East Aurora is a small country town, one of those quiet streets, full of little houses, almost without commerce and without movement. It is in the state of New York, United States. I would probably never have gone there if one Fisher and one Price had not founded a toy factory in the 1930s.
Well, Fisher-Price is over 80 years old and continues where she started, even after being bought by Mattel, a company of the famous Barbies and Hot Wheels, located in Los Angeles, far away.
The current office, sometimes larger than the one that was founded in the last century, is where the ideas for the new toys come up, where researches are carried out with mothers and children, where the prototypes and the tests are done with the products. The factory, contrary to the title of this matter, does not stay there.
The products you find in toy stores go through a looongo process up there. From the initial idea to getting ready in the store and in your hands, it takes at least a year. To discover all these steps, I went there to see closely how the toys are developed. Are you curious?
It all starts with watching infants and toddlers play – within the Fisher-Price has a series of rooms full of toys, which they call Play Lab. While two monitors are inside the room with the children, other people, including the developers of the Toys, they may stand outside observing their behavior. This analysis is one of the tools of product designers to get new ideas. After all, what kind of toys do they like best? What colors and functions catch your eye? What is the proper height? How to make toys more intuitive? Sometimes the prototypes are taken to be tested in the Play Lab.
I was able to enter the room and accompany a group of 3 to 4 year olds playing. Most of the little ones who go to space are this age. Each group consists of three boys and three girls who go there twice a week for eight weeks. Then another group begins.
Although this space is an observation lab, of course the kids love it! They spend two hours playing freely, they can make drawings, dress up, listen to stories and use any of the space toys.
Babies and children of other ages are called for specific goals. In total, about 4,000 children participate in the program each year.
Other important tools for the development of toys are panels and interviews with mothers. A group of mothers meet once a week for informal conversation and to give opinions on the products presented. The meetings take place in rooms with mirrored glass windows, so that people on the outside can watch what happens inside the room without interfering in the meeting.
Then, with this information in hand, they begin to populate product ideas. First a drawing is made, then a model. Usually these first models are not perfect, but useful for size, whether it’s too high or too low, whether it’s functional and intuitive, and then making improvements. This is where the engineer comes into action. It takes into account aesthetics, function, ergonomics, cost and packaging – yes, because the toy has to fit in the packaging, and it must have a suitable size to be displayed in the stores. Sometimes you have to split the object into some separate pieces, and this needs to be thought of here, early in development. There are many details! There, I discovered that just to get to the ideal texture of the buttons on a toy phone, at least four different versions – more or less deep, more or less thick lines, protruding lines and so on – were made.
Before final manufacturing, tests are done with the children in their own homes. I went to visit an East Aurora family who was testing a baby rocking chair. Jack was the baby in question, 6 months old, and he was very calm in his temporary toy. His mother, Terry, has been on the show for a year, starting with her eldest son, Gavin, two and a half years old. In addition to testing the toys, the family receives visits from company officials who will observe their behavior. This observation has already yielded good discoveries. The tone of voice that mothers use when talking to their babies to teach things, for example, has helped to develop the Laugh And Learn line, which teaches through play.
Unfortunately, no matter how much the mother and child love the tested toy, they can not keep it. As it is not yet the final product and has no approval, this toy needs to be thrown away. The good news is that the town has its own Fisher-Price store, where all toys are sold at a discount.
The ready model then passes the quality tests. There is a “workshop” inside the office full of crazy equipment that pulls, stretches, weighs, warms toys – and everything else you can imagine. In addition to the resistance, stability, tension, etc., macrobiological tests are done to verify the quality of the products even in contact with insects.
In another area of the office, was set up a scenario of a house, with right room, kitchen and bathroom. There, different floors, carpets and textures serve to verify the action of a product in the environment very similar to that of a house.
After all these steps, the marketing process begins to sell the toys. And it is also in the same office also that are set the scenarios for catalogs, packaging and advertisements.
After two days, I already felt part of that production of toys, like the mothers of the program. Unfortunately the tour is not open to the public, it is as if I had won the Golden Invitation inside a Wonka chocolate bar.