The Season’s Best Connected Toys

The Season’s Best Connected Toys

Over the last three years, we’ve had a bit of a kid explosion here at the office, and when you mix all those little tikes with our crew of super nerds, toy talk gets technical. As we swing into the holiday season, we thought it would be fun to cover some of the coolest toys around.

As MJD has worked on toys for Disney and Mattel over the last couple years, it has become clear that there are important things to concentrate on for a successful execution. First, you need to make the interaction with the toy deeply personalized and custom for each individual playing with it. Second, you need a strong narrative. Not every toy needs a pre-canned story, but they all need the ability for someone to creatively spin a tale of their own. Finally, while the technology behind a connected toy can be incredibly complex, it needs to disappear for the person playing with it. The user experience and user interface need to be simple enough for anyone to use while surprising them with unexpected elements. The companies and toys listed below are doing a great job with those three priorities.

Sphero

When I was a kid, my mom had her bowling league every Wednesday night. My brother, dad, and I had a guys’ night every week. We watched Buck Rogers and ate popcorn, but most importantly we got to eat dessert before dinner. That’s what Sphero is to this article, the desert before dinner. This company is killing it.

Want to watch your kids have fun while learning to code? Sphero Mini let’s you use a smartphone to move the sphere around with javascript.

Kids into Star Wars? Sphero introduced the BB-8 Droid a couple years ago, and you can now control the little guy with The Force using the Sphere Force Band wearable. New this year is R2-D2, an incredibly accurate replica of our favorite little droid. The movement, beeps and boops are enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face, but the killer feature is watching Star Wars movies alongside R2. Sphero’s “Watch with Me” feature allows all of your droids to react to the movies as the whole gang watches. It’s incredible.

Sphero has added to the fun with Marvel’s Spider-Man, which is kind of like a kid’s version of Amazon Alexa where you can ask it questions, have it turn smart devices on and off, and have it guard your room.

Pixar is represented with the Lightning McQueen RV car that does what you would expect as far as remote controlled cars go, but adds all kinds of personality with “Reactive Touch”, a feature that moves the car and changes its eye expression in response to being touched on the hood, trunk, sides, or top.

So, you could say that we’re big fans of Sphero around here. They understand more than most toy companies what makes a connected toy a success. You can tell their main criteria is the question “will this be fun?”. They mix into their toys the perfect amounts of really cool technology, ease of use, and personality.

Anki

When it comes to smart toys, this is another company that just gets it. Anki got things started a few years ago with the Overdrive racing set, which brought slot car racing into the future with cars that could sense their position on the track and the other cars around them. You can control the cars with a smartphone, shoot missiles, and even map out new tracks.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Pixar’s Wall-E, a heartening tale of robotic personality and love, as well as a terrifying commentary on humanity’s impact on our planet. I couldn’t help my excitement when I saw Anki’s newest foray into connected toys: Cozmo. Cozmo is basically a bulkier, just-as-cute version of Wall-E. You can play games with him, use him to learn how to code puzzles and routes that he can solve, and just simply enjoy his extremely endearing personality.

Fisher Price

When I was a young lad, I had two stuffed animals that, to me, were more than just toys. E.T., and my big gray bear were REAL. We hung out, played games, and had some (admittedly) very one-sided conversations. I loved those two deeply. Fisher Price’s line of Smart Toys, which include a plush bear, monkey, and panda, make the fantasy of a child’s toys coming to life even more real. The magic is in the personalization: parents use an app to enter the child’s name, birthday, and gender, and the toy starts having conversations using that information. It remembers conversations and responds appropriately if you ask about a memory. It’s pretty amazing. These toys are great learning tools as well. They come packed with smart cards that enable games and stories, and the app includes daily helpers for things like brushing your teeth, going to bed, and cleaning up. If only I could find Gray Bear and retrofit him with A.I….

Yes, we’re parents who love this stuff. But, we’re also a digital innovation agency that builds it. So, what does the process look like for creating a successful connected toy like the ones we listed here? For us, it always starts with people. Would children desire the toy you’re creating for them? Will parents love it too? How would you know? We go deep into field research to find the answers to these questions first. We then look at the technical feasibility (can it be done?) and the business viability (will this be financially successful?). Ideation sessions lead us to testable prototypes in a matter of days rather than months. Getting this information at the beginning significantly reduces expense and risk for the end product. From there, an Agile Methodology of software development on our side, paired with collaboration on hardware design with the toy manufacturer allows us the flexibility to iterate through the execution of the project until we ship.

Thinking of creating a new connected toy? We love this stuff and would love to chat about your project. Drop us an email at solutions@mjdinteractive.com to chat about how we can work together.


JavaScript and Drones: Insights from JSConf 2018

Last week several MJD engineers attended JSConf US 2018. This year’s event in Carlsbad, CA drew JavaScript enthusiasts from around the world to MJD’s neighborhood for a series of talks and activities. This article highlights some key sessions and takeaways from the week.

Day one of JSConf dug into an analysis of different frameworks and their popularity with a Keynote talk given by Laurie Voss, COO of node package manager (npm). Voss discussed significant conclusions from a year’s worth of npm’s research into user behavior and download patterns.

Regarding the popularity of JavaScript front-end frameworks, Voss described Vue.js as “the new hotness,” though React remains the clear front-runner. In short, 60 percent of npm users use React, Angular sees fewer downloads, Ember sees a revival of healthy growth and Vue is roughly as popular as Ember. Voss noted a slight decrease in React’s download numbers, noting that Vue’s rise is likely hurting React’s numbers.

Breakdown of frontend framework popularity
(soucre: npm: https://www.npmjs.com/npm/state-of-javascript-frameworks-2017-part-1).

Day Two: Javascript Drones!

For the second day of the conference, attendees had the option to choose from a range of activities including surf lessons, a visit to the San Diego Zoo, or on-site Node.js related projects. The MJD team opted for Node Copters, where teams received one Parrot AR Drone 2.0 and spent the day programming and playing with it. The team wrote custom scripts to control the drone’s movement, and control takeoff and landing behavior.

Day Three: Style and Compile

Following a day of various activities, day three brought JSConf-goers back into the conference rooms for two tracks of talks with topics ranging from data-driven CSS to the state of compilers in web development.

In his morning talk, Chad Hietala of LinkedIn’s infrastructure team broke down the history of compilers including Closure Compiler and Webpack. Hietala discussed the emergence of WebAssembly as a key to future improvements in performance and dove deep into how compilers work under the hood.

Many of the talks included a breakdown of how technology has changed over time. Veteran CSS developer, Miriam Suzanne, spoke about the growing support across the web for CSS grid and custom CSS properties enabling developers to inject styles with raw data, manipulating layouts on the fly.

After lunch, fellow San Diegan Bradley Spaulding gave a talk titled “Universal React Applications with Redux,” which delved into his company’s experience with sharing code between multiple different applications both on the web and in React Native apps. One interesting concept he discussed was moving large Redux operations into a Web Worker. We’re big fans of Redux here at MJD, so this is an idea we’ll be exploring.

Near the end of the third day, Suz Hinton talked about WebUSB. WebUSB is a new API that allows one to control USB devices from a web browser. Suz explained how in the past developers needed to use other software like Flash to be able to control USB from browsers. Now with Flash blocked by default in browsers and with similar solutions being difficult in different ways – it is not a pleasant user experience to enable communication with USB devices in the browser. Now with WebUSB, those problems will be gone, and browser users will see the same sort of familiar UI asking for permission to use USB devices just like when a browser asks for permission to use a webcam or location data.

WebUSB is currently only supported in Chrome (including Chrome for Android – and it is a little bit buggy), but people, including Suz Hinton, are pushing for support in other browsers. Soon it may be possible to use the API in all browsers. Even with support only in Chrome, it will be possible to create fun experiences easily without as many layers of software between your web app and your USB devices.

JSConf 2018 helped solidify several of the technical decisions MJD has made in the past few years for web projects. The broad range of talks gave the team a fresh perspective on the state of front-end frameworks and browser capabilities. The engineering team was able to confirm the viability of its decision to utilize React on its most recent projects including The Container Store Organization Studio and American Girl Create Your Own Experience. 

Though Angular and Vue.js are powerful frameworks, according to Voss of node package manager, “if people start re-using React modules, React will live forever.” Over the course of the conference, the react ecosystem dominated front-end-related talks including “Universal React Applications with Redux,” and “Creating Accessible React Apps.”

Within the React ecosystem, Redux and GraphQL were buzzwords throughout the week. Our engineering team has experienced these tools scaling well on projects for major retail clients, and we plan on continuing to dig into the flourishing React ecosystem on future web projects.

At MJD, we work hard to ensure that industry trends guide our technical decisions. As the MJD team continues building cutting-edge digital products for our customers into the next year, we hope to capitalize on technical insight from JSConf 2018.




How to Create Great Commerce Experiences in 2019

How to Create Great Commerce Experiences in 2019


By: Jeremy Duimstra

Today’s retail landscape is very interesting, to say the least. Consumer expectations are higher than ever, and we’re seeing all sorts of players — from larger-than-life corporations like Amazon to media companies like Buzzfeed — disrupting the retail space.

With all that going on, you might be wondering, how can you compete?

We can answer that in two words: commerce experiences.

Commerce what, now?

Commerce experiences are digitally-powered initiatives that let shoppers interact and transact with retailers in new and unique ways. They take traditional retail actions (like browsing products or adding items to a cart) to the next level, by making the shopping experience more immersive and exciting.

But what exactly does that look like?

The answer will vary from one retailer to the next, but upon studying brands that are doing it right, we’ve identified a number of components that contribute to amazing experiences.

Let’s have a look.

Implement omnichannel experiences

Omnichannel is no longer a trend or a hyped up idea — it’s a way of life. The majority of modern consumers move across various channels throughout their shopping journeys, with a whopping 90% of consumers moving between devices to accomplish a goal.

Needless to say, retailers that fail to provide compelling omnichannel experiences will lose out to those that are doing it right.

The successful omnichannel initiatives of the future won’t just be about letting people “buy” on different channels or devices; retailers that will win the omnichannel game will be the ones that can provide seamless brand experiences across channels.

Consider American Girl’s flagship location in NYC. The store features a “makers” area called “Create Your Own,” in which guests can use in-store touch screens to create custom dolls that celebrate their individuality. That experience isn’t limited to the store, though. The “Create Your Own” tool is also available online and on mobile, so girls can enjoy the experience whether or not they’re in the shop.

Another excellent example comes from Sephora, which delivers a smooth omnichannel experience for guests who attend their in-store classes.

The classes take place offline in a special area of the store, where an instructor hand-picks products for each student and gives them hands-on training on various makeup techniques. Once the class ends, Sephora sends a follow-up email containing a “Beauty Recap” and digital makeover guide. The email also showcases the exact products used in class, so shoppers can purchase them online or on their phone.

Keep these examples in mind when crafting your commerce experience strategy. Design your experiences in such a way that people can access the information and products they need no matter what channel they’re using.

Tip: Implementing omnichannel experiences isn’t as difficult as you might think. Many retailers believe they need to rebuild their systems or make major IT or operational changes to support these initiatives, but if you’re working with a savvy technology partner (like us!), you can get your commerce experiences up and running easily.

At MJD Interactive, we can work with your existing API, IT infrastructure, and tech stack to bring your projects to life.

Embrace the need for constant reinvention

Regularly updating your store and website visuals is necessary to keep shoppers interested — and drive repeat visits in the process.

Forward-thinking retailers recognize this and are structuring their stores accordingly.

Take Story, the concept store in NYC “that takes the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery and sells things like a store.” Story revamps its location from the ground up every four to eight weeks, which means everything from its design and layout to the products it sells changes depending on specific themes. Doing so keeps the store fresh and gives people new reasons to come back.

Or consider Amazon’s 4-star stores, which are designed to sell products rated 4 stars and above. The shops are incredibly dynamic, as Amazon regularly updates their assortments based on what’s trending and popular online.

Take a leaf out of the playbook of these stores when designing your in-store experiences. Revamp your stores — or at least introduce new things — every few months to continuously drive excitement and intrigue.   

Tip: The most efficient way to implement this is through technology. Tools such as web/mobile applications, digital signage, tablets, and a user-friendly CMS will enable you to easily update your digital products, assets and content, so you can continuously introduce new experiences at every turn.

Promote human connections

Technology may be enabling consumers to perform a variety of tasks without leaving their homes, but the need for human connection is more important than ever. A 2018 poll by Axios found that in-person interaction is still the top communication method across multiple age groups.

This is particularly true in retail. Sure, ecommerce is making it easy for consumers to browse and buy products online, but there is still a real need for human interactions and communities in the retail sector.

The world’s most successful and forward-thinking retailers are already embracing the power of communities.

Apple, for instance, has Today at Apple — free educational sessions held at its stores that tackle topics like photography, coding, art, design, and more. First launched in May 2017, Today at Apple has expanded considerably; according to 9to5Mac, as of 2018, around 18,000 sessions are being held weekly and attended by millions.

The Container Store is another excellent example of a retailer the understands the value of human connection. Their flagship store in Dallas features the Organization Studio, an experience that helps customers overcome their organizational challenges.

Here’s how it works: Customers upload a photo or video of the space they want to organize, describe what they need help with, and then schedule an in-store appointment with an Organization Expert.

On their end, the Expert would receive the information from the shopper and would put together a tailored digital “solution board” that the customer could review, make changes to, and buy in the store or later online.

We’ve found that the warmth of that interaction and the relationship created is an extremely important component of bridging digital with physical stores.

The takeaway? Nothing can ever truly replace the human element in retail. While it’s certainly a good idea to invest in technology, you should always, always, include humans in the equation.

Tip: Want to make sure your initiative hits the mark? Do your research. When we created The Organization Studio, we tapped into The Container Store’s significant customer research to determine the right approach. We held co-creation sessions with focus groups to gain real shopper feedback and we tested the concept with current and potential customers.

We are continuing user testing of the digital product and business model to iteratively increase sales and strengthen the relationships shoppers have with The Container Store.

Ramp up the in-store experience

The in-store experience is a huge driver of in-store traffic, sales, and brand loyalty. The NRF’s 2018 Consumer View study found that nearly 80% of respondents consider the brand experience when deciding where to shop.

NRF also found that almost “six in 10 respondents said they were interested in special events and experiences hosted by retailers,” which tells us that shoppers want to get more out of their store visits.

So, if you’re not offering rich experiences in your locations, it’s high time to consider it.

American Girl, once again, does a great job in this area. Its flagship store in NYC is brimming with unique retail experiences that guests can enjoy, including the “Create Your Own” doll and apparel station, salon services, and a cafe where shoppers can grab food and drinks with their dolls.

Every component of American Girl’s store is rooted in the company’s dedication to serving modern shoppers. “As we look at girls today and millennial moms, they’re seeking brands that deliver positive, meaningful experiences, not just products,” says Wade Opland, American Girl’s Senior Vice President of Global Retail.

In creating the store, American Girl teamed up with MJD Interactive to explore ideas and conduct user design testing with girls and their moms. Doing so enabled the brand to create spot-on experiences that delight thousands of visitors.

Tip: Considering revamping your in-store experience strategy? Start by identifying the things that your target customers are craving for. What intrigues and excites them? What experiences or services can you offer that would compel them to come back to your location? The answers to these questions will help drive your strategy.

Your competitive edge lies in great commerce experiences

These days, it’s nearly impossible to “wow” customers simply by having great prices or an extensive selection. Retailers that want to thrive today and in the future need to get more creative and come up with compelling experiences that add value and make their mark.

Looking for ways to do just that? Catch MJD Interactive at the NRF BIG Show from January 13-15, 2019. Get in touch with us and let’s book a time to meet!