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We develop children's toys. For one of the electronic devices that we are developing the child presses a button to initiate an activity. At the end of the activity (15 - 20 seconds in duration), they can press the button again to initiate another activity.

What should we do if they don't press the button?

Should we prompt them after, let's say, a 15 second wait?

Our team is concerned that this prompting can becoming annoying...

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As a parent, I can attest to this: toys that make noises without anyone asking them to get their batteries taken away! Also, when hit the off button to turn off a toy, make it turn off immediately please! No goodbye noises and such. –  Grant Feb 27 '13 at 14:34
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+1 @Grant. When I got up early this morning to feed my 9 month old son a purple octopus asked me if I wanted to play as I walked by. I'm not a fan of the purple octopus. –  Charles Wesley Feb 27 '13 at 17:11
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6 Answers

Unattended devices which promts users to do something through sound or visual effects is indeed annoying. It doesn't matter wheather it's a childrens toy or our latest hate object at home: the tumble dryer. It beeps every 15 minutes to tell you that it's finished until you acknowledge the alarm. It can be put off at start - but that feature is almost always forgotten.

And inactivity alerts sometimes have drastic consequences:

In December of 1972, distraction killed 101 people. A flight crew became so absorbed with changing a lightbulb that they didn’t notice no one was flying the plane, not even the autopilot. The crew ignored multiple warnings including a 0.5 second buzz, an amber warning indicator and the beeping of the radio altimeter, all of which indicated that their plane was precipitously falling from the sky. Warning messages could not overcome their distraction.

Reference: Who killed the inactive button state?

Donald Norman once wrote:

“the best way [to] prevent user error is to make sure that the user cannot make errors in the first place or that the effects are easily reversible.”

You need to be very careful implementing inactivity alerts of any kind. If you absolutely have too, even if it's a childrens game, make sure it prompts the user in a "friendly" way and that it's active for a very short period in time.

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It's not an uncommon practice in children's toys to prompt after a suitable period - in fact it's not limited to children's toys either.

But the things that make it annoying are if the method of prompting is itself annoying such as being a horrible sound rather than a pleasant sound, or by repeating it after every period of inactivity until forced to interact with it.

My children had an electronic keyboard which gave a multi-note little tune after a minute of activity. I think it did it a few times, but it wasn't a pleasant sound so in my mind it was being repeated more times than it probably was.

They also had robot toys that did something similar - but there was one that moved it's arms every 10 minutes or so - until you actually had to turn it off - now that was annoying - especially when it was in a box with other toys and we were trying to work out what the occasional noise was.

We have a washing machine that pings after it's finished and does 2 or 3 times, every 5 minutes or so if you haven't pressed a button or opened the door in the meantime. It's not an unpleasant sound. We don't mind it and we know it won't continue for long

The thing is, you can't mind-read why the child has not interacted with it for 20 seconds - it may simply have been finished with, and the child left the room. Toys that continue to make noises when no-one is in the room any more can be quite annoying.

My suggestion if you want to do this is to make three attempts, no louder than necessary, but just loud enough to remind that it's there. On the third reminder, make a slightly different sound to indicate this is the final try. Tick...Tick...Tock. Bing...Bing...Pong. Adults and children will learn that the different third sound is a final sound and it won't keep nagging.

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There's also any number of baby/doll toys that will gurgle after a couple of intervals, and then make a yawn/sigh, and close their eyes and go to 'sleep'. That's the same strike one, strike two, and out concept in a gentle and unannoying way - in fact this can mean the toy is deliberately left alone because the child likes to see/hear this happen! –  Roger Attrill Feb 27 '13 at 10:05
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+1 Yeap. I'll just add that to me the major difference between a Bosch washing machine UX and an LG microwave UX is that in Bosch washer that nagging sound can be turned off but it can't in an LG microwave. This is one of the reasons why I got myself a purely mechanical control microwave - single "ding" at the end of heating and then silent. I'm going to so much details just because it really makes a difference. –  sharptooth Feb 27 '13 at 10:26
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Speaking from father's perspective rather than UX designer (well, combining it a little bit) I think it is great for educative toys to keep children focused on a particular activity, which is playing with the toy. The thing is that children at the age of 0-2 years often lose their attention atracted by some sounds around, other toys etc.

In the same time it is good to keep them focused on something because: - in case of educative toys: they will keep playing with them, expanding their understanding of how to interact in general with world around and the toy, which is the goal of the toy - being focused itself is a skill as well. Skipping from one play to another is therefore noneducative, and playing a focus sound is something that prevents it - last, yet not least: in many cases parents want children to be focused on something just to give them (parents) some breath

One of the greatest toys my both daughters used to love was this one: http://www.fisher-price.com/en_Us/products/30407

The toy used to play a sound after a period of inactivity. It was a bare "Goodbye", but many times I have seen my daughters coming back to the play.

I think that the question is a little bit different: is the sound annoying or not. In case of the toy I have mentioned, it was totally not annoying, it just grabbed the attention in a very nice, polite way - the toy just communicated that it wants to say goodbye if the user does not want to play with it any more. Yet, the result was usually quite different.

Regarding washing machines and other home appliances, the annoyance comes from the chore the sound communicates. You need to take out the laundry, so it basically says "Hey, I need you to take care of me." There is quite a difference between telling someone that he has to do something and kindly coughing in the corner saying "I'm here, goodbye for now, but if you want to play more, I am always ready."

By the way, there was another toy tat followed the same scheme, an interactive table - another great and beloved toy, however I don't remember the brand. Something tells me it was Little Tikes, but not sure about it, cannot find it on their site, maybe it's discontinued or I am wrong regarding the brand.

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When it comes to kid experiences you also have a second audience in the room, which is the parent, and they'll only ever here the repeating sound effects. They'll replace toys that annoy them, too.

I would suggest you give a subtle visual prompt. For example, if the button looks like a flower, have the petals do a visual flourish but not necessarily force the user to action. Simply call their attention to it. And as others suggested, you could even add a pleasing sound effect. Encourage interaction, but don't demand it.

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When talking about inactivity alerts sound is as annoying as it can get. You could look into other ways to handle this. Does the toy has a screen? If so, you could show some animation to attract the child's attention. Does it have lights on it? You could flash them to do the same.

However, in all cases: don't continue attracting attention for eternity. Switch the toy to off-mode after a few minutes of inactivity: the child has probably put the toy aside for now.

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I don't think that it's bad to do so, depending on the complexity of the toy. If screen based configuration is an option, you can go with the approach that new users need to opt out, but maybe display a message saying that they can turn it off if they wish.

But again, depends on whether having that functionality is suitable for the toy.

It should be the users choice, and in a non configurable product then it's probably best to not include such a feature.

Our washing machine makes the most annoying 3 note chime every 30 seconds, after it's completed washing, and it's not configurable. Not a fan and wouldn't have bought it if I knew up front.

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