When you design a new product, you might need to understand a space that you’ve never explored before. You might have to ask questions you’ve never asked, and talk to people you have never talked to about things they have never seen or heard of.
At digital product agency Moonshot, we frequently find ourselves in this position. It’s a first-class challenge if you’re a design research nerd like me. It means taking a creative approach with your research tools you use, as one of our recent projects illustrates.
A client recently asked us to design a voice-based educational game for kids. This meant we needed to do some research with children to understand how they engage with voice assistants. Aside from getting more than our fill of Baby Shark, we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work when designing voice experiences for children. We’ve also learned about how to get feedback on voice experiences when testing with children. A critical success factor in acquiring this insight has been using the right tool so we could have a tangible conversation about an intangible product – our voice-based educational game.
Testing a Concept in the Field
We took two smart speaker concepts out into the field (homes where we could test ideas with kids) to give our research participants the opportunity to interact with something that might represent the product we were thinking about. While these were great tools to understand how children would react to the product we envisaged, we also wanted to learn about other potential approaches we weren’t thinking about. Put another way, if we were working on a project for untangling knotted hair, and I was getting feedback about a comb, I might not learn about the impact of different types of conditioner, water temperature, towel, or hair dryer.
Creating a Card Deck
To help us broaden our thinking, my colleague Kevin and I created a card deck to test the children’s reactions to a number of images. The deck consisted of 16 cards, each with a single image designed to represent some element that you might encounter when playing a digital game, as shown below:
To create the deck, Kevin and I just started shouting out images we might want in our deck – such as a heart, or sword, or castle. As we shouted out these image ideas we made quick sketches, one after another, without redrawing or making corrections. It was more important for us to capture what we wanted to bring to life than try to perfect how we were doing it. We created 16 images in under three minutes, and then turned our sketches into vector images, and printed them on card stock. We didn’t spend time redrawing every image to make it perfect.
Learning in the Field
The card deck was fun to use, and it came in very handy during our conversations with the children whose families had agreed to take part in the research. A two-hour conversation with a child about how they talk to a smart speaker is no simple task, so these cards brought something physical to an otherwise intangible experience. We asked the children to review the cards to familiarize themselves with the images. We told them that each card could represent whatever they wanted it to, so however they interpreted the card was correct, no matter what response they gave. This was probably my favorite part because the cards sometimes triggered unexpected replies.
Designing an Alexa Skill for Kids
One card in particular, the “wizard card”, prompted some surprising reactions. You or I might see a garden gnome or Santa in this card, but one child looked at this and saw a broken baseball bat. Another child called this one “basketball”. This might not have been what we intended, but it meant we were able to have a rich conversation about game play. We learned what those children liked or didn’t like about those games. For example, if a child picked this card because they thought it represented baseball, then Kevin or I would ask what they liked about baseball. As a result, we’ve been able to take these learnings and think of creative ways to apply those enjoyable elements of baseball in the game that we’re developing now.
One of our cards showed a structure that looked like a castle. When we showed the card to children, we learned that they were not necessarily interested in castles. Rather, the picture of the castle got them talking about how they enjoy creating buildings of all kinds. This insight has informed how we are creating an Alexa skill. For this particular skill, children are provided a system that sets the foundation for game play (in the way that Lego has a unit structure that all its pieces are based on, and you can put them together to make buildings), and players can experiment with how they interact with that system.
The experience reinforced a number of best practices that we strive to adhere to when working with children:
- Be open ended. Allowing the children to interpret the images and assign their own meaning was crucial.
- Be flexible. We wanted children to pick four cards and react to them. Sometimes they wanted to pick more. We let them. With adults, you can set constraints and expect them to be followed. With children, constraints can create a negative interaction that hurts rapport.
- Be patient. In one instance, we ask a child to do the exercise. He wanted to discuss an analog experience, baseball, even though we were having a conversation about a digital experience. To redirect the conversation to a digital experience would have shut down the conversation. We took the long way round, with a conversation about baseball, before guiding the experience back to digital.
If you’re interested in using our card deck for your own exploration, you can download it here. If you feel like giving this a shot, please share your experience in the comments below.