CHI Nederland

Kathleen Alfano



Interview with Kathleen Alfano by Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer (


Babies are an extreme user group. Babies cannot speak properly, they cannot read task-instructions and they always bring their parents to the research facilities. The evaluation of the user experience of the very young is a challenge. Not for Kathleen Alfano, director of research for Fisher Price (FP). She tests and evaluates the latest designs for the youngsters. Kathleen Alfano visited the Netherlands this February and shared some insights on the user experience research conducted at the Fisher Price facilities in East Aurora (NY, USA).


Hi Kathleen, since how long do you work for FP?

I started in March of 1979.  So, I have been working at Fisher-Price for 30 years, and all of those years have been in the Child Research Department, conducting toy and play research with young children.  


What is your drive to work for and with the very young?

One of the driving forces for me to work with the young children is their energy and enthusiasm and curiosity, they are always looking for new things to explore and discover, and I find that exciting and motivating.  They keep us on our task to design toys and products that they can use and like to use.  And, finding new ways to do that causes us to design innovative toys and platform.  Although I’ve been working with young children for a long time, I continue to learn new things regarding how they think, play and interact.  And, having had the opportunity to observe and play with young children in many countries around the world, I have gained a global perspective about young children.


If we think of toys using digital technology for babies, infants and toddlers, what kind of toys are we talking about?

Fisher Price offers a large variety of intelligent toys. For the babies we have the heartbeat bouncers, a bouncer that simulates the mother’s heartbeat with vibrations in the seat. When they are a few months old, there are musical activity-keys. After six months of age, we have a dance mat for babies. The mat detects whether the baby sits or stands or even dances and responds to that with the music it plays. The good old FP-phone has had an update to resemble modern phones better, both in appearance and in interaction.


Now the user group you aim at (<5) is rather young. Aren’t they too young to be exposed to digital technology? Doesn’t it influence their view of the world too much?

No, I do not think they are too young to be exposed to digital media. Nearly a century ago, a TV was seen as a dangerous and harmful device.  Currently the TV is embraced as a quick and easily available babysitter, often leaving children passive and unchallenged for longer periods of time; talking about what could be a bad influence! Some children’s TV shows encourage interactive behavior by inviting  the children to respond to the character or action on screen, but many don’t.  Children will inevitably be exposed to digital technology from an early age on. They might as well be exposed to digital technology in ways that challenge them to learn, to play and to engage in interactions that prepare them for the digital media they are to confront when they are older.


Nevertheless, it does seem overdone, to overload children with buttons and beeps at a young age.

Here at FP, we aim for quality in the interaction with our toys, not for quantity.  We carefully consider number, location and action for each button. For each theme and each line of products we consider our concepts. I also see that some of our competitors do not always make the same effort. They imitate and copy by the wrong interpretation of our toys.  A quality user experience lies in subtle details. For example, we do not make use of a digitally-synthesized voice in our designs for babies and young children. We digitize real voices as children respond better to real voices than to artificially synthesized speech samples.


How do you evaluate your digital toys, to avoid that overload? How do you keep both parents and children happy?

Basically we do three types of user research. First there is the user-evaluation. We invite parents to take their babies to our research lab in East Aurora, New York. We let the baby play in a natural setting, either with one of the parents, alone or with one of our researchers. We monitor (1) what the babies pay attention to, (2) how long they pay attention to it and (3) which toys they select when we offer them a few options to play with. But we have more stakeholders, the parents are very important to us. The second type of user-research we do is expert reviews of our toys with the parents. Naturally they do not have the time to observe the children in the lab, so they get to observe their children playing with the toys at home. Finally, to understand what is going on at home, we observe there too. We send products into homes for our field research, which takes place at 30 different homes for each product, during 2 or 3 weeks (24/7) and is always concluded with a survey.


By using these three types of research we get the picture of how are toys will be received by both parents and children, and how playing with our toys develops in the first three weeks of usage. Toys that are overloaded with the wrong features will inevitably fail by one of the UX-research techniques.


FP invests a lot of resources in developing toys. But do children actually need toys? All these well-designed objects have not always existed, and before the digital age, or the industrial revolution children could play with any object. Why do we need FP-toys?

You don’t. Children do not need toys. They need objects that allow them to learn about the world. They learn using: (1) exploration, (2) repetition, (3) mastery and (4) engagement. Through engagement children become intrinsically motivated and will reach meaningful learning. FP uses these 4 principles to design their toys, objects that facilitate meaningful learning experiences.

Note that these are universal principles. By designing for these four principles, FP designs for a culturally independent user experience. For each child, in each country the user goals are the same: play, learn and grow. Naturally, we do deal with cultural localization issues; in addition to localizing the language, culturally relevant songs and rhymes are researched for inclusion to make sure the user experience is enhanced by meaningful personal enjoyment and continued engagement.


Finally, what is FP’s next step to create a new user experience for our young ones?

Currently we look for design principles discovered through scientific brain research. For example our rainforest waterfall projector is a result of that. The soothing effect of the sounds and lights are inspired by the latest insights in brain research, and it works!