Fisher-Price Play Lab, Mattel’s research arm, is moving beyond toy testing to bring audience insights to all of the company’s TV and film content, starting with Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go (pictured).
Historically, Play Lab focused on designing toys for Mattel’s brands based on observing its 2,000-strong preschool and parent panel. Moving forward, the research arm will work alongside the content teams and be heavily involved in developing shows, says Lisa Lohiser, Fisher-Price’s manager of childhood development research.
The goal is to help Mattel’s content—which includes upcoming Barbie, Hot Wheels and Barney movies—better engage kids, be more developmentally appropriate, and tap into topics that families most want to explore in entertainment, Lohiser says. Play Lab piloted its insights and research approach with the Nelvana/Mattel-produced Thomas reboot, which is set to premiere in the US on Cartoon Network’s Cartoonito block on September 13, and then on Netflix later this fall.
Before work began on any of the scripts, Play Lab instructed the writers to include storylines about making new friends and the importance of taking turns because that’s what kids were connecting with the most in existing Thomas & Friends content, says Lohiser. Her team also suggested slowing down the pace of episodes, making more expressive facial movements, and having fewer visual stimuli on screen at any given time to hold onto kids’ attention.
Play Lab also reviewed scripts, line drawings, animations and voiceovers with an eye to how the show would help kids develop, she says.
It then screened an episode for its preschool panels to determine whether additional changes to the pacing or content were needed. The researchers used eye-tracking technology—a first for a Mattel show—to understand what captured kids’ attention and kept them excited.
Rounding out the experience, it observed how kids translated what they saw on screen into their play patterns to see what most stuck with them, says Lohiser. Play Lab also worked with the consumer products team to make sure the toys pushed kids back to watching more of the show. It plans to continue this insight-driven approach for the second season of the series.