Fast Company

Cruise (Out of) Control

Plenty of companies already take young people seriously -- as consumers. So it's no surprise that companies look to children for market intelligence.

Main story : The Future is Younger Than You Think

More: Brainstorming the Future, Little Hands Teach Big Hands, Who's Teaching Whom?, Workscapes of the Future

So it's no surprise that companies look to children for market intelligence. Levi Strauss & Co. has a 500-kid Trend Advisory Panel whose members visit stores and tell researchers what they like and don't like. Nickelodeon's Zoom Room panel lets kids watch shows and offer reactions. It's just so conventional. Do you like dolls? Do you like pink dolls or blue dolls? What kinds of games do you play after school?

But a few companies are doing it differently. They're inviting kids into the design process itself, encouraging them to experiment with beta versions of products, learning from their reactions to new technologies. They are, in short, trying to understand the mental models of young people - how they see the world and interact with the artifacts they encounter - and to let those insights shape their products.

Witness one day at the Compaq Software Evaluation and Research Center, a serious-sounding name for a place that might better be called the Compaq Kid Lab. The facility, based in San Mateo, California, features two large observation galleries with one-way mirrors and video cameras, three smaller group-testing rooms, a children's testing room with plenty of computers, plus - and this is a big selling point - the Fisher-Price Triple Arcade, a combination pinball machine-basketball hoop-skeeball game.

Around 11 a.m., Rachel, 7 years old and very blond, walks in with her mom. Yolanda Jenkins, the lab's director, has a PhD in educational psychology and experience at Atari, Apple, and IBM - but never at "a company that funded this kind of research." She strikes up a conversation in the lobby. After less than 30 seconds later, Rachel is not-so-subtly swinging her arms, clapping in back and front. Jenkins, who has mocha skin and a calming smile, laughs: "You've been here before, so I guess you're ready for business?" Rachel nods seriously. With that, Jenkins's overalls-clad assistant, Jose Feito, a doctoral student in child development psychology, leads the now-skipping Rachel down the hall, to beta-test Spruce Squirrel's Hiccup Mix-Up .

Only three years ago, Compaq leased this site to house the company's entire software division, with Jenkins working with kids in just one room. But when Compaq employees started bringing their children to her office to try out products, the lab took on a life of its own. First the Compaq kids started begging to come back. Then their friends began clamoring for appointments. Soon Jenkins found herself meeting with teachers and principals from 29 local schools, explaining what the lab does (it tests software titles, mostly for Wonder Tools, a joint venture between Fisher-Price and Compaq); what it offers to kids who participate (books, software, and a meaningless-but-neat-looking Wonder Tools driver's license); and how it works (adults, most of whom have teaching experience and degrees in child psychology, observe unobtrusively as kids play).

Jenkins always believed in the value of the lab, in the ability of young people to point grizzled software programmers in directions they wouldn't discover on their own. But the sheer number and quality of her pint-sized volunteers still amazes her. "We haven't done testing for a couple of weeks," she says, walking into the conference room with Rachel's Mom and turning on the closed-circuit TV. Two images come up: one of Rachel, one of her game monitor. "So I'm getting calls all the time. You wouldn't believe how my phone rings."

Just over the wall, Rachel's enthusiasm is utterly believable. She is literally a kid with a new toy. Today she's familiarizing herself with the Wonder Tools Cruiser, a brightly colored contraption that's meant to be an alternative to a keyboard. It plugs in to a computer and contains, instead of letters and a mouse, a steering wheel, throttle, phone, camera, horn, radio, key, and several brightly colored buttons. Rachel launches Spruce Squirrel's Hiccup Mix-Up, meets the game's title character, and commences to play. The game is simple in concept (players scour a virtual world, searching for remedies to cure Spruce's hiccups) yet complicated in execution (there are lots of mini-activities embedded in the game, designed to encourage kids to work on their musical, memory, and learning skills). As Rachel drives through snail-infested roadways and takes snapshots of animated plants, a researcher jots notes on her body language and answers such formal questions as: Did the child react to Woodruff the Dog on the home screen?

Then Rachel enters Invent-a-tron, a toy-building activity inside Spruce, and all hell breaks loose on the screen. In theory, Rachel is supposed to enter a toy shop, see a variety of parts, and use a gripper to assemble tops, middles, and bottoms of toys. In reality, once Rachel puts her gripper to a wheel or a propeller or a spring, that piece begins to cruise. First she selects a pogo stick. It starts hopping. Next she grips a rocket booster. It goes flaming into the sky. Soon a sea horse tail is reeling and a wagon wheel is rolling. Rachel is looking like she wants to cry and Jenkins is too.

"You don't realize how much of a fixed mindset you have when you're used to a mouse and a keyboard," Jenkins says a few minutes later, once Rachel managed to extricate herself from Invent -a -tron's toy-making purgatory and entered Rocket Scrapyard, a spatial-relations game inside Spruce. "You have to think completely differently about designing software where, instead of clicking on a mouse, you drive through the environment and have a throttle and windshield wipers and three radio stations to choose from. Often times, you're first instincts are off. Originally, in Spruce, to get into a new activity, a child had to take the throttle, stop, and put it in reverse. It just didn't work for them. We alerted the programmers. They came down to see the kids play and changed it immediately."

Jenkins's mission is to turn these insights into actual product specifications. "Once you engage a child in a product they'll give you lots of information," she explains. "You just need to listen." Every Friday the lab holds a roundtable session in which her researchers meet with game producers and designers, not just to discuss the problems they discovered but to identify solutions to those problems - by the end of the day. It doesn't always happen. "The most difficult thing has been to reconcile what we think would be great with what is technically possible," she says. "There are these things called time, technology constraints, and budgets. Working with developers, it's easy to get reactions like, 'That's a wonderful idea, and if we had time and money we'd do it, but..."

Come noontime, Rachel's father arrives. Bridget, her four-year-old sister, has accompanied Dad. Rachel hams it up as Jose takes her Polaroid and laminates it onto her Wonder Tools license. Bridget immediately charms herself into a license as well.

"So when can we come back?" Rachel's mom asks.

"Yeah, when can I come back?" Rachel echoes.

Jenkins pauses a minute to considers the lab's upcoming products and schedules. Bridget, however, quickly fills the silence: "Please can I come too?

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