The best way to predict the future is to invent it.(Alan Kay)

Learning from kids about innovation

Asking "Why?" 3 times in a row.

For those of you who don't have kids... just sit back, relax and prepare. For those of you who have kids I am sure you run into this situation very often:

Mom, Dad, WHY does this happen? (Why is the sky blue? Why are the clouds moving? Why are ants so small? Why do pretzels have holes?... you get the picture).

Now you, as a parent, are very keen in teaching your child everything that has to do with the world and are getting excited about sharing your knowledge. So you usually have a pretty good explanation for this. And then they ask... but, WHY that?... at this stage things are getting a bit more complicated but you can still give a reasonable explanation. And then they ask WHY? again... at which point you have only one alternative, which is to buy them a toy.

Asking WHY? 3 times in a row usually gets us into trouble, but it also challenges us and our understanding of the world around us... and this is how kids learn.

Kids are naturally curious about the world around them. They ask a lot of questions and they challenge the common sense. And I believe that challenging the common sense is very important because it allows us to progress, to look at things differently and ask WHY? And this is when innovation happens.

As adults I believe we find it much more difficult to innovate. WHY? Because it is harder for us the challenge the things we take for granted. WHY? Because we find it really hard to find things that we take for granted. And WHY? Because we take them for granted.

As kids we are natural innovators, but something happens between early childhood an adulthood that changes that.

Picasso once said: "All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up."

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Designing Numerosity for Kids With Kids.


I started ThoughtBox 2 years ago with a passion for education. I wanted to build tools for kids, that they understand and enjoy learning with. I was always passionate about education and was very lucky to work for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt when I finished college. This fuelled my passion and encouraged me to start my own business building educational software for kids.

Within the workplace I always remember going into meetings about new projects and the first question I asked was: Who is this for? Unfortunately most of the time the answer was: for everybody or anybody could use it. I have to say I’ve met a lot of people building projects for “everybody”. If you are one of them, STOP! You will never be able to make everyone happy. You will never be able to meet everybody's expectations. So ask yourself who will benefit the most from this project? That will be your target user/audience. And then the next question comes easy: "How can I create value for this person?" my answer is... go and ask them.

I started building Numerosity, our first product in September 2011. I had an idea and knew exactly how to execute it. But I stopped myself from just jumping in. I did a lot of research around my target audience: Kids and more specifically 7 to 12 year olds. What they like, what they don’t like, what they engage with, what type of music they listen to, what type of cartoons they like, what type of movies they are watching, what is their relationship with their parents (have they started rebelling yet?) how long do they spend playing on computers, what type of educational games are they already playing?

After I understood the market I started looking at my competition and at the best educational games on the market. I made a list of the most popular ones and started playing them. I analysed each one and wrote down the plusses and minuses I thought they had. The next step was to put the top 3 in front of kids and ask them for their opinion: What they like, what they don’t like, what they find confusing, what they find funny, which of the games appeal to them visually?

Armed with all this information I built a quick and dirty first prototype of three possible game plays and tested it with kids. I have to admit I thought they would destroy me because it didn’t look at all like a game and it had a really ugly interface. I was surprised to see how mature kids were and how they were willing to see past the look and feel and concentrate on the game play. I had 3 scenarios/levels: the first one I thought was very simple (and I have to admit that was the one I would have gone with if I didn’t test the product), a medium one and a complicated one. The results of the testing were very surprising: kids got absolutely stuck at the first level and had no idea what was going on or what they were required to do. However they enjoyed the medium level and they flue through the hard one.

Now that I had the game play I started looking at the general interaction within the game. I wanted kids to discover the rules of math by themselves by playing with the numbers and observing the results of their actions on the screen. I built a second prototype and put it in front of kids and got their feedback. I decided not to give them any hints or clues to what they had to do just to see what happens. I loved seeing the frustration on their faces when they got stuck and had no idea what to do… and then the joy and excitement when they figured it out. They couldn’t wait to share it with their friends and teachers showing them what they discovered. That’s when I knew I had a winner. I collected their feedback and incorporated it into a 3rd and final prototype. At this stage I was working with some designers as well who designed 4 versions of the background and 4 characters. Next time I went into a classroom to test the prototype I also asked kids to score the backgrounds and pick their favourite character and colour it in, give it a name and a personality.

At this point I had all the information I needed to build a game that engages kids and encourages them to progress at their own pace, learn from their mistakes and gain the satisfaction of figuring things out on their own.

Because of this approach our user retention rate in Numerosity is 42.5% after 1 month when the industry leaders average at 38% and the average session length of kids playing Numerosity is 19 minutes. We have parents emailing us with their kids’ improvements and kids emailing Skruff telling him how much they like playing Numerosity.

Some general learnings and tips:

  1. Make sure you know who your end user is: who will benefit from your software and how you will create value for them.
  2. Try and find out as much as possible about them (in a non-stalking way) and talk to them from the beginning, before you even start writing the first line of code. Understand what they struggle with; how they fix their problem now and how can you make it easier for them.
  3. It’s important to understand your competition and what your users think about their products. This will allow you to build something better or different.
  4. Build quick and dirty prototypes to test your assumptions. 
  5. When talking to your users try acting like a third party: explain to them that you didn’t build this and they won’t hurt your feelings if they say anything bad about it. Tell them what you want to achieve with the testing and explain that you are testing the product and not their ability to use it.
  6. Initially it’s enough to test your prototypes with 5-6 users. It will prevent you from wasting time and they will find 90% of the “confusions” in your product.
  7. One of the advantages of this approach is that the users that you are testing with and that are involved from the very beginning will become your product’s first evangelists.
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The best time to plant a tree


The other day a friend of mine told me this Chinese proverb and I got inspired:
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Did you ever think of starting something, working on something, quitting something and years later you haven't done anything about it? I know it happened to me a few times. I am not usually the type to look back and regret things but quite often I tend to analyse actions and conversations I've had in the near past.

A wise man once asked me: What are you waiting for? and that got me thinking for a while. We are always waiting for something: to earn more money, to learn more, to have more experience, for things to change, for summer to come because it is depressing to start something in winter, for our last campaign to work and for the customers to come... And until then we keep talking about it, we keep dreaming about it and we keep getting used to the present. This applies to personal life and it applies to business as well. As a start-up we need to be flexible and be able to change quickly. We know that our resources are limited and we can't afford to wait. And lately this is starting to become true for bigger businesses as well. A lot of the industries out there are continuously changing: health care, education, print, publishing, media... and these are some of the very few.

In the past years we have learned that content is starting to become a challenge. The way our customers are interacting with content is changing. Kids are not consuming content linearly any more. They like to dig deep into the content if they read something interesting (Wikipedia style). Teenagers and young adults don't have the patience to read a newspaper from top to bottom anymore. They are getting their bite size news from Twitter and a lot faster than they would be published in a newspaper.

So how do we react to such a change? How do we meet our customer's expectations to use technology and provide them real time content regardless of where they are or what platform they are using? I have to admit things are getting more and more complicated every day. Until recently we could find our users mainly on Facebook and Twitter. Now there are tens of social platforms that appear every day and we have to create original content for each and every one of them: Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram and many more. The options become overwhelming.

So when is the best time to start thinking digital? The answer is 5 years ago... but the second best time is now!
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Gamification in the workplace


A few weeks ago I spoke with Cliff Saran from Computer Weekly about Gamification in Education and Gamification in the workplace. Since then he published a great article: "A business case for games play at work" and I got the chance to consider the subject some more. So I decided to expand on the points I made especially when it comes to gamification in the workplace. 

A lot of people believe that gamification is about adding points and rewards to an existing activity, to encourage people to participate. This used to work with store coupons and travel miles but when it comes to gamification in the workplace it is all about the experience: challenging people to achieve their potential. 

I believe that gamification can be used to reinforce the relationship between managers and employees. Managers should learn from games and use gamification to:
  • Give Purpose: games are hard work: they give you the opportunity to win each level at a time however this requires a lot of commitment. We can learn from games and within the workplace make people feel like they have to raise to the opportunity and show them how they can grow with the company. 
  • Provide constant/immediate Feedback: games are really good at providing real time feedback. Immediate feedback in the workplace reinforces the good behaviour and makes employees immediately aware of the mistakes they make. 
  • Empower: Show your employees the impact of their work on the world. This can come as feedback from the customers or even user engagement and user testing. Show them how the products they build make your customer's life easier. 
  • Provide Meaning: Show the people you work with how they are part of a cause that is bigger than themselves, like rescuing the princes (in a game) or in our case, at ThoughtBox, collaborating with charities to provide our apps for free to schools in Africa.
When people think of incorporating games in their work environment or for engaging their customers, they usually think of competitions. I believe that externally competitions are good however, within an organisation we want people to work together in teams rather than compete for the manager's attention. From this point of view I believe rewards need to be really well thought through. We also need to make sure that rewards are not there to secure a process, unless you are in the manufacturing industry, where the production chain is crucial. Otherwise, remember that we live in a world that is continuously changing. We need to trust people to do their jobs and reward them for their results not for the process they took to get there. This is how innovation happens.

How do you implement game principles in your organisation? Do you have any other good tips and ideas? Let me now what worked or didn't work for you in the comments below.
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The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. (William Gibson)

It’s been a year since I took the time to write on this blog and I have to admit at times I felt guilty about it. I spent most of my time at work and the little time I had left, with my boyfriend who I have to admit has been very understanding.

So here I am, taking a short break in a coffee shop and thinking of the past year. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad… I have to say a lot has happened and I’ve learned so much.

Because of this I’ve decided to start writing again. I can’t promise I will keep it up but I can promise that I’ll try. So here are my first thoughts:

Being in the education business I have been talking to a lot of kids lately and I have to say that their expectations are pretty scary. Kids today are increasingly digital savvy. They grow up playing with tablets and computers, searching for information on YouTube rather than Google and engaging with more and more technology in their day-to-day lives. However at school they still learn the way we used to. Teachers and parents are trying to engage children and compete for their attention with the same multiplication tables and printed books.

Something needs to change, and fast. We need to start meeting kids where they are and raise up to their expectations. We need to learn how to compete with Wikipedia and we need to decide: how important is it for kids to remember facts and data when they have access to it every day?

Kids are not linear thinkers or linear learners anymore. They grew up with the Internet and Wikipedia where they can dig deeper into a subject that interests them by following a link rather than having to read the full article to get to the next interesting piece of information. From this point of view printed books are restrictive and don’t encourage kids to follow their interests and their passion. Because of this they can easily loose focus and become bored.

We used to live in a world where information=power. Nowadays everybody has access to information through books and Internet. Because of this the balance is changing in favour of people that know how to use that information. We need to start teaching kids where to find information rather than how to memorise it, we need to teach them how to make the difference between true and false information rather than trust and repeat everything that the teacher (the first source) tells them. We need to teach them how to question and how to use the information they gathered.

So tell me, how do you prepare your kids for the speed at which technology is advancing and information / content is being created? How do you teach them to question and make the difference between true and false information? And if you are a teacher, how do you engage kids with or without technology, how do you give them the best chance they deserve in life?
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