All around me, 3-year-olds run and chatter as they fumble with toy trains and cars and dress up in clothes scattered around the room. Walls are decorated with a mural of a tree, and in one corner stands a climb-on treehouse structure. In the center of the room, at a circular table surrounded by kid-sized chairs, Cindy Lynn-Garbe, a teacher by training, encourages a tyke to try out a new learning tool.
Appearances to the contrary, this isn't a school or day-care center—at least not in the classic sense. This is Fisher-Price Play Lab, in the heart of the company's headquarters, on the outskirts of Buffalo, N.Y. Here, local children get first crack at the toys Fisher-Price will eventually sell throughout the world. And while it may be fun and games for the kids, the testing that goes on here plays a serious, critical role in the development of the products that helped Fisher-Price, acquired by Mattel (MAT) in 1993, rake in $2.02 billion in sales last year.
"Every toy we have ever made" passes through a lab like this, says Dana Marciniak, associate manager of brand marketing and public relations. By the time a toy has made it to this stage, it's pretty much a done deal. So a bad reception here won't torpedo a toy. But it can certainly result in crucial design changes. It was during testing of the now newly released Kid-Tough Digital Camera that toy designers discovered some kids had trouble shutting one eye to look through the view finder. So the final version now includes a kid-friendly two-eye viewer.
HIGH-TECH THREAT. Big toy companies like Mattel are under growing pressure from makers of consumer electronics, as more children opt for cell phones, digital music players, and time on the Internet. So I have made the trek to East Aurora, N.Y. (about 25 minutes southeast of Buffalo), for a close-up view of how one big toymaker is coping with the threat. In particular, I wanted to know how Fisher-Price is tinkering to make toys more high-tech.
On arrival, I am informed that camera phones and digital cameras are not allowed, and I am asked to sign an agreement that I won't disclose any trade secrets I may observe during my visit to Fisher-Price headquarters, home of the Little People, Rescue Heroes, and Power Wheels brands.
I get the lowdown from David Cignako, vice-president of product design. Making a tech toy work for kids isn't like designing one for adults, he explains. While adult tech products come chockablock with new features, toys for kids are stripped down to "minimize the features," making them easier to use, he says. Many of these kids barely read, much less care about camera megapixels. "Kids love instant gratification," he says. That's one reason Fisher-Price included the liquid-crystal-display screen on the back of its Kid-Tough camera. Another item in that same line is the Kid-Tough FP3 Player, something of an iPod for the toddler set.
CHILDHOOD FLASHBACK. After I'm oriented, I am escorted to the Play Lab. As you might expect, Fisher-Price's headquarters is brimming with toys, starting with the reception area. The company has an open work environment, with even top executives working in cubicles—the top shelves of which are a sea of toys. Walking along the corridors is a flashback to childhood. Glass cabinets display the gamut of Fisher-Price toys, from Snap-Lock Beads, to the iconic Rack-a-Stack (53 million of them were made!) to the old-school Little People toy sets that in my view will always be superior to the generation now on the market.
When we enter the lab, the kids barely notice. Who can blame them? Besides the train set and fireman and princess costumes, there's several dollhouses and newer products waiting to be tested. And getting a slot in the twice weekly two-hour sessions is as coveted as placement in a top-tier Manhattan preschool. The waiting list for the eight-week session is so long that Fisher-Price never has to advertise for toy testers and, says Kathleen Kremer, the company's child research manager, many "parents put their kids on the waiting list from birth." The Weinscreider family, who lives down the street from headquarters, has had at least three generations of testers. About 4,000 children a year participate in some form of on-site testing. The Play Lab is for 3-year-olds only.
Today, there are five children, three boys and two girls. Lynn-Garbe says the group is pretty outgoing, and so we're allowed to observe the toy tests in the same room. Other times, observers watch from behind one-way mirrored walls. Today, the kids are getting their first exposure to Quizard the Learning Wizard, due to be released in the next few months. It's a high-tech take on 21 Questions, with electronic cards featuring pictures of different types of animals. The wizard describes an animal (say, the one that lives in water) and asks the child to pick the correct card and place it in a certain slot.
TOY HOMEWORK. At the outset, Lynn-Garbe's gentle encouragement to give the toy a try isn't meeting with much success. "No," says one boy, before resuming his play vacuuming. Ditto for one of the girls, who rebuffs the invitation even more quickly as she puts on a costume gown. The former teacher finally gets one of the boys to come over and check out the new toy.
It's Lynn-Garbe's responsibility to show the kids how to use the toy, answer any questions they may have, and observe what the children do. Sometimes designers or researchers are in the Play Lab with the kids, and sometimes they're behind the mirror taking notes. At times Lynn-Garbe videotapes the kids and makes observations later. The boy quickly figures out how to use the inquisitive wizard. When he's asked to find the animal with sharp teeth, the boy picks a card with a shark and plugs it into Quizard. The wizard's crystal ball and wand light up, and the child smiles.
The Play Lab is just one of the ways Fisher-Price tests its toys. The company also meets with parents in focus group-like settings and sometimes conducts in-home testing where a toy is sent home for a three-week period and parents are asked to fill out a survey. In other cases, a researcher will go to a home and observe how the toy is used in everyday life. Then there are settings where a child works one-on-one with a researcher and is observed through a small two-way mirror. The parents are given $25 an hour for the parent talk sessions and set amounts for the in-home testing and reality research. Kids who do one-on-one tests either get a new toy (from a goodie closet with Fisher-Price and Mattel toys) or opt for "fun-bucks" they can spend at the on-site company store.
Well-deserved compensation for an honest couple of hours of serious fun. Even as the testing comes to a close, the reception area is still abuzz. A mom is returning an easel her family has been trying out, a dad is at the receptionist's desk getting an explanation on how to fill out a survey. Another parent is headed for the exits, holding the hand of her tester tyke, who asks: "Are we coming back tomorrow?"