Michelle Lee headshot

Designing for play involves more than just fun & games

With kids, you really have to get the experience right that first time, or you’ve lost them.”

When we think about play, we often imagine a child’s world of toys and games, but who says play has to be confined to our childhoods? Michelle Lee leads the Design for Play Team at IDEO Toy Lab, an integrated team of researchers, designers and developers bringing engaging, interactive and playful experiences to market. Their work includes building beloved children’s apps such as Balloonimals and Monster Moves, as well as partnering with respected brands like Sesame Workshop, Fisher-Price and Leapfrog to co-create favorite apps such as the top-ranking Elmo Calls.

At Delight 2016 Michelle will be talking about how IDEO’s team sees play and its potential to bring delight and engagement not only to the youngest customers, but to people of all ages, through products and experiences that live beyond the toy aisle. I talked with her about what it’s like to work in a “play room” and what we can all learn from designing for play.

IDEO Toy Lab

Seeing the potential for kids’ interactions with mobile devices, the Toy Lab has been exploring mobile apps since the launch of the very first iPhone. Image: IDEO Toy Lab

Making work more like play

Carmen: You say the opposite of play isn’t work, but boredom. What do you mean by that?

Michelle: Play has a way of grabbing your attention—physically, mentally, intellectually and emotionally. It encourages you to think creatively, take chances and feel empathy with others. The action of playing, whether it’s a child role-playing as a firefighter, challenging a friend to a board game, or building an amazing city out of a blocks—all these experiences engage and mesmerize, generating excitement for the potential outcome. This state of complete engagement, this state of play, is the opposite of boredom.

When we see it this way, play and work aren’t opposites. In fact, they work hand-in-hand. Being engaged can lead to greater creative thinking and more innovative work.”

Carmen: How do you go about creating experiences that aren’t boring?

Michelle: At IDEO, we work with a number of different companies on many different projects, including designing toys and games with some of the most popular kids brands, such as Sesame Workshop and Fisher-Price. Being immersed in this environment has helped us identify some of the elements that make play so engaging.

For example, playful experiences present a strong initial prompt—a challenge that needs to be overcome. A good prompt pulls a person in emotionally and motivates her to take part. Challenges should be compelling, but they also need to feel surmountable, and the participant needs to feel like she can affect the outcome. Strong feedback loops show progress towards a goal, and rewards make the experience feel satisfying. Rewards don’t need to be in the form of medals or riches. They can be about mastering a new skill or knowing that you’ve helped your team advance. Even just adding a few sparkles can go a long way. What’s important is that you feel good that actions you’ve taken have advanced you in a positive direction.

Elmo Calls iPhone app

Sesame Workshop partnered with IDEO to design Elmo Calls iPhone app. Image: IDEO Toy Lab

Designing for small hands & honest hearts

Carmen: What are some of the challenges—and joys—of designing for children?

Michelle: One of the biggest challenges in designing for kids is that they are so emotionally pure, and yet quite discerning. This can be considered one of the biggest joys in designing for kids as well. Because kids aren’t great at hiding their feelings, you know right away whether your design is a hit or a complete flop just by looking at their faces.

If you give a tool to an adult, and they can’t hold on to it, they’ll try to figure out how to use it and adapt their behaviors to even poorly designed products, assuming that they—and not the product—are at fault. If you give the same tool to a child, they’ll look at you confused, ask you how to use it, and move onto something else if it just doesn’t make sense to them. With kids, you really have to get the experience right that first time, or you’ve lost them. That’s why we spend a lot of time on user research throughout the entire design process—to make sure we get it right at launch.

There are also UI challenges involved with designing for children. We know that it’s really hard for a child with small hands to hold an iPhone in portrait mode, so we design most of our apps in landscape (unless we’re mimicking the experience of a real phone, such as with Elmo Calls). To understand the scale of holding a large phone with small hands, we’ll mock up giant iPhones and see just how far our thumbs can reach across the screen. Another challenge is to keep content age-appropriate, because we know kids are highly impressionable, and they take things really literally. Also, with digital and how smart products are getting, there’s really a need to safeguard a child’s privacy.

Despite the challenges, the joy of of designing for kids comes from the smiles and giggles that emerge when you do get the design right. When a child loves what you’ve created, the pure enjoyment is so rewarding.”

Carmen: Beyond just the privacy aspect, are there inherent differences in doing user research with kids? Are there differences in the way kids and adults interact with you?

Michelle: Definitely. Adults are already attuned to social norms. They come in and want to impress you. They know what they’re supposed to say, especially if you’re working on something that has to do with diet or exercise. They want to tell you that they go running everyday and that they don’t eat fast food, even if the truth differs.

Kids, on the other hand, are not attuned to that. From the very first moment they walk in the door, they don’t disguise their feelings. If they’re shy, they’re not going to act otherwise to fit in. They’ll just be shy. We spend time upfront getting to know kids and trying to make them feel at ease. We convey that they’re the experts, and there are no right or wrong answers. We’re interested in hearing what they think because that can really drive how a toy or product is designed and how it evolves. We build trust and ongoing relationships, so that kids will want to return and help us with research again in the future.

We also know that kids don’t necessarily tell us everything during the time they’re with us, so we often follow up with parents after the session. What did their kids talk about during the car ride home? What were they still excited about before going to bed that night? That helps us understand underlying thoughts that may have escaped us because the kids were too excited or too shy during our time with them.

When it comes down to it, delight is not a question of being the most technically advanced, the most expensive, or the most showy. It’s about thoughtful design that addresses insights that are often overlooked.”

Bringing a sense of play into ‘grownup’ design

Carmen: Are there insights from your experience and doing user research in designing for kids that apply to designing for grownups?

Michelle: Creating the right prompts, presenting strong feedback and providing meaningful rewards all apply to designing for adults as well. Play is about engagement; it’s about connecting on a more emotional level, creating an experience that people will enjoy—something they’ll remember and share. Play has the power to do all of that, and it doesn’t have to be limited to kids’ experiences. It can apply to retail, medicine, education and more—all of these areas can benefit.

Carmen: How does the idea of delight come into play in the work that you’re doing?

Michelle: I think of delight as joy, with that extra touch of unexpected charm that draws you in and makes you smile. It has to do with really knowing your user and accounting for that user’s behaviors, passions and concerns to resonate at a deeper emotional level. We try to create this feeling of delight in everything that we do, whether it’s a toy or game or some other experience. We understand that this can be really challenging in a world where many things compete for our attention. Even a child’s life is inundated.

When it comes down to it, delight is not a question of being the most technically advanced, the most expensive, or the most showy. It’s about thoughtful design that addresses insights that are often overlooked.

About Michelle Lee

Michelle leads the Digital Kids Team, an integrated team of researchers, designers, and developers bringing engaging, interactive and playful digital experiences to market. Their work includes beloved children’s apps Balloonimals and Monster Moves as well as partnering with respected brands like Sesame Workshop, Fisher-Price and Leapfrog to co-create favorite apps such as the top-ranking Elmo Calls. With a strong belief that playful elements should not be reserved only for toys and apps, Michelle also enjoys contributing to IDEO consulting projects, applying play to the broader context of our daily experiences.

Throughout her career, Michelle has been driven by a desire to bring thoughtful solutions to fruition through human-centered design. Designing toys at VTech and University Games fueled her passion for play, while lead product roles at thredUP and ShopWell—a health and nutrition IDEO spinout—ignited her spirit of entrepreneurship. Her IDEO tenure includes design research and product design roles, influencing products and services across food and beverage, consumer products, education, entertainment and retail. Michelle holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in the Joint Program for Design from Stanford University, where she’s also served as an instructor.