The Seven Deadly Sins of Electronic Toy Design Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Seven Deadly Sins of Electronic Toy Design

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A broken toy robot.

Let's start with a positive - the price of many children's toys1 is incredibly low. Even the poorest family can now usually afford to buy some toys; and these don't necessarily have to be second hand. Ironically, the cheapest toys now 'do' the most: they are electronic and plastic and have noise and sound and buttons. It's difficult not to have the nagging suspicion that this very low price is achieved as the result of exploitation both of the planet and of the assembly-line workers, adult or otherwise - but let's put that thought to one side for the moment2. What can be really annoying, however, is when you buy something that later turns out to be unusable or excessively irritating. Below are some of the most common sources of grief.

To be fair, it is rarely the case that a parent, or other purchaser, can anticipate these problems in the shop - the product is often inside a box, and you may not really want to fully test everything out in a crowded shop - it's bad enough if your kids do it. Still, there may be a chance that a toy manufacturer might read this and consider the effect their products may have on parents?

When you're faced with a visit to a toy emporium3 you should think about your general strategy - if you're a friend trying to buy something the parents would appreciate, think about the personality of their child, and try to imagine how they might play with their new toy. At a birthday party recently, one parent said that it didn't matter that someone had bought the child a drumset, as he didn't play with any toy for more than 5 minutes! Of course, if you're intending to purchase a really nasty surprise for the parents, then the sky is the limit as we will see...

Missing Volume Control

For many children's toys, the volume is usually pre-set far too high. It is rare that everyone in the same room wants to listen to one toy and nothing else. Much more likely is that child number one wants to play with the noisy toy, child number two wants to be able to read their book, while parent number one would like to listen to the radio while cooking, and parent number two would like to be able to put the baby to bed upstairs without the toy keeping the infant awake... One might suspect that the volume is a way of competing for attention in the shop, and that no consideration has been given to the impact it will have once it has been brought home.

Even worse is where there is a 'low' button, but this is still far too loud, or that there is no 'volume off' button for a game that can easily be played without sounds or music.

Toys Constructed like Fort Knox

It's already tricky enough, trying to open the packaging for most electronic toys4, without then running into an obstacle course to get at the batteries. Of course we don't want our beloved offspring testing them on their tongues, but if you need to purchase the tiniest screwdriver ever made to get at them, this might be a tad excessive. Note for manufacturers: think like that well known furniture warehouse - four tools in your tool box, and you can build every flat-pack furniture item known to man5.

We have a sit-on Thomas the Tank Engine at home that manages to compound this - when you finally get the compartment open with the miniature screwdriver, you find it takes three watch-type batteries; not only are these things expensive and difficult to get hold of, they are sold in pairs, and are very dangerous for kids if swallowed! Madness, total madness.

Default Settings can be a Nightmare

This is a particularly vicious problem, as it generally needs a lot of testing until you realise what the full scale of the problem might be. It may be virtually impossible to replicate this, prior to purchase, in the store...

My parents-in-law bought the children a small synthesiser. Perfectly reasonable thing, volume easily adjustable, type of instrument and background music can be changed, everyone happy. Except, one of the favourite activities for a toddler with any electronic toy is to turn it on and off, and pressing the button that gives you automatic noise - the background music. When turned off, this thing resets the volume to loud, the instrument to plinky plonky piano, and the background music to the 'Ode to Joy', played on a Wurlitzer. A few hours of this would turn even the most fanatical Europhile into Bill Cash6, and so another toy migrates to the cellar. I genuinely don't know what they were thinking when they set it up like this.

The Toy that Will Not Leave the Child Alone

This is a deliberate feature, and therefore all the more dastardly. Sadly, it is becoming very common. Toy manufacturers try to make the toy 'sticky'7 so that the child will not put it down, but what in fact usually happens, given a small person's attention span, is the following: play with toy A, get bored, pick up toy B, get called back to toy A, get bored again, start toy C, and so on, until the parent intervenes and forcibly quietens toy A. This sometimes requires removing the battery, which is unforgivable really. Equally bad is where the toy goes silent when left alone, but later restarts unexpectedly. So, you're tiptoeing out of a darkened room having finally put to sleep a restless child, and you stub your toe on a plastic ball - you bite your lip to stifle a curse, but the toy itself thinks you want to play and starts a jolly tune at about 100 decibels. Cue - woken up and irritable child, and toy dropped into toilet until cessation of noise.

My children have got a sort of animated map of the world, with animals on it. You can press various buttons, and it tells you things about the animal, asks you questions and so on. Quite a good toy, fundamentally. But what is completely insane is the sort of artificial intelligence you've given it. Imagine that you are a toddler. Your use of this toy consists of press a button, hear the name or listen to the noise it makes. Lion roars - RRRAAGH! So far, totally age appropriate. But what happens when you leave it for more than a minute? You hear a noise - 'Welcome to the quiz!' And then it asks a question - 'Where does the beaver live?' You haven't got the foggiest. So you ignore it, or press any old button - it says to you 'Too slow ocelot!' and then calls back, again and again. Result, irritated parent, frustrated toddler, useless noise.

A variant on this, as mentioned above, is the toy that so wants to be played with that even the faintest inkling of a human presence is enough to have it raring to go, playing its little musical heart out, flashing all the lights it has available... at night, at the bottom of the toy box! Another researcher gives some examples:

I made the mistake one year of buying K a Shrek Donkey. We still have it. The slightest thing can set it off (a gentle breeze, a fly landing on it) and all you can hear is Eddie Murphy's voice. If we're in bed it gets kicked down the stairs and if we're downstairs it gets kicked upstairs. We've had it three years and I still don't know where the battery compartment is and suspect that I'd have to take it apart to get to them any way. The number of toys that he's had that just start off on their own is just daft. We even have a train that was really rather cool when he was under two. It lives under the stairs now, playing 'Dinah Won't You Blow Your Horn' to a captive audience of vacuum cleaner and sundry 'bits' - they haven't complained so far.

Substandard Graphics and Sound Card

There is one infamous electronic toy maker that is especially guilty of this. You know who you are. This particular company makes 'children's computers'...

My eldest son has one of these 'computers'. The user friendliness is quite good, to be honest. He can spend 30 minutes on it at a time. But the graphics - to say that they could have been written on a BBC Acorn is an underestimate. Blocky, cheap, unclear, no colour. And the sound - tinny electronic nastiness. And there is no excuse - there is plenty of processing power in these things, and basic sound and graphics components are not expensive. How hard can it be to make a decent-sized screen, some proper graphics and to use a ten-year-old sound card?

The Toy that Breaks on First Use

You'd like to think this is an urban myth, but unfortunately it still seems to be quite common. You don't need to be a brain surgeon to see that any toy with antenna that can be twisted off, or that has small pieces that are fundamental to its use, is going to have a short lifespan. True, you shouldn't be able to break off a dangerous part, toy legislation has at least safeguarded children from this, but the average toddler can still trash a few Christmas presents before the turkey has got to the sandwiches. A variation of this is the 10-minute battery duration, but thankfully this is getting less common. And anyway, parents might never really know exactly how long they do want the batteries to last. One researcher had a friend with a cunning solution to this problem:

I knew someone who kept every battery they'd ever had, in a box, and when the Christmas toys fell silent he would give the kids the 'battery box' to find replacement batteries. They would spend maybe an hour, sorting through and testing batteries in the toy, until they found the one set of batteries that had enough power in them to make the thing work for a bit longer. He did, occasionally, put a kosher set in the 'battery box' to give the kids a fighting chance.

Toy 'Repeats' Way Beyond Parental Tolerance Level

There is really no excuse for this. As above, all of these toys have got more computing power than the Apollo lander. It's just a question of writing a bit more content. It's true that children like repetition, but they live with adults, who have a lower tolerance threshold. Here for once, are some good practice examples:

The Bob the Builder phone we have at home has 60 different combinations, including 10 songs. Even I can live with 30 minutes cycling through that, especially as there is a memory game and one or two other options.

But this is the exception, most electronic toys have maybe four or five options on them, and the child will then press them in turn for a day or a week, until the toy is 'accidentally' dropped in the bath, or the batteries finally give up the ghost, and you've conveniently 'lost' the tiny screwdriver needed to replace them anyway.

By Way of Conclusion

So, what can we do? We parents may like old-fashioned wooden jigsaws, marbles, books or toys that are somehow educational or can be played in the fresh air, but the lure of flashing lights and bright colours, buttons to press and loud sounds are irrestible to the toddler psyche8. Perhaps rather than a total exclusion, rationing is the way forward - let them pick one electronic toy for their birthday or Christmas, and the rest should be quieter? You should also pursue ruthless education of grandparents and friends alike - if they give your child something outrageously noisy, hide it safely until their next visit and then give it back to the child. The message should come through loud and clear.

Another strategy is to buy at a car boot sale - that way you can ask the vendor about the toy, and test if they seem evasive.

Finally, you can always revert to precepts from earlier times: 'Out into the garden with you, the dear fruit of my loins, and don't come back until I call you for tea!'

1Although there are some notable exceptions.2Although it is particularly unpleasant to think that one child spends their time working in a sweatshop, so that yours can have a cheap toy.3Christmas comes round far too frequently.4In theory, this is for good safety reasons.5Probably.6A conservative MP, well known for his dislike of the European project.7No, not that sort of sticky, that is up to the child itself.8And not just toddlers either - people who play with their mobile phones all the time, for example.

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