Often referred to by experts as the M2 Generation, there’s no limit to the amount of time kids aged 6 to 10 will spend playing with apps on various multimedia devices including smartphones and tablets. With this in mind, the designers behind the Hackaball have developed an ingenious learning tool that helps teach kids the programming skills that go into creating some of those apps. Unlike a glossy black touchscreen, this striking ball is made up of two translucent plastic halves that snap together around a layer of silicone.
The Hackaball – to put it simply – merges modern technology with physical activity and can be summed up to a computer in a ball. Of course, just like most other balls, the ball can be thrown, kicked, bounced or chased…however in this case, the ball responds to all of these activities based on specific programs that kids can program using an iPad app.
Hackaball is the brainchild of creative consultancy MAP in partnership with Made by Many, a digital agency who picked up on the growing desire to create concepts that don’t confine kids to a desk and a screen.
We caught up with the Made by Many team to find out more about where their idea came from, how they see kids using the Hackaball and how they set about designing a ‘programmable ball’ from scratch.
SS: First of all, we love the product already. But what is the Hackaball elevator pitch?
MBM: Hackaball is a responsive programmable ball that pairs with an iPad app on which children can invent games. The ball has gyro and motion sensors, and responds to how it’s used with different LED lighting, sound and rumble effects. This new way of play is creative and active and open – there are infinite possibilities, and it’s something children can do by themselves and without instruction – and along the way they get to see how programming and technology works. Learning about technology in more creative and new way, which will be important for them in the future.
SS: Awesome. Where did the idea originally come from?
MBM: Hackaball came from an intern project at Made by Many with a simple brief: ‘Play’ through ‘Connected devices’. The idea for Hackaball was born through experimentation with digital and physical interactions. We took inspiration from one of the oldest play objects – the ball – and looked at how we could modify that experience.
There’s a strong idea within Hackaball of turning around ingrained attitudes to computing – make it something you can throw around, tough and beautiful, not fragile – and something much more everyday.
We wanted to make software programming a function of visual rather than verbal intelligence; so that it becomes a simple introduction to programming logic for even the youngest children who might not yet be reading fluently.
SS: What was your most important design driver right out of the gate?
MBM: Hands down, it was making the product robust enough to let kids be kids. It shouldn’t be a delicate object, it has to be able to be thrown and kicked, and still be responsive. So the inspiration was to make a computer you could throw, and that required a huge amount of technical experimentation to create a shockproof design for the inner-core module. There was also a lot of material experimentation to get the right amount of squash and bounce into the ball and sleeve design but retain the ability for users to open up the ball and see the inner working (and for charging the battery).
SS: What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered during the development process?
MBM: Hackaball needs to be interesting to children in a time when they have smartphones, ready access to the Internet and Minecraft. We needed to design something that could really catch and maintain their attention – that’s why we’re constantly testing and learning with kids for anything from the icon design, to the interface, to the final features in the ball. Feedback from hundreds of children has helped us created an interface that is fun, simple and intuitive for kids. We’ve gone for an easy to use visual programming interface that helps kids hack Hackaball to do what they want and play instantly by swapping around different icons and colors, with immediate response from the ball.
Parents love the idea too as it encourages kids to play away from a screen in creative, collaborative and active ways. Additionally we worked with kids and their parents from their homes, to local parks; determining a lot of factors, from price points, to interface details, to software and hardware features.
SS: Tell us more about your design process – clearly this isn’t just any old ball?
MBM: Beyond the initial intern project we continued to refine and test Hackaball, taking it to a high fidelity working prototype. We had a ball that we had designed and prototyped in-house as well as a companion app that talked to the ball and vice versa. But we didn’t want to stop there. Due to incredible feedback about hackaball’s potential, from kids, parents and even teachers, we decided to take the project even further.
We wanted to develop a new brand for Hackaball and look in more detail at creating a cohesive product experience across the physical design of the ball, the design of the app and how kids interact with it, as well as things like lighting, and even sound. This led us to craft a new personality for Hackaball that was friendly, relatable and inspiring for kids. We worked collaboratively with MAP, Kudu and Karl Sadler to ensure that personality was consistent across the whole Hackaball experience.
While we developed this new brand personality, we were also busy designing the iPad app. We tested constantly with kids to get feedback and iterate on the branding, app interface and visual design elements such as iconography. We went through much different iteration to ensure we were making something that kids found easy to use, something that was engaging, and most importantly fun and playful.
Our general process:
- We started with paper (sketching and mocking up in paper)
- Quick digital prototyping (keynote and illustrator mockups – tested on iPhones and iPads)
- We looked at existing patterns (favourite games, minecraft, etc)
- Interviewed kids and parents in friend and sibling groups
- Literacy tests (it’s important to design icons for kids to understand without strong language skills)
- Learn, make, test – over many iterations
What we learned:
- Competing games are attention grabbing and very engaging
- Our designs should be highly visual – younger users may struggle to read words and labels
- Animation is important (helps kids to understand actions and reactions within the app/on the ball)
- Most appropriate platform (they used iPad more than iPhone, etc)
- How to most effectively use screen space
- How they interpreted different items
- The types of games they wanted to play
- It began with a prototype
- Hardware is at the core
- Kids can own the technology they’re working with (arrives in pieces), start with a broken product you have to fix
- IFTTT rule-based system
- Paper Prototyping, printed and mounted mockups — we rarely tested interface in this way, as kids have high expectations with fidelity
The Hackaball still has six days left in its crowdfunding campaign and interested backers can purchase one of their own starting at $69 over on Kickstarter.