Letting the innovators of tomorrow explore their imaginations
Learning the ins and outs of robotics and programming comes down to three key elements: objects, movement, and fun. KOOV™, Sony's new educational robotics and programming kit, brings those core components together. The product lets people build their own robots with colorful blocks and bring their creations to life with code for a creative, exhilarating learning experience. In addition to providing young minds with that unique brand of inspiration, KOOV also represents Sony's entry into the programming education field—an area that continues to take on growing importance all over the world. The designers behind KOOV recently gave us a revealing look at the concepts and details that went into the new product.
Industrial Designer, Sony Creative Center
Senior Manager, Sony Creative Center
Creative Director, Sony Global Education
User Interface Designer, Sony Creative Center
Don't make kids learn—make them want to learn
— Could you tell us about the KOOV concept and the roles that designers played in the development process?
Ishida: One of the things we concentrate on at Sony Global Education is innovation in the STEM education* arena, a field where programming education—with its ability to help kids cultivate their creativity and open up worlds of possibility—plays a central role. When we started looking at kids' robotics and programming materials from around the world, we noticed a lot of resources that would either instruct learners on how to do things or cater specifically to boys with a focus on making mechanical robots.
* An acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
That's why we wanted KOOV to be an educational kit that put fun first—something that would be able to make every kid, not just boys, want to learn programming. The Creative Center got involved at the planning stage, helping in the process of creating the core Play-Code-Create concept: "Play around with blocks to create objects and Code the objects to do things to Create one-of-a-kind robots."
Miyake: As we started to explore ways of translating the KOOV concept into an actual product package, we realized that we needed models that would grab kids' interest, capture young imaginations, and make every child—boys and girls alike—want to learn. The problem, however, was that there were too many options that fit that description; we didn't have clear enough ideas about what kinds of models would have the biggest impact, how many blocks each model should use, or how difficult the actual programming should be. We decided to do some target-market research, get input from project members with expertise in educational toys, and work our way through drawing up some new models. We eventually came up with more than 100 ideas, which we then pared down to our final selection of things like animals, vehicles, and instruments.
Tamura: When we designed the user interface (UI) for the app, our main goal was to inspire kids—to show them that they could do cool stuff on their own and see what makes programming so exciting. Back when I was a kid, I remember using block sets with black-and-white workbooks at school. That image has stuck with me, I guess, and I didn't want kids to end up associating KOOV with that kind of dull aesthetic. A colorful, bouncy, eye-catching design was what we had in mind, so we came up with some prototypes that fit the mold—only to find that getting the balance right was harder than it we thought it'd be. Rounded letters gave off a childish, jokey vibe, for example, and using too many bright colors made the end result look too cute. Working through those issues, we eventually arrived at an effective color scheme that appealed to both boys and girls.
The absorbing, fascinating pull of a high-detail design
— What kinds of things figured into the KOOV design?
Ishida: The idea we were going for was a self-propelling learning experience, one where kids would naturally pick up programming skills as they played with the KOOV blocks. To make that happen, we needed to fill our design with features and details that'd stimulate kids—things to spark their curiosity, get their brains hungry for deeper knowledge, and stretch their imaginations.
Miyake: Making the blocks transparent and colorful was part of that. Plain, solid-color blocks wouldn't have been the right approach. We opted for a transparent design because it made the holes on the blocks less conspicuous, giving the models a cleaner, neater look. When we put the transparent design together with a bright, varied color scheme, we saw how we could add another fun dimension to the user experience: color combinations. If you put a yellow block in front of a blue block, for example, you get green. KOOV isn't just about learning how to program robots. It gives kids a cool, exciting way to discover new colors and let their imaginations run even wilder—and it's all as simple as playing with building blocks.
Ishida: We also wanted KOOV to hold people's interest for the long haul, which meant that we had to come up with visual hooks that'd foster a stronger attachment to the product. That got us thinking about how to give the animal models more personality—basically, we wanted the models to be characters that kids could recognize and connect with.
Miyake: We concentrated on the eyes, which play a big role in shaping a character's identity. Eye size and eye location have a big impact on how people perceive a given character. I really doubt many people in the educational materials industry pay as much attention to little design details as the designers on the KOOV project did, but we knew that being meticulous with the tiniest details would give the end result a stronger pull. That kind of care resonates with people, even kids, so we poured lots of time and energy into designing eyes with a lovable look, experimenting with different sizes and luster levels until we got what we were looking for.
Ishida: Our efforts paid off—the response was great. We took the animal models to international exhibitions, where kids from all over the world got the chance to try the blocks out. You should’ve seen the twinkles in their eyes; it was incredible how enthusiastic they all were. At our programming workshops in Japan, some kids would pump their fists in the air every time the models moved—some even got so engrossed in the KOOV experience that they just couldn’t stop playing. When we saw all those smiles, we knew that we'd done the design right.
— The app interface was another part of the design process. What sorts of ideas and elements did you bring into the app UI?
Tamura: For the new UI, a unique KOOV interface, we focused on giving first-time users a smooth, intuitive pathway into programming. Knowing that we'd have to establish a unified KOOV worldview that would extend from the blocks through to the app, we built the UI design around the block aesthetic—not only did we align the UI colors with the block colors, but we also gave the button look a solid, block-like presence to make the programming operations feel just like the block-building process. The overall visual simplicity, I think, makes the actual coding seem much less challenging.
Another element in making the learning curve as smooth and enjoyable as possible is the map feature, which places kids' block creations in a virtual community. As new creations make their way onto the map, the community gets bigger, busier, and more diverse—and seeing that growth makes kids more excited about making more robots. We also developed different community types for different age groups, ensuring that older users would have access to communities that suited their tastes, too. Community design is another area where we can really tap into our creativity: We've even made maps for a city in the sky and a cool artist enclave.
Creation sharing: The key to unlocking worlds of infinite possibility
— What does the future have in store for KOOV?
Tamura: Right now, we're working on a sharing feature that'll let kids share their own robot creations with other KOOV users around the world. The idea is to have kids get feedback from each other instead of adults, which is the framework that most educational resources tend to adopt. Giving kids the ability to share their creations won't just help kids grow as independent, sociable people with well-developed communication skills— it'll also cultivate more creativity through an open, growing showcase of other users' talents, opening worlds of imagination where they'll be able to dream up the kinds of ideas that we grown-ups haven't even thought of.
Ishida: Designers have been an active, integral part of the entire KOOV project, even helping out with curriculum development. We couldn't be more excited about KOOV's potential to redefine the experience of learning how to code. Think of how kids learn to write: They see letters in picture books, figure out how the symbols work, and then put them together to write their own compositions and express themselves in unique, individual ways. We want KOOV to do the same thing—provide kids with a foundation for visualizing the elements of programming, figuring out how the coding process works, and then using that understanding to craft their very own creations. As we continue to draw on all the valuable input that the design team brings to the table, we're going to keep pushing KOOV forward and work to make that vision a reality.