Kid Tested: Dr. Alison Bryant

When it comes to children’s media, there’s a delicate science to determining what works.


Kids’ tastes change radically in the blink of an eye, which is what keeps Dr. Alison Bryant coming to work everyday. Bryant is the founder and president of PlayCollective, a strategy, research, and design firm that helps organizations understand how to engage their target audience with entertainment and education products. While adults can simply be asked about their feelings on a specific product, discerning whether children will connect is a tougher challenge. But Bryant’s prepared. Armed with a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Southern California, Bryant spent years heading up the digital research, analytics, and insights division of the Nickelodeon/MTV Networks’ Kids and Family Group. While there, her work helped launch 18 websites, the Nickelodeon Virtual World and Game Studios, and she managed research for brands including Neopets, Addicting Games, and Shockwave.

At PlayCollective, her research helps brands develop interactive media products, including games, websites, and apps, in a way that works with how kids and families consume media, both separately and together. Making those recommendations first involves understanding how children connect with media then figuring out ways to test if they’re truly engaging. Here’s how she does it.

Get In Media: When working with a brand or a game, how do you figure out what children want and what they’re going to respond to?

Alison Bryant: Generally speaking, a company will come to us and they’ll ask us specific questions. It might be about a product, “Is this product engaging and does it have a good user experience?” Depending on the consumer, if it’s very young children, we would recommend doing in-person qualitative research with our kid-focused moderators in our lab or in homes. If it’s working with adults … we might say, “OK, well, for this, we actually think that you should use a combination of traditional user-experience research and biometrics where we’re actually using things like heart rate and skin conductants and eye tracking to really understand how they’re processing the information.”

We get a lot of projects where clients will come and just say, “We don’t even know what we don’t know.” We did a big project for the Hub [television network] that they released in the middle of last year where it was just a question of, “What’s happening with families and television viewing?” In that case, we did in-home ethnographies, meaning we actually went into homes with families and just observed them and their interactions with and without media. Then we followed that up with these really cool interactive media diaries where families would get texted or e-mailed … at random times over a 10-day period, and in that moment it would pop up a survey and they would just answer, like, three or four quick questions about who was in the room and who was watching media or playing with something. We were able to actually map, literally, what was happening in the moment of time over the course of a week so we know what’s going on. We know how often it’s parents watching by themselves or it’s kids watching by themselves or it’s sort of triads of parents and kids. The process is, we would go back to the client or the partner and say, “Look, this is our recommendation for methodology and here’s why.” Usually they say, “Great, let’s do it!”

GIM: If you’re measuring an app or game, how do you determine if children are engaging with that game? Can you use those same biometrics?

AB: We don’t do biometrics on children. We only do that with adults. If we’re looking at television … [the] traditional measure for television is eyes on the screen. If you have a kid there, how much are they actually paying attention to what’s on TV? Lots of times we use distractor tests, like we’ll put other toys in the room to see if they’ll play with those instead of watching the show. You don’t do that if you’re doing interactive games because if they’re not watching the screen, they’re probably not playing the game. It’s a little bit of a different measure. We’re looking at measures of things like enjoyment, and those tend to be, especially with younger children, it’s very hard to ask them about what they like or don’t like because they like everything. Very often, we’re looking for nonverbal gestures. We’re looking for are they leaning into the experience? Are they laughing at appropriate moments? Do they ask to play it again or watch it again?

RELATED: Debunking the myths of game testing.

GIM: During your time at Nickelodeon/MTV, you launched 18 websites and managed research for several interactive digital brands [including developing games for the Nintendo Wii]. What did you discover worked and what didn’t in terms of connecting with an audience?

AB: I would say that the big successes were the times where, from a research perspective, we really stepped back and really thought about a platform. When the [Nintendo Wii] come out, there was push for us to focus on preschool. We actually went into homes and did ethnographies and watched kids playing with this new technology and watched how parents interacted with it and their older siblings. Then, we literally sat down with [our producers and developers] and re-thought how you could use the Wii remote, because we found that it wasn’t working with kids the way it was traditionally used by adults. When the games actually came out, all the reviews on Amazon said things like, “Oh my god. It’s like they know my child.” It was just very intuitive and it works very well and the sales were really great.

I’d say that the things that didn’t work as well would be when things get really popular in the adult space, like social networks are a great example, people are like, “Oh! We need to do that for kids,” when the reality is it doesn’t necessarily match the motivations that kids have. There’s a reason that Facebook, honestly, has never really taken off [for young children]. They’re not using it the way that we do as adults. They’re using it more for photo-sharing or social surveillance. They have different social motivations than we do as adults. I think that when adults are building things, they often just assume that kids are interacting with them or have the same motivations they do, and they try to copy that into a kid’s format.

GIM: But the needs of children are constantly changing, both according to trend and according to their developmental stage. How do you keep up with that?

AB: Here’s the thing—yes, the landscape around kids is changing, but kids’ needs and motivations, for the most part, actually are relatively static. It’s just about figuring out the best way to fulfill those as new technologies and new opportunities come out. I always tell my developers, if they’re doing anything social with kids, I say, “Just go watch kids on the playground,” very traditional playground play and mimic the way that your social interactions in whatever you’re doing happen on the playground. It’s one of the reasons why Club Penguin was so successful is because they actually mimicked playground social interactions in a really safe environment. Obviously things are changing all the time, there are new opportunities for technology or whatever, but I think that the reality is that kids themselves, they’re not really changing.

GIM: How do you see the landscape of children’s media changing in the next two to three years?

AB: I think we’re going to see much, much more physical-digital and physical world integration. So, the whole thing about high-tech wearables, whether it’s for fitness or it’s for social networking or whatever it is, I think we’re definitely going to see that soon. … I think another thing you’re going to start to see more of is people paying attention to co-play. Right now, people still can develop apps and games and everything, with the exception of console, but they tend to be developed for single players and the reality is that you’re also having situations, certainly with kids in the house or even on the go, where you’ve got two kids that have a device. They could technically be playing something against or with each other. … I think we’re going to see more and more consideration of what it would be to play with multiple players using mobile, whether it’s the same device of using multiple devices.

RELATED: A user researcher at Microsoft breaks down how game testing affects design. 

GIM: PlayCollective does a lot of work around media that has a social impact and an educational component. How do you figure out if kids are connecting to those components?

AB: For us, there are a couple of things that have to happen. One is, whether it’s an app or a game or a video, it has to be fun and engaging. There’s just too much noise out there. If it’s not engaging for a kid, they do it once because they have to, but they’re not going to do it again. It needs to feel like it’s fun for them. If you’ve got that covered, then I think the other thing is that the learning needs to be integrated in a way that’s almost seamless. Don’t get me wrong, kids are not afraid of learning something, but if you are like, “Well, this is the learning part of it and here’s the reward part of it,” which is how some people develop their stuff, that kind of works for short-term, but that’s not really extrinsically motivating. You’re using rewards to try to get kids to learn. The best learning happens when you intrinsically motivate them, and you give them something that they want to do and they want to engage it. Then they’ll do it without rewards.

We tend to focus on that kind of play, what we call the “playification,” of media, as opposed to the gamification. Gamification is reward-focused. Playification is inherently motivating for kids. They just want to play anyway. How do you know if it works? Obviously, you can do a lot of evaluation and stuff like that, but I think also knowing very clearly what it is you are trying to change and building in, whether it’s analytics in the back end, like you’re literally making sure that, as you’re doing this, you are measuring it internally in the system, or doing [external] evaluations. Both of those are incredibly important and they aren’t always done. There’s a lot of stuff that gets developed on the education side that people just, because it’s so clearly meant to be educational and the developer says it is, they assume it’s educational. But the reality is, a lot of that stuff is not tested and it hasn’t really been developed with the child experience in mind, which is kind of ironic.

GIM: For somebody who wants to move into the analytics/consulting side of children’s media, how do you recommend they get started in the field?

AB: There’s sort of two sides. If you were trying to get more into the analytics and data-driven side, definitely have a background in any kind of analytical thinking, whether it’s statistics or math or computer science. Any of that kind of thing is always going to help you in analytics, in part because someone who’s really good at analytics doesn’t just understand the data, they understand the process and why things might be happening. Like, if you’re seeing that the traffic is going down on a website, you also want to be able to come in and dig in and figure out where is that happening and why so you can go back to the production team and be like, “Guys, here’s the issue.”

Obviously, having that kind of background is also helpful if you’re going into more quantitative research like surveys or some of the newer methodologies. If you’re wanting to do the more qualitative consumer insights where you’re doing things like interviews or in-home ethnographies and things like that, there are a couple of things. Honestly, I think any kind of good liberal arts degree that just teaches you how to think on your feet is really, really helpful. … Especially if they’re working with kids, because even if you have a discussion guide there, things are going to go awry. Learning how to think on your feet and change topics really quickly is important. The other thing if you’re wanting to work with kids specifically is, honestly, some people are naturally gifted at talking to kids. … That’s really important if you’re in the qualitative side.

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