3 Secrets To Designing Great Toys, From LeapFrog and Ideo

How do you build an experience for a three-year-old? Crawl on the floor and compliment their shoes. (Really.)


It looks like a toy–a colorful, chunky camera that’s just right for a child aged three to six. But in reality, LeapFrog’s new Creativity Camera is a trojan horse for one of the most capable electronics on Earth. Because this watershed toy hides (and protects) mommy or daddy’s iPhone, loaded with a corresponding free app that lets kids put silly cartoon faces and rainbow filters on photos.


The Creativity Camera ($20) is really a child-friendly iPhone camera case, an idea brought to LeapFrog by Ideo.

It’s not the first iPhone-case-gone-toy on the market, but for LeapFrog, it’s an early venture out of their own walled garden into the world of apps–a space they admit isn’t the most profitable for them–and a means to testing the waters of what they see as a growing but yet-unquantifiable trend: Young children receiving hand-me-down phones much like they do shoes.

“We know it’s happening as a phenomenon, so we want to invest now,” explains LeapFrog’s head of toy marketing, Jen Cha, adding that the company sees children as young as one using iPads these days (even though LeapFrog works under a strict no-screens toy policy until a child reaches 18 months).

But iPhone or no iPhone, screen or no screen, a toy is still a toy, and a kid is still a kid. Here are some lessons we learned from Ideo and LeapFrog about the extremely difficult but extraordinarily fun task of designing experiences for kids.



Consider Family Dynamics To Spot Trends Early

A few years ago, Ideo’s Toy Lab released a lauded app called Balloonimals. Sure, apps for kids seem obvious now but Balloonimals was was aimed at children as young as three years old. Ideo knew to explore apps for some of the youngest children earlier than most because they’d observed how families were evolving with new technologies.

“We saw this insight where moms were handing kids their smartphones in the car and grocery store,” explains Brendan Boyle, Ideo partner and head of the Toy Lab. “At the time, these were $400-$500 smartphones, but Mom saw it as another tool in her purse to entertain or educate.”

Ideo began exploring in the space. They mocked up an iPhone to the scale of a late toddler’s hands. It was roughly twice the perceptual size to these children (which actually meant it would be reasonably grippable for them). Then they began building and testing the new technology with kids in the Toy Lab and their own homes. What they learned is obvious to us now:

“Watch a three-year-old use a mouse, and they don’t get it; they try to drive it like a car,” Boyle says. “But the touch screen is intuitive for that age.”

Ultimately, Ideo brought the idea of the Creativity Camera to Leapfrog following a similar familial observation: One of the Toy Lab’s inventors had a nephew who constantly wanted the iPhone, but simply to take photos with it. In reality, it’s not such an absurd idea. Just like we’ve seen in classic toys like play telephones, “kids want to do what their parents are doing,” Boyle says. “They see their parents taking pictures and love that.”



Coax Earnest Feedback From Children

But designing an iPhone camera and designing an iPhone camera that children will absolutely love are two very different challenges. To iterate their toys, both LeapFrog and Ideo do extensive rounds of testing to hone every new product. (Ideo, for instance, has a database of test subject children ranging from six months to nine years old.) For the Creativity Camera, Ideo tested it in their lab, but also embedded it within families for several months and then visited to see how things were going.

“You have to develop this modern-day anthropologist eye,” Boyle says. “You quickly want to get down on the floor. (I’m six feet tall.) Just like with adults, we want to start a conversation. We have a quick trick, to compliment the kid’s shoes because they’re usually really proud of their shoes.”

These observational sessions prevent the designers from painting broad strokes in their approach to children, because children are an exceptionally difficult cohort to pin down. A toy for ages three to six is a massive range because a mere half a year is a huge developmental leap, and other factors, like older siblings, can throw many assumptions out of whack. And then there’s another wrench in the machine: Children may appear to live in a carefree, unedited world, but they’re also very concerned about others–including the relative strangers who’ve made their latest toy.

“When kids get older, they try hard not to hurt your feelings,” Boyle says. “So we tell them, ‘We didn’t design this, we’re just testing it for someone else. And we give them official toy tester stickers.”



Know Your Customer…And Their Parents

In talking to Ideo and LeapFrog, one idea seemed counterintuitive: If they’d already discovered that little hands were actually quite deft at holding an iPhone, why build this big camera case around the phone?

Truth be told, there were two reasons: The first was that the camera is still fun to play with if and when mom or dad take their phone back. It becomes a twisting, pushing, and clicking imagination-based toy. The second reason was that, even if a child is perfectly capable of playing with an iPhone without breaking it (at least in the average living room), a case is appealing to the person with the pocketbook.

“Parents want that case; it definitely puts parents at ease,” Boyle says. “But it also makes it easier for a child to take a photo.”

And this highlights one of the great challenges of designing a successful toy for the younger end of the child spectrum. While it’s a bit less relevant for the age range of the Creativity Camera (three to six), you can’t really appeal to a child through advertising or a fancy box on the shelf until ages two to three.


“We call this the ‘nag factor,’ as this is when the child can better communicate and actively ask the parents or gift giver(s) for what they want,” Cha explains. In other words, it’s not enough for a toy to be fun for kids, a toy has to appeal to parents, along with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends to actually be purchased. Especially before the nag factor kicks in, these friends and relatives once-removed from the nuclear family unit are LeapFrog’s most important customers.

It just goes to show how difficult it is to design a good toy, let alone actually sell it.

Order the Creativity Camera here ($20).

Download the app here (free).

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach