Creating for Kids is perhaps the most rewarding and fun sector to design for, so if you are about to take the plunge in this arena then welcome, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride! In this post, we’ll be taking you through the four key stages of the new toy development process with a special focus on ‘design for play.’
Bringing a new toy to market can often be a rewarding and inspiring journey, not least because your audience wants, I mean really wants, to love what you are offering. Unlike us adults, they are not burdened with many of the fixed ideas of what things should be like, so will accept effortlessly some original piece of thinking or a new twist on an established toy design theme. This means that it is entirely possible for you to disrupt the market with new and innovative thinking regardless of the size, previous reputation, or the depth of your pockets. The idea is king.
This brings us neatly into stage 1 of the toy development process:
1. Nurturing your toy idea (and keeping it simple)
An idea well explained is a product half-developed – what I mean is, the clearer you know what your idea is, the more efficient and focused you will be taking it to market.
The idea of the elevator pitch is also useful here…imagine that you are stuck in an elevator with someone, you have the time it takes for the elevator to go from the 5th floor to the ground floor to convince him to invest in your idea… could you do that with yours??
Can you describe your idea in two sentences? If you have more than a couple ‘killer features’ then you probably are trying to do too much, and your consumer won’t really care anyway as their attention is at such a premium.
So, if the answer is yes to the above, then its probably time to take the plunge and get the toy design out of your head and in front of children.
This is an opportunity to avoid the cost further downstream of bad assumptions and faulty intuition, so embrace the opportunity and be open to everything that the experience uncovers – even if it means on step backwards – it will save you a whole heap of pain later down the line.
Test driving it with your kids (or kids in your family) will always be the safest way to embark on this part of your journey, and soon you will need to brave showing it to people outside of this close circle. But be assured, most kids are absolutely delighted to be asked and will jump in with an enthusiasm and energy that will require you to have an afternoon nap after a 20-minute session with them.
Toy focus group do’s and don’ts
To help you survive the experience of using a focus group of children to assess your toy for function and whether it’s fun to play with, here are some tried and tested dos and don’ts…
- Avoid focus groups of more than 3, as you will find that many young children will stop giving meaningful feedback once a most dominant child starts to speak. For those children, the urge will be to conform with the consensus rather than freely express their thoughts.
- Don’t be worried about having perfect prototypes or mock-ups… unlike us adults, children have a great capacity to see beyond a swish model; all they really care about is the product experience, the play, and the fun that your idea offers them. So often a home-made video or a prototype made from card or nice visuals will be enough to spark their imaginations, and start them talking…
- Plan plan plan but be prepared to adapt – be fully prepared with what you want to get out of the session and then be prepared to adjust and adapt your strategy according to the little personalities in the room.
- Engage with the parent, they will after all be the one sanctioning the purchase. Consider if your product is Parent-Push or Child-Pull, and use this to guide how you engage with the parent.
- Keep talking to the kids that you canvass at this early stage, take them on your journey with you. They may well be your first customers and may even become product evangelists contributing to online review and spreading the word.
With a decent set of research complete, a honed vision, a road-tested play pattern you have validated what was once simply a ‘gut-feeling’….Its time to march forward to the next stage of the toy development process….prototyping.
2. Growing your Idea: the 3 Prototyping Stages
The New Product Development (NPD) cycle can often take as little as 6 months from conception to shipment, so being agile in your approach to product development is the name of the game here.
To compress your timeline, it’s often useful to develop an aesthetic vision alongside this functional design. Here are the prototypes you should consider producing:
Visual Prototype – The Looks-Like Model
As with all product design, function will always influence form, but in the Toy Market it is paramount your product looks enticing and engaging enough to grab the attention of the child amongst all the visual noise and chatter of the Toy Aisle or on the Online Store.
Initially, try developing your design in 3D CAD, but don’t spend too much time on detail. Often surface data of the main aesthetic surfaces will do. This can save a lot of time and effort; you can leave the detail once the design is firmed up and settled down later in the NPD process.
Functional Prototype – The Works-Like Model
The Toy Industry refers to these functioning prototypes as a Works-like model (often written abbreviated as WL Prototype).
Build these quickly and cheaply making using whatever you have to hand including LEGO, Meccano, Card and modelling clay, as well as the more obvious 3D printing technologies. And never lose sight of the guidance of Mark Zuckerberg to ‘Move fast and break things’. Learn quickly and learn often!
Tool Start – LL/WL Model
The natural next step of this prototyping is to bring both sorts of prototypes together into what is normally referred to as the LL/ WL model, or tooling model.
As the name suggests, this model allows you to approve the core design and start the lengthy process of building production tooling.
The Design for Manufacture (DFM) will be considered at this point, and as such all fittings and ribs will be defined. A top tip at this stage, if you are CAD proficient, is to run an interference analysis on the CAD data to check the fit of all your components and avoid nasty interferences that will wreak havoc in your early Engineering Sampling.
3. Delivering Your Toy: 6 Stages on the Road to Production
Design Engineering Development typically continues post tool start through the series of stages we outlined below, with each stage representing a step closer to perfection and product launch.
These are the first parts that come off the tool (for example injection molding).
They are very early parts, so don’t be too concerned when they land on your desk in a bag in the wrong colour and with no texture! It’s pretty normal and part of rapid tool development.
EP1: Engineering Prototype 1
This is the first time that you will see parts assembled and looking something like your beloved vision of the new toy design.
They are unlikely to be in the correct colours or finish, but they offer a valuable opportunity to robustly test everything from the way the product is assembled to its function.
During this phase, you learn the most about your product design and, as the tools are probably still with the toolmaker, it is the easiest time in the toy development process to fine-tune the design.
EP2: Engineering Prototype 2
Pretty much the same as EP1, but this time many of the ‘bugs’ that you learned about in the previous stage have been closed off, and now it’s about fine-tuning even further. You should start to be eliminating visual defects such as flow lines or flash, and colours should be spot on, though texture and polish to the tool will not yet be applied.
At this point, you should also be looking at releasing artwork for your packaging design and prototyping your retail box. The days of massive statement packaging are going if not gone.
Through consumer pull, packaging now focuses on sustainability, so work hard to strike the right balance between size and communicating your message. There are plenty of people out there coming out with great concepts, so do your research.
FEP: Final Engineering Prototype
As the name suggests, bugs in the design should be close to zero now, and the factory will have been considering jigs and fixtures to start building a small volume of goods in the factory under production conditions.
Textures and polish will be applied to the tool, as tool changes at this point should be minimal.
PP: Pilot Production
This is where the factory is ramping up to mass production and honing & fine-tuning their quality control procedures.
Typically, these parts are used as sales or marketing samples, and occasionally can be sold to the consumer (subject to approval and certification by an external testing laboratory).
MP: Mass Production
You did it! After all that hard word you are making your dream come true and producing at volume at the right cost!
If you have followed all the steps above, you have greatly reduced the risks of bad surprises appearing at this stage. This is especially important for products that are scheduled to be on the shelves in November for sale in the Christmas season.
4. Spreading the Word about your New Toy to Drum up Sales
So, you are in production and now working hard to generate a buzz online and getting listed in the right retail channels just in time for the target season.
But another cool thing about the Toy Industry, and something you might want to explore, is taking your product out on the road to the big guys in the industry. They are always looking for new ideas so it may well be worth taking your product to a Toy Fair in London, Nuremberg, or New York and simply walking them around the stands to generate interest. Even unannounced visits to big corporate stands with the like of Hasbro, Mattel, or Moose may open doors and start discussions.
The big players are open to talking to people from all backgrounds and nurture the ‘Inventor Community’, treating individuals well as they are an important supply of new ideas in an industry obsessed by the ‘new’.
Many projects have launched in certain territories and then subsequently became part of a distribution deal with one of the big players. In other cases, the idea was licensed and then adapted for specific territories. This is not unusual at all.
So that’s a walkthrough of the toy development process, starting with how to solidify your idea into a manufacturable design, using a focus group of kids to hone your design for play, prototyping, and going into mass production.
Are you developing a new toy right now? Which part of the development/introduction process has caused you trouble or left you scratching your head as to how to proceed? Let us know by leaving a comment and we’ll be happy to help advise.
Written by Andy Bartlett, a UK-based new product development expert with a deep experience in toys. Several of our clients have worked with Andy with good results.
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- Small production runs before mass production
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