Opinion: Companies should learn testing lessons from toys

If you are not familiar with it, the Canadian Toy Testing Council is a 55-year-old non-profit that enlists the volunteer aid of families to subject toys to the most rigorous testing possible – at the hands of kids.

By Leo Valiquette

The council’s philosophy is to evaluate each toy from a child’s perspective and gain their input. Each toy is evaluated based on its design, function, safety, durability, battery consumption and play value.

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My wife and her sisters were toy testers for many years. We were given toys based on the kids’ genders and ages, they would play with the toy for several weeks and the parents would submit written evaluations.

Each year, these efforts by the various testing families are distilled into a report, just in time for the holiday shopping season, with the council’s recommendations for the best toys.

This process falls into the category of exploratory qualitative research, something of which a client of ours, local company Macadamian, is a tireless proponent.

Macadamian is a full-service software and design firm that works with small, mid-sized and global enterprises. Whenever a client walks in the door with a need, the process to clarify and serve that need is very similar to a strategic marketing exercise – what is the intended purpose of the technology to be developed, who will use it and why, what will incent them to use it, what will they find difficult or challenging about it and how can this be addressed through the design.

It’s a process called “user experience-centred design” and it relies heavily on exploratory qualitative research. This is an immersive and first-hand approach to seeing the world through the eyes of that target user, by means of contextual interviews, observation and diary studies that track their engagement with comparable technology over weeks or months.

In other words, an effective design cannot be achieved in a vacuum. The intended end user must drive the design process.

But too often, toys, apps and marketing strategies are developed without input. The brain trust of an organization lock themselves away in a boardroom and design them based on their assumptions about their target audiences, biased by what the engineering and design team has already done, or wants to do, because it’s what they find easy to do without having to stretch too far beyond their comfort zones.

The toy testing council may not be a toy-maker, but its process for identifying quality products from among the hordes of substandard landfill toys each year is one that any sort of commercial business bringing products or services to market should take to heart. This is the essence of strategic marketing – engaging your marketplace to truly understand what they want, what they will find valuable and useful and what will incent them to choose one product or service over another.

If your design and development process isn’t being driven by this kind of intelligence, your business is burning time and money. It’s the difference between a calculated risk and a foolish one.

Consider it from your own perspective as a consumer. Between Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day, how many times were you comparison shopping, especially if you are into the big digital toys – the smartphones, the tablets, the flatscreens, the laptops? In this instance, a “bargain” isn’t just about price. It’s about the best combination of desired features and functionality for the money. What features and functionality are important to you? What price are you willing to pay? What are you willing to live without, or not, that could make or break a purchase decision?

Think like a consumer. Take a look at those various reports that come out this time of year, rating best-in-class products in various categories, and consider what factors separate the good from the mediocre. If there was a consumer report for your market, how would your product or service stack up against its competitors? Why?

If you engage in this informal exercise over the next several weeks, you may end up with an agenda for your first marketing strategy meeting of the new year, along with a few resolutions to follow through on.

Leo Valiquette is a freelance writer based in Ottawa and an associate with marketing consultancy Francis Moran & Associates. This column originally appeared on the Francis Moran & Associates blog.

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