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I have been conducting qualitative focus groups (& other qualitative methodologies) with kids since 1998. In that time, I estimate I have conducted in the region of 1300 focus groups with kids & parents. Out of those 1300 research groups, nearly all delivered some kind of critically important finding for the toy or games company. Over time I have observed that the helpful & usable findings which recur most often fall into these 3 areas:


Most toy designers are in their twenties or thirties, which means that toys are designed by people who have not been children for a long time. They can often forget about how children see the world, about their (lower) dexterity and motor skills and about the size of children at different ages. One of the first products I tested in the toy business was a toy with a 4+ target age. The product had never been playtested with kids, so the brand team were very interested to see what the research feedback was. I discovered almost immediately in the 1st group that the product was better suited to a 40-year-old physics professor than a 4-year-old child! There was no way whatsoever that a 4-year-old, or even a 6-year-old could have used the product as it was. This was a global leading toy brand with a product in market which was a horrible mismatch between the capabilities of the core target consumer and the reality of the toy. I could give dozens of examples of research projects I have conducted which revealed some type of fundamental issue of this type. The reality is that companies who release products into market which have never been near a child are most likely to get returns and bad reviews and are more likely to see problems with sell through of inventory as consumers reject a product which has clearly not been properly designed and tested with the target consumer in mind.


Fundamentally you need your core target market to find your products appealing on a conceptual level i.e., they need to ‘get it’. If they can’t understand what it is, what it’s supposed to do and how that is relevant to them then you could have a big flop on your hands. By way of example, I worked on a major new product range some time back which featured a range of racing snails. The concept was that snails are really slow in reality, and wouldn’t it be really funny if there were toy snails which were really fast. This sounds like a reasonable premise for a toy line, but the issue is that kids of core toy target age i.e., 4 to 7 years of age don’t tend to appreciate that kind of irony – humour tends to need to be blunter and more obvious than this for this key toy demographic.

By the time I was asked to test this range the product was almost shipping into retail already, which meant that when the product proved to be completely unsuitable for the target market at a conceptual level it was hard to know what the best option was. My recommendation was that at the very least the toy company should have a strong exit plan ready and be ready to markdown inventory and switch media to more successful products fairly early in the products on shelf life. The product as expected died a death on shelves around the world and was soon only to be found in clearance channels. When DreamWorks produced a movie called ‘Turbo’ based on a very similar premise years later, I suspected it would not achieve commercial success at the box office or in terms of toy merchandising, and lo and behold I was right, with Turbo disappointing commercially despite DreamWorks usual high standards in terms of animation, production and marketing.

The moral of the story here is that it is normally best to test the conceptual appeal of a toy or game & the fit of the concept premise with the target market before investing $hundreds of thousands or even $millions in a product which could be very likely to bomb.


One thing which has surprised me many times over the years is that children often respond to different features and/or benefits of a product versus those intended by the toy company. Qualitative playtesting groups can really help to focus marketing spend and messaging on the key areas which children will respond to. You may have sat in an office with your colleagues & suggested that the marketing hook was a particular element of your product, but research often suggests that the most appealing features are not quite what you expected. One example which springs to mind is a product I tested some 7 or 8 years ago, which is still in market & selling well today. Originally the expectation was that the overall play pattern itself was the most appealing thing, but it turned out that kids responded most to one particular feature of the product which was quite understated at the point of the research. We recommended that the company exacerbate and enhance the obvious key driver for the children we tested with, and the final product became so compelling that the product stayed in market for years beyond the original expectations.

We could discuss at great lengths the shortcomings and limitations to the type of focus groups with kids I have described here. Sometimes clients find the methodology to be a bit ‘fluffy’, sometimes findings on key questions can be less conclusive than desired and sometimes it is flawed in some way. However, nearly every time I have run groups on toys & games, my clients have discovered something fairly fundamental which they didn’t know, and in many cases has lead them to vastly improve the product and the eventual commercial success and longevity of the product.

From my side, this type of work is very helpful in keeping thinking really grounded. Like with many of you reading this, I sit in a lot of meetings, some of which are quite highfalutin! But when you regularly see what happens with our products at the ‘sharp end’ with kids & families, you inevitably develop products which are more rooted in reality and less driven by ivory tower management speak, which in turn tends to deliver to market products with greater potential for success.

We run a Consultancy business for toy companies. We work with major toy companies through to start ups and one person bands. For more information on how we help toy companies grow their distribution around the world: For more articles & insights on the toy and games business, sign up here for our free e-newsletter sent straight to your inbox: Have you listened to our PLAYING AT BUSINESS podcast? Click here to listen or click on the image below:


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