How Hacking My Son’s Toy Car Taught Me About UX

Maxime Castéra
Oct 2, 2018 · 3 min read
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It was at the end of an intense “spoiling gifts season”, right after his 4th birthday, that my son Nikola fell in love with his new toy car.

Even those who are not parents cannot ignore that flashy franchised red car stamped onto pretty much every product packaging one would walk by at the local supermarket.

So what is so special about this car that every kid wants to have one. First of all, it’s a race car, hard to beat that, but it also has eyes and a name: Lightning McQueen for the connoisseurs.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon came quickly to an end for these two, when during a smuggling operation inside the school perimeter, McQueen got flooded inside Nikola’s lunch backpack.

A race car with eyes should survive that you may think, or so did I. As it turned out the car remained perfectly operational, except for its eyes. Once “solidly” painted onto the windshield’s sticker, they were now faded and gone for good. And so was Nikola’s interest for this toy.

I did not think much of it then to be honest, as every toy in the house gets a second life with his younger brother Luka, or with me, when it comes to LEGO bricks that is.

But that was until last Sunday, when I came across the forgotten speed car under our couch. I happily brought it back to my son, only to be told very clearly, now that he is 3 months further into his speech development, that the car was broken and therefore not interesting.

Looking at this toy in perfect “playing” condition, I struggled to understand why Nikola would so firmly state that it was broken. Therefore, I did what every stubborn adult does, I tried to convince him that I was right and that McQueen was still alive and kicking asphalt. No doubt that this one-way discussion went nowhere since we clearly were not talking about the same thing and that he is 4.

Clearly, for him the main feature of the car, its eyes, was broken and for me it was just a sticker I did not even consider a feature to begin with, solely focusing on the complete set of wheels, still spinning hard. Of course, this fact only became clear after I started actively listening to him.

Having a thing for stationaries, my first reflex was to grab a marker and quickly draw back those eyes but not without a slight strabismus I must admit. The response was immediate, Lightning McQueen was back in the game, but all his other cars felt left behind.

Still pumped up by my recent exploit, I hit back at the stationaries and made up some more pairs of eyes straight onto the windshield of every toy car I could find lying around. But only to find out that if there is no sclera, they won’t pass Nikola’s acceptance test. Back at it first with white stickers this time and there I was with an entire fleet and a happy son staring at me.

This event really got me thinking about the assumptions we tend to have about what drives users towards a product or a service. As professionals, we sometimes assume that we have the answer already or we dig further by mapping the customer journey, read market studies or watch competition. While the simplest way still is to let the customer try our minimal viable product, actively listen, adapt and try again until the need is understood and met.

In my son’s case, him, the user, was not yet able to express his need himself. And despite all the cool aspects and features of this toy car (McQueen has a mouth too), all he wanted was eyes to go with it… And his father’s eyes and ears to pay attention to it.

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