliability:
While KAPi jurors are always on the lookout for products that break new ground with technology, products that don’t work reliably don’t make the winners list (or the shopping cart, for that matter). While shiny, innovations are great, if the tech fails on a child, even slightly, that’s an overall fail. The best way to avoid this is to test, rework, and test again until any technical issues are completely eliminated. And, an oft-forgotten side of reliability: Does your product require a Bluetooth, Wifi or an infrared connection from one component to another? If so, it better connect easily and rarely, if ever, fail.

Don’t rely on sign in screens:
Does your product ask its user for an email address or sign in with a social media account? If so, ask yourself honestly: Do you offer any value for that request beyond future marketing efforts or upselling by your company? If not, your product may not only have an unnecessary step kids have to go through before they can actually enjoy what you made, you may also have an ethical matter to deal with as well—especially if any of your users are under the age of 13. That’s not to say sign up screens don’t offer value. They can facilitate progress reports or allow users to see how they compare to others. But more often than not, these gates are just information collection tools, offering no kid users no redeeming value. A piece of advice… lose the sign in screens.

If you have a valid reason for including a sign in screen, make it easy. Don’t force kids (or their parents) to sign in with every new session. Have a smart way to avoid that friction. And, even if you have a legitimate reason for including it, allow a way for the user to skip the sign in process all together—your user base will thank you.

Do make your toy playable long-term:
Some products have great tech, but after a few sessions, they begin to lose their appeal. A unique and replayable play experience is of huge value, especially if your product is a bit on the expensive side. Nothing is worse for a parent when they buy a product that’s used only once by a child. Think about your product’s long-term value.

Don’t forget about latency
Some products have great tech, and everything works, but for some reason something is off—the timing of a response is sluggish, an asset needs to load before the game can advance. These are latency issues. A child’s interest in your product can easily be lost in milliseconds. Latency in your product equals death.

Do allow volume control:
Is your product overly noisy? Can its volume be adjusted? While kids don’t mind loud products as much as parents, think about the purchaser. Overly loud gizmos can kill sales, as well as awards.

Don’t get feature-itis:
Just because you can do many different things with a technology, doesn’t mean you should. Be smart about your play experience. What is necessary to include? What is unimportant to the experience? This is a tricky one to get right. Stay focused on what’s working. Every cool, amazing, never-before seen feature should add value to the play experience. Don’t look for a way of expanding your product simply to have more marketing points listed on the side of your packaging.

These items are all tickets to the dance, and are hard learned lessons to success. When your product hits all the right notes with what’s mentioned above you and your users will find real magic, real engagement, real fun. Your product has only one chance to succeed, so good luck!

Scott Traylor has been a KAPi Awards juror for 10 of the last 12 CES conferences. A former computer science educator at Harvard for 12 years, Traylor continues to be involved in research, writing, and speaking on all things related to children and technology.

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