Technology Will Save Us
Kids, Kits, and the DIY Movement
Bethany Koby founded Technology Will Save Us with her husband Daniel Hirschmann in 2012 to help kids — and curious adults — explore the creative potential of electronics and programming, learning to see technology as a tool for problem solving along the way. Covering everything from gaming to gardening, their playful DIY kits have found their way into homes, classrooms, and even MoMA’s Humble Masterpieces design collection. They’ve come to Kickstarter to launch their latest creation: the Mover Kit, a wearable device whose function is fun. Kids can build and program the rainbow-LED-covered gadget to sense running, jumping, dancing, or whatever physical activity they dream up. We chatted with Koby about the company’s philosophy, its provocative name, and the kid-centered iterative design process they use to bring their ideas to life.
Why did you and Daniel start Technology Will Save Us?
Two things actually led to us starting it. One, we found a laptop in our trashcan in London. Someone just threw away this laptop because they didn’t want it. We were like, “This is so nuts!” If there is a moment as a founder where you decide you’re going to start something, that was it. We have this weird relationship with tech — we don’t understand it; we don’t know how to fix it. We don’t know how to do things with it besides use it, and that was this very palpable example of this.
The other thing that triggered it was we had a child. Having a baby born surrounded by iPads absolutely makes you think about the role that tech plays in the next generation’s eyes. As a parent who is technically savvy, I was quite upset by the toy industry. You don’t have options; you don’t have things that introduce tech to your kid in a productive, creative way.
Education doesn’t move fast enough to keep up with the pace of tech. Technology tends to be taught as a skill acquisition, rather than as creativity, problem-solving, or computational thinking. That’s way more valuable to young people than just learning a skill. Those are the things that really lead us to say, “Okay, could we start a business that’s empowering, inspiring, not pandering to the lowest common denominator of what tech is, but really standing for something for kids and their parents?”
When you’re coming up with a new kit are you focused on teaching particular concepts or is it more about creating an experience?
The beauty of our products is that fun and learning go hand in hand. You don’t prioritize one — they happen at the same time. It’s fundamental to how the best learning experiences happen. You don’t trick kids into wanting to learn. You help them find agency. You help them find passion. You help them find what they want to achieve.
We started as a workshop business. We saw this amazing range of people that were excited about making and doing things with tech. But doing workshops was really time consuming. In order to have the reach that we wanted, we thought that we could ‘kitify’ that whole experience and create digital tools that would allow us to scale at a much faster rate.
By doing workshops, we got really intimate, human interactions with what it means to make with tech; the joy, the delight, the problem-solving, the collaboration that happens. Even when you’re doing something alone, the emotional benefit to making is really important.
Those workshops were almost like user testing for a product you didn’t know you were designing yet.
One hundred percent. Because Daniel and I are designers and makers, we have a default to make something, put it in the world, see the response, test it. Now that’s called agile and scrum. It has all these lovely terminologies for it. Our gestalt was to make it and see how people react to it — and that’s what we did.
What was the process that lead to the Mover Kit? How did you zero in on a wearable as the next thing you wanted to make?
We did a big research project with 300 young people around the UK and U.S., in all different regions, and learned about what they’re making in school, as well as what they like making. We honed in on a bunch of themes, ranging from gaming to cooking to health and wellbeing.
Three products came out of that process. One is the gamer, which is now on the market. Another one was a fun communication tool which was like a digital version of walkie talkies made out of cups. Another one was a kind of wearable thing.
At the time, the wearable was about health and data. When I move, I create data. Not big data, little data, my data. We thought kids would be really excited about what data looks like, so you did push ups and you saw data do stuff on a screen — but they didn’t care about the screen. They wanted the thing on their wrist to do something, and it didn’t do anything.
What kids really did like was a very visceral response with light. They wanted something that they could take with them and do lots of things with. Those kind of insights are what started to develop the form factor of the Mover. It went through a few different iterations before its current form.
Kids are actively part of every stage of that process. It helps to not believe our own Kool-Aid, but rather get feedback into the process that challenges our own assumptions so that we get to the kids’ real, valid experiences.
With a lot of product design, you’re hoping that user testing confirms specific ideas: when somebody navigates this menu, they click on this button. But you’re designing products that let people make things and explore on their own terms. How do you test for open-endedness, and make sure there are enough creative possibilities?
I think there’s a difference between user testing and user-centered design. We do user testing too. Do you know what to do with this button? Does it work? Is this button the right size and shape? User testing is a functional process, whereas user-centered design is about emotional benefits, interactions, delighting, surprising, encouraging outcomes. It’s different than just a functional outcome.
We do play testing, where we actually have kids playing and doing things without much intervention to see what they can create. We had a lot of home testing, where it was kids in their natural environment. Then we also had grouped scenarios to see what the possibilities were around collaboration with other kids. Those different scenarios help us to see the open-endedness in different contexts, which is important because a product can be used in so many different ways in a kid’s life.
Were there any interesting failures from this process or particular things that helped you reshape the direction of the product?
There was an earlier prototype that totally failed. We would give kids the product, and they just wouldn’t know what to do with it. It did too many things. So we went back to the core of what we were trying to do, and that’s where we pared it down to an accelerometer (motion sensor), compass. and the only output was light.
There was a prototype that had twelve LEDs as opposed to eight and everyone wanted it to be a watch. We thought, “Do we want it to tell time?” We’re not teaching kids how to tell time. We’re helping them be creative with technology. When we made it eight, it wasn’t a watch anymore — it was this tool for creating and inventing. It could be a bike light. It could be a torch. It could be a headlamp. It could be something you put on your costume that you danced with. That’s when we hit this beautiful point of, “Oh, my goodness, not only do they know what to do, but they want to invent things to do with it.”
Were you surprised by any of the things kids invented?
The bike light idea came from someone before we even created a mode for that. He wanted to put it on his bike, and he wanted to use the accelerometer to be a front or a back light, which was a simple but super great idea.
So it can tell whether it’s moving forward or backward?
Yeah, so simple, but so nice. Another favorite, which only a kid could think of, was the toothbrush trainer. This little kid wanted to use it to tell his mom when he brushed his teeth for two minutes. So he brushes his teeth for two minutes, it goes rainbow, and he can show her. Again, making the everyday more delightful with this piece of tech.
That’s not so far off from a wearable health tracker or something from the quantified-self world.
Not at all. But you don’t have to understand all of the complexity behind it. I can put in this much effort to see these kinds of results, or I can put in more effort to get even more complex results. That’s a great experience. Some of the parents did things like martini shaking and egg whisking, which we see happen quite a lot with our kits. Kids go to bed and parents continue to play.
One of the funniest things was with the gamer kit. It has infrared which allows you to do multiplayer gaming. One of the kids programmed that to control his television. Not all kids are going to do that, but the fact that you can is awesome. Low barrier, high ceiling.
What’s the difference between designing an interactive product for adults versus kids?
It’s such a different thing. It’s not a smartwatch, it’s not a tracker, and it doesn’t store data in some cloud somewhere. What we learned through a lot of testing was that those aren’t the things that motivate kids to be creative and do stuff. Those are really functional outcomes, which is fine, but an eight-year-old is not really interested in how many calories they’re burning or if they’ve gotten a Twitter notification. They’re still in this state of, “I want to play. I want to create things. I want to be active and do stuff.” The fact that you can wear it on your wrist is great, but the fact that you can put it on your bike or your sneaker — that you can just use it to do lots of weird things — is actually more interesting.
Playing is functional when you’re a kid. It’s what you want to do. It’s what you want to achieve, and the fact that this has this exciting component of learning in it is a big tick for parents, and also hopefully a really exciting thing for kids as they grow.
How does the programmability and customizability of your products play into that growth?
The thing that’s exciting about code as a medium is that you can unlock complexity. We can make the barrier really low, which allows you to be successful and see outcomes fast, but the ceiling really high. With programming hardware, it’s inputs and outputs. If I do this, these things will happen, and the potential of how complex those if-then opportunities are is pretty endless.
I’m sure people ask about the name of the company. What does “Technology Will Save Us” mean to you?
We do get asked a lot about that. When we named the company, it was iterative. I tried on names. I knew this was the right name was when I got a very emotional email back from someone about the name asking me, “Are you sure? Do you really think it’s going to save us? But technology is this, and this.” That’s when I knew it was a great name — because we wanted it to create a dialog.
That dialog and call to action was really exciting, and where that conversation went was of course we don’t think tech will save us, but we think that people will save us using tech.
We’re trying to develop a relationship with technology where we have an understanding of it, excitement around it, and creativity around it.
It’s almost like you’re saying, “Understanding technology will save us from thoughtless use of technology.” It loops back on itself.
We easily slide into these very passive roles with tech. Too much passive screen time is definitely not a good thing. You can see it in the behavior of your child. But using the screen in a different way is an opportunity for kids and parents to use technology and have a different relationship to it.
How do you assess the impact your kits are having in helping kids develop a positive relationship with technology?
It takes time to see the impact of what this has on a generation. We can’t say that this has helped kids get jobs, because they’re still kids, right?
We have seen two things. One, it helps kids build confidence around their abilities with technology. It stops being about tech, and it starts being about them, and their passions, and their interests. Tech is just one of the tools they can use to express that.
The other exciting thing is that it helps kids and parents make better choices in school, in their lives, and rethink what they’re capable of. We’re just starting to be able to measure some of that because we’ve been around for three years now. Some of our learning partners are giving us really interesting insights around what subjects kids choose in school. They’re choosing subjects that otherwise might not have been of interest, because they didn’t even know what they were. They had this preconceived idea of what a tech subject is, and it’s actually completely different.
To learn more about Technology Will Save Us and support their work, check out the Kickstarter campaign for the Mover Kit, wrapping up June 10.