Tiggly / Kidtellect Inc.

What can others learn from the successes and failures of how you crafted your product experience for children?: 
We’ve faced many design challenges in bringing together digital and physical play. We tended to group these issues into three categories: usability—can children do what we wanted them to do; game play—how do children play with the toy and the app, what are their thought processes while they play, and how do they perceive the challenges/rewards/failures of the game; and navigation, exploration, and learning—can children navigate through different environments/levels the way we thought they would, does the experience attend to children’s cognitive challenges, and does it help them explore new content and progress through their learning path?
 
Usability: The most basic questions we asked ourselves were: Can children connect the real and virtual worlds in their mind? Do children find it natural to place physical toys on the tablet, and can they connect what goes on the screen with what they do with their toy in hand? The answer was strikingly simple: Yes, without a doubt. We playtested with more than 100 two- to five-year olds, and we observed that children simply perceive the iPad as a surface area they can play on—in that way it seems that there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world in toddlers' mind.
 
The next challenge was to design the toys in a way that children can easily grab and place on the screen without accidentally touching the tablet with their fingers. All other toys for tablets are designed in a way that requires the user to hold onto a specific part of the toy (the windows of Disney’s toy car for example) so that the touchscreen can detect it. We found this a frustrating experience for toddlers as it required them to hold the toy in a fixed way rather than giving them freedom in their play experience. We designed the toy so it bevels on the sides around the toy which is a natural holding area for fingers. Tiggly Shapes are crafted in a way that children naturally grab and hold onto them the way we intended them to do without directly asking them or restricting their interaction. 
 
We also used a new technology (five patents pending) for the shape detection on the screen. All other toys use a black carbon strip (or add carbon on the surface of the toy), which transfers the charge from finger to the screen for the toy to be detected. The carbon strip requires the child to grab the toy only on the strip for it to be detected, and adding the carbon on the surface of the toy will make the colors very dull. We wanted to make sure that the toys have bright and vibrant colors, that they are soft to the touch, and make them safe for toddlers to chew on. To that end, Tiggly Shapes have small capacitive touch points that are recognized by the tablet screen just like fingers are. The touch points are made of conductive silicone and get their capacitance by a piece of metal inside each shape. That’s the secret to designing colorful and soft toys that toddlers love to touch and can safely chew on.
 
Game play: An additional design challenge was to merge the real and virtual worlds as natural and straightforward as possible. The following image shows various prototypes we had just for the star shape.
 
We reviewed classic star shape blocks and settled on a cutout star shape toy. The hollow design enables the shapes to become part of the digital sandbox by letting the child see the screen even when their toy is on the tablet. Through playtesting with children, we realized that the hollow middle of the toy is even intriguing to children when they play with the toys off screen. Almost every two year old we interviewed experimented with the shapes, trying to fit their hand and their feet inside them. Children at this age are starting to learn about their own body and are very curious about the space around themselves and the limitations of their body in that space. Have you seen a child trying to hide in a small box? Or trying to sit on a tiny chair? To our surprise, the cutout center of all the Tiggly Shapes invites the same curiosity—will my hand fit in that hole? 
 
Designing the apps also had its unique design challenges. We needed to find a balance between a child’s interaction with the shapes and their fingers on the screen. For example, you may design a game that asks the child to place the circle on screen to make a bear and then feed the bear by dragging food with her finger on the screen. Although this may seem like simple gameplay, we realized children find it confusing to keep switching between toys and their fingers. Therefore, we designed the Tiggly Safari app so that children can play the entire game with only their shapes, obviating the need to do anything on screen with their fingers.
 
Navigation, exploration, and learning: In order to keep children engaged in the game and help them advance their spatial reasoning and improve their motor skills, we designed different levels in the game based on our understanding of children's development. In the first level of the game, each animal is made with only one shape and every two consecutive animals are made with a specific shape. To illustrate: A child makes two animals with the triangle, then another two with the square, and so on and so forth. In the next level, animals are made with a combination of shapes, challenging children to search and switch between the shapes. The prompts then appear in random orientations on the screen, inviting children to rotate their shapes while placing them on screen and lead them to recognize shapes in various orientations. In the ocean setting, the prompts start moving on the screen and now the child needs to catch the moving prompts with their shape. As the levels progress, the prompts speed up, challenging children to be faster in their shape recognition and their hand and eye coordination. It is important to highlight the point that all these challenges are designed based on what research tells us about children’s cognitive abilities, and that the game challenges are not superficial but deliberately add to the child’s learning experience.
 
Please describe any research, data, and other information about the needs of your young users that was used in the design of your product and how it significantly affected the thought process and final outcome.: 

At Tiggly, we design toys that interact with learning apps because we believe there is a powerful learning opportunity in the combination of physical and digital play. Our debut product, Tiggly Shapes, is a set of four basic geometric shapes that are designed to help children learn about their shapes and develop their fine motor skills while interacting with our learning apps such as Tiggly Safari. Each of the apps has specific learning objectives. Tiggly Safari is designed to help children learn to recognize 2D shapes in different orientations, develop their hand and eye coordination, learn about animals and their names, and inspire their imagination by combining basic shapes to create complex images of animals.

The importance of physical play

Seventy years of research on children’s development -- from 20th century education and psychology revolutionaries like Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget to today’s cognitive scientists -- tells us that physical play is extremely important for children’s development. What’s obvious is that playing with objects aids the development of fine motor skills and improves hand-eye coordination. What’s less obvious is that physical play also helps cognition and memory.

Holding an object in hand stabilizes a child’s head and focuses his attention while he visually and manually explores the object. Have you ever noticed that a 2-year-old constantly looks all around, moving his head in all directions? But as soon as he’s engaged with a toy, all his attention is focused on that toy. Attention to objects is an important step in developing language skills, because when children focus on something, there is a better chance for them to learn its name and develop their language skills. But it’s not just about learning names — it’s about learning a whole lot about the world. Attending to objects, visually and manually exploring them, acting on them, and inspecting the results of actions are the basis of all learning.

What’s important in learning is to engage all our senses. Take a circle as an example. When a child looks at a circle on a screen, she can only see the shape. But when she grabs and holds a circular toy, she also touches and feels the roundness of it. She notices that she can roll her round toy but not her triangular one. She discovers that the circle looks the same when she spins it, but her triangle looks different as she rotates it. Manual interaction with physical blocks helps her understand that not only do a circle and triangle look different, but they also have different properties and can be manipulated in different ways. It’s an early “aha moment”: “So that’s why wheels are round and not triangular!”  

The importance of digital play

As great as blocks are, they can never speak to children. Children can play with a block for hours and hours, explore it in all directions, and manipulate it in many ways, but they may never know the name of its shape. It may take even longer for them to realize if they put together two triangles they can make a square, or that they can draw a cow with two squares! That’s where Tiggly’s educator-designed apps come in.

In our digital world, the sky is the only limit for imagination. Guided by a narrator, a child can stamp stars and circles under the ocean to discover a seahorse or a dolphin. She can put together a circle and two squares to draw a friendly elephant in the jungle. The triangle on the screen may greet her with “I’m a triangle!” in eight languages.

Well-designed apps also support learning and engagement by providing proper feedback and scaffolding exactly when the child needs them. Another advantage of digital software is that it can become more and more challenging as the child progresses, keeping the child highly engaged and in a state of “flow.”

And that’s why we think there is an extraordinary educational opportunity at the intersection of physical and digital play. Children get all the benefits of interacting with real objects while their imagination is stimulated in a digital context. They receive appropriate guidance in their learning and are given new challenges as their understanding advances. In this way, Tiggly is reimagining play— by bridging the gap between established educational standards and the new digital frontier.

Tiggly Shapes interacting with Tiggly Safari app

Tiggly Shapes, named as one of 14 toys that make children smarter by TIME magazine, is the first realization of our vision.

Tiggly Shapes is a set of 4 elegantly designed geometric shapes (square, circle, triangle, star) that are designed to interact with learning apps on tablets, such as Tiggly Safari. Tiggly Shapes are made out of high-quality, nontoxic materials and are well-designed to suit toddlers: visually appealing, soft to the touch, and a weight that’s just right. Soft silicone sensors on the bottom of the shapes ensure they won’t scratch the tablet screen.

Tiggly Safari is designed to capture the sense of wonder that the animal kingdom holds for children. Inspired by the artwork of Charley Harper and Ed Emberley, we created a farm, a jungle, and an ocean full of animals – all made from simple shapes put together by children in the world of Tiggly!

In Tiggly Safari, children use Tiggly Shapes to construct a series of fun and friendly animals on the farm, in the jungle, and under the ocean. We designed each level in the game based on what we know about children’s spatial cognition development. In the first level, children simply match shapes with what they see on the screen and create simple animals out of single shapes. As the levels progress, children are challenged to create increasingly complex animals with combinations of shapes. They learn to recognize and match basic shapes in various orientations and practice their hand-eye coordination by catching moving objects— all while being enthralled by the cute animals of their creation.

We are big believers in parental involvement with their children’s play and education. In the parent section of the app, we provide many tips and suggested activities for parents to help enhance their children’s learning both inside and outside of the app. The app’s interface is designed to accommodate both parents and young children. When children open the app, all they need to do is to tap on the play button and they have entered the game. All the other sliders and options are hidden behind the parental gate (which requires a specific gesture to enter), ensuring that children do not accidentally find themselves in the parts of the app that are designed for adults.

Tiggly Safari comes in eight languages: English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Russian. We want to make it possible for children around the globe to enjoy playing the app in their native language, and also begin to learn new languages.

 
Please share any quantitative, qualitative, and/or anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of your designs for children and/or of the impact your product has on its users.: 

We have playtested Tiggly Shapes with more than 100 two- to five-year-old children. Throughout these sessions we have learned that children really enjoy playing with the shapes and that they keep coming back to the game. We have also learned that Tiggly Shapes are great for sharing and co-play on the iPad. In many sessions we have two children play together, each holding two of the shapes and waiting for their turn to place their shapes on the screen. At Tiggly, we highly value the benefits of co-play for children's cognitive and social development and we are happy that our products are easy to share and play in groups. 

Another finding was that children enjoy guessing what animal they are making by listening to the animal’s sounds and by trying to imagine the animal from the incomplete combination of the shapes. Also, children often repeat the names of shapes and animals after the narrator, which is great for learning new vocabulary words. The narrator in the app is Jennifer Barnhart, a featured performer in the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q. Children warmly respond to her playful, expressive tone and they like to repeat after her. We have even playtested the app with children who rarely speak but even they will repeat her narration. Finally, by playing the app frequently, children get better and better in recognizing and matching their shapes; they tend to make fewer mistakes and also get faster in their recognition.

 

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