It’s all too easy to get serious about work. We have meetings, deadlines,  goals, profits, and more to consider. How can we maintain the fun while we do the work of making great products? In this talk, Melissa Pickering, Senior Director of Product Management at Willow Innovations and former LEGO Education Head of Product, joins us to talk about focusing on play within your product.

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On the three components that define focusing on play

This topic might be difficult to define, another “I know it when I see it” sort of thing. For Melissa’s work, though, she’s found it useful to create a structure that includes the activity being joyful, intrinsically motivating, and requiring active engagement. “It goes without saying that it should be joyful,” she noted.

Focusing on play involves intrinsic motivation, which is the direct opposite of many popular activities, though. “What we see a lot of times are experiences that we have today are actually more extrinsic motivation, where we have gamified experiences where we’re trying to achieve as many lives as possible, or we’re trying to achieve as many points in a game as possible. 

We’re motivated by some sort of arbitrary goal out there, and that can drive addictive behavior, I think that we’re all familiar with. And I think from a kid’s perspective, it’s very important to be mindful of that type of behavior, just because they are still developing from an intrinsic perspective. You can think of times when you’re naturally curious in an activity and it comes from within, in terms of how you’re engaged in the activity. 

Active engagement—the opposite would be passive engagement. So watching show after show and on Netflix, or YouTube, where from an active perspective you would be hands-on or within a screen actually creating something.”

On designing for kids 

In many ways it’s the same as any other product, but is there more responsibility required?

“The overarching principle is thinking about the emotions that we evoke in the product development process. And one of the most impressionable books that I’ve read is called “The Power of Moments.” It brings to light that idea that we have memories of emotional experiences, whether they’re high or low. And products tend to evoke those emotional experiences. So with product design and development, I like to think of the emotional journey or curve that we’re bringing people on.

On staying grounded in your core mission

“Shiny-object syndrome” can affect any of us at any time, but it’s usually detrimental to getting products done and then iterating. Melissa said kids in user tests are a great asset in staying on track

“It is a challenge because I think every company can succumb to that pressure. And Lego is no different. We have user tests all the time, focusing on the player experience. I guess we’re lucky that kids won’t hold back. You can oftentimes pretty quickly tell in a user test if you’re forcing in an AR, for example, technology, and too many things and they’re missing the play. They just don’t want to play with your product and they’re asking, ‘When is the test done?’

On new directions that should be top of mind

Besides focusing on play, product leaders consider other crucial aspects of the user experience. 

“It’s being thoughtful about the product design, but more from building up the resilience and confidence for our kids. Going through what we’ve been through the last year and a half, with a pandemic, I think resilience is something that is truly something we need to focus on. 

Making sure that we build up kids to have the tools to feel confident and bringing their ideas and inventions to life. And then at the same time, being resilient enough when things don’t work or don’t go their way, or there are challenges. Those are lifelong skills that we all could have.”

About the speaker
Melissa Pickering Willow Innovations, Senior Director of Product Management Member