Designing for Simplicity
On designing wonda, a math toy for kids
Arithmetic is one of my biggest nightmares, I’m the only person with an engineering degree that I know who hates basic math. Sums and differences with little complexity are up my alley but products and divisions have always been difficult for me.
Calculators saved my life. And also my grades, until algebra came into math and simplified the computing complexity. Before that happened, I spent countless hours between ages 5 and 8 cramming the multiplication table.
Using a multiplication table was taught in class, to help with memory but what it did (to me at least) was aid cramming.
It wasn’t until I was older and in Junior Secondary (or Junior High, or Middle School in other countries) that I learnt other tricks to multiply and identify multiples. My best trick is that all the multiples of 9 (so 18, 36, 54) have digits that add up to 9 (1+8 = 3+6 = 5+4 = 9).
Towards the end of my Masters degree, I became really interested in Experience Design and designing simple products that improved experiences. And I came back to thinking about how much my experience with math had sucked, how much all I wanted to do when I was between 5 and 10 was play. So, I thought: how could I make math playful?
I had a number of ideas, but one of rages during that time (Spring/Summer 2017) was the fidget spinner. It wasn’t even a kids toy anymore, I had colleagues who had multiple fidget spinners: some that lit up and others in different colours. It reminded me of an old concept I had done as a part of the Compassion Project the year before on making artifacts for people waiting in line, so they could be engaged while the wait lasted.
I sketched a number of early concepts, but I liked that best. By rotating the top piece over the bottom one, the number, multiplier and product would all the visible. This way, the button piece could be replaced with another number.
After making the first prototype, I shared it with a number of people. One of them is Yvonne Maidment, the Business Manager at McMaster’s W Booth School (my alma mater).
She loved it, and saw how her seven year old could use the toy. However, she felt it was a calculator, i.e. it did the same functions as a calculator, giving the answer with the multiplier and number showing. She was correct.
A key thing in learning is the mind’s ability to recall from memory. A math toy to teach multiplication and division should aid whoever uses it to recall an answer. If Jason uses the toy to learn that 3×7=21, the next time 3×7 comes up there should be time to recall 21 from memory.
In thinking about this, there were a number of ways to improve the toy. But I had imposed two constraints: I wanted the toy to be lightweight and simple. Lightweight so kids could carry it and fit it together without any trouble, but simple so that no one would need to be taught how to use it. With this I went through another round of prototyping.
After some consideration, I went with adding a third (middle) piece.
This piece would be rotated after the top one had selected the multiplier and would reveal the product. Also, the bottom piece could be swapped out with another piece with a different number; this simplifies the basic toy without needing to accommodate all the different base numbers.
With this new design, I have sent out prototypes to a number of teachers and parents in Ontario and have received beautiful feedback!
Next Step: Kickstarter
I would like to launch the toy on Kickstarter, so that it could be available to people who could use it with their kids, in classrooms or gift to kids.
I call it wonda! It will be priced at CA$20 (about 15 USD) for the basic set, but I will also send the 3D design files to anyone who wants to make one for themselves for a lower price.