The Incredible World of Electronic Baby Toy User Experience 001: VTech Move and Crawl Ball
Hi, I’m Ashley Holtgraver. I’m a computer scientist, designer, and user interface enthusiast. I am also, currently, a full-time mom to a 2 year old. Every week, I will put out a new review of a baby or toddler toy that has somehow ended up in my child’s life, for better or worse. These reviews are focused on user interface design, and what we can learn from the successes and foibles of “design” created for the youngest humans.
Review #1: The VTech Move and Crawl Ball, AKA The Nightmare Ball -
This is the granddaddy of them all that inspired this series.
This ball was discovered in my kid’s grandparents house, whom we visit frequently. They are both experienced childcare givers, both from well-populated Somerville families who produced many, many nieces and nephews before and after their own two children entered the picture. My kid is grandchild #3. Their house, while clean and well-kept, has by necessity ended up housing a truly random variety of hand-me-down toys left there by their various familial babysitting clients. Cars, blocks, a great selection of well-worn books, and some random electronic faire as well.
Enter: the Nightmare Ball. Scene: You are lucky enough to have fast access to your 2-year-old’s grandparents and visit their home frequently. One day, while visiting Grammy and Bob’s, a few new toys have been dug out. And here, in front of you, is a dark orange hard plastic ball. It is encrusted in many brightly-colored buttons and lights, labeled with numbers, colors, shapes, animals. It lies inert. You wait a beat — no! It begins speaking in a high-pitched voice, in pleading couplets — “So much fun to learn and see, why don’t you come and play with me?” and “Roll me!!!!” (Four exclamation marks, no less, it implores the user — ROLL ME.) It begins moving to-and-fro, the whinnying of the servos nearly drowning out the whining of the voice. It plays snippets of familiar children's songs at random.
This thing is possessed. While it actually has some decent, if brittle, features — some simple animal-shaped buttons that make the sound of the animal when pressed — this does not make up for its primary sins, which are multiple:
- A ball meant for throwing usually has a soft surface; a ball meant for rolling can have a hard surface. However, having a hard surface does not guarantee the ball will not be thrown; it rather guarantees that someone will get hurt -when- it is thrown. This ball is made of hard plastic. This ball is meant for an infant. Think about your materials, not just for intention but how real users act.
- The self-rolling presents a weird, uncomfortable mockery of what a ball rolling would actually look like. Maria Montessori espoused the idea that in the early years of childhood, children should be presented with concrete examples of reality. Childhood, ideally, presents safe, small ways for children to experiment and understand the natural world, at a pace of their choosing. There is no need to emphasize the fantastic to babies and toddlers, they are still just trying to make sense of the basics. I wonder what Montessori would have said about the uncanny valley of physics we walk through with this terrible, terrible ball.
- If your primary method of getting users to engage is to plead with them, you’re doing it wrong. This ball’s creepy singsongs commanding the child to play with it remind me of when I install a new phone app and it starts blowing up my notifications — not even with information that might be useful to me (this is bad enough when not requested), but with simple, Ouroboros notifications to not forget to open the app! hey, open that new app! please please just open the app!
- If you’re trying to be all the things, you end up being nothing. Let’s just look at only the electronic interface of the ball — three animal buttons, four shape buttons, two lights, a couple tactile fabric tags. The buttons sometimes do different things each time you press them, which also differs based on a “mode” switch located on the ball’s surface. This is a cacophony of meaning and confusion for a one year old.
- Then you add in the fact that this interface is wrapped around a sphere that won’t stop moving or playing random sound clips. They wanted to create something that would entice a child to move around and chase it. But they forgot that children are humans, and that the most enticing thing of all for a human is a question — and this ball takes away all questions. It explains everything to you and ensures any potential joy of discovery is brief or nil.
And for all its pleadings, its bright colors, its sound and fury signifying nothing? My son has little to no interest. An initial inspection revealed senselessness and frequent near-injury, neither of which he is drawn to. Every adult despised it.
What have we learned? Use soft, or at least natural materials for infant toys — or more broadly, respond to user testing. Have a purpose. Either tell a story, or be a blank slate onto which stories can be projected — in between is useless.
This ball, my goodness, it is the worst. This ball has made me question my very sanity. This ball has found a home in the back of our closet.
Stay tuned for Review #2: the everyman’s VTech Walker, as compared to the wood-and-smugness HABA Walker