Digital Play-Doh and the Principle of Accidental Success




Can you recall peeling the lid off a fresh container of Play-Doh?
Remember that distinct smell and feel of the fresh stuff squeezing through your fingers?
Once you started, it was hard to stop - it's even rumored that some kids may have had a taste or two.

If ever there was a material that delivers on the promise of an immediate no-fail experience, Play-Doh is it. You can roll it, squish it and poke it full of holes. Mistakes are easily reversed by rolling it back into a ball, and your ideas can be can be saved forever when you put your project on a shelf to dry overnight. It is the ultimate interactive play substance, and failure is not an option.
Now consider the first screen kids encounter on their favorite website, toy or app. Besides Play-Doh's strange salty flavor, do they have similar attributes? Do they have what's become known around our office as the "accidental success" factor that mirrors that of the famous molding compound? It's what we look for in every interactive children's product we review. Here's our checklist.
Accidental success defined
A good product has to meet many requirements, but few are as essential as accidental success - especially when it comes to interactive devices and software designed for kids.
  • Is it responsive? If you jab it, do you get something?
  • Can you operate it with your elbow? Try this. Close your eyes and start touching things. Can you do something right, or more accurately, non-wrong?
  • Is it smart? Can it tell if you are simply guessing and provide help as needed?
  • Does it require reading? Could a non-reader succeed within the first few screens?
  • Is it reversible? Can you get out of anything you get into?
  • Does the first level ensure success for even the youngest child?
  • Could your cat make it work? Enough said.

With checklist in hand, it's now time to look at two examples. Both apps are designed to give children a musical experience. One exceeds the criteria for accidental success, while the other is cluttered with instructions.

Go, Diego, Go Musical Missions
The music and the main menu are certainly nice, but the activities are frustratingly didactic in this iPhone/iPad app designed for Nickelodeon by Chewy Software. There are six songs, including "Jingle Bells" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" each set in a different environment (i.e. the Savannah or the Arctic). The instructions are excessive and Diego talks too much. Also, the notes on the flute don't line up with the notes on the musical staff, which is confusing. One child in our review group even noticed that you can get through a level faster by randomly pressing notes instead of acting on Diego's clues. (Available at www.nick.com, US$1.99.)

Magic Piano
Ideal for children, adults or cats (according to YouTube), Magic Piano turns the iPad's multi-touch screen into a twistable, turnable, resizable piano keyboard. In default mode, it starts with the press of a key and emits a clear note. At any time, you can switch to a different keyboard layout, or squeeze stretch the keyboard to add or subtract keys. You can also play chords, just like on a real piano. An interesting and somewhat spooky feature of the program is the duet mode. If your iPad is online, you can play a tune with someone else who is also connected to the net. In the "world" mode, you can see where the songs are being played on a map of the globe. A control panel lets you control such things as auto-sustain and pitch mapping. If you're looking for an excuse to purchase an iPad, Magic Piano just might bend your arm. (Available at www.smule.com, US$0.99.)

To be fair, it is not entirely accurate to compare such differently designed experiences, especially when one has the advantage of featuring a popular licensed character. However, it is fun to think about how to redesign Go, Diego, Go Musical Missions, mixing in a dash of accidental success.

And if you need reminding what I'm talking about, go out and pick up a fresh eight pack - of Play-Doh, peel back the lid and enjoy a sniff.