Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Nancie Martin
Tell us a little about yourself. You have been instrumental in the development of girl games at Mattel. How did you get to that position? How did you move on to PlanetGirl.com, Inc.? What did you do at Mattel, and what do you do now at PlanetGirl.com, Inc. that might be related to design work?
I have been hooked on the human-computer interface since 1975 when I first did programming on punch cards for Computer Science 101. As the New York-based editor in chief of many image-heavy magazines, including Tiger Beat, Playgirl, and many entertainment titles, I was an early desktop-publishing user and had my first personal email account in 1983.
Noting that magazines were the most interactive form of traditional media and that my production, editorial, and management skills were completely transferable, I made the switch to interactive media in 1992. I moved to San Francisco, where I was one of the creators of the groundbreaking CD-ROM Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World. I founded my own company, Jouissance Productions, and among other projects, did two entertainment reference CD-ROM titles for Rhino Records (Rock Expedition: The 1960s and Soul Expedition: The 1960s). For these two projects, I engaged the services of a different graphic artist for each featured musical artista total of 20, within a consistent interface.
At the time I started developing interactive projects, the field was technology driven, not consumer driven, and it became clear to me that the world’s major consumersgirls and womenwere being left out of the audience calculations. Females, the industry wisdom had it, didn’t like technology and were afraid of computers; I knew instinctively that was wrongaccessible content was the problem.
When Mattel recruited me to Southern California in 1995 to help found the Mattel Media division and create software for girls, I jumped at the opportunity. The first products we developed were released in fall 1996 and included Barbie Fashion Designer, a truly innovative PC CD-ROM that quickly reached #1 on the sales charts. I was executive producer of that title and most of the other Barbie titles, and director of software development. In those capacities I conceptualized overall design and developed design documentation; supervised design of interface, icons, and a wide variety of elements (fashions, for example, for Barbie Fashion Designer); and oversaw production.
While at Jouissance, I consulted on Internet marketing to several different companies and wrote a book-length report on the topic for the senior marketing personnel of a Fortune 10 company. Upon my arrival at Mattel I was asked to chair their online task force and was active in the implementation of a number of online initiatives, including several RFP rounds for corporate Internet projects. In January 1998 I became director of online content, and was responsible for the success of Barbie.com, which within the year was the #1 brand site for the target audience of girls 6 to 12. I also co-led the team developing the My Design friend of Barbie doll.
In June of 1999, I decided to take on a new challenge and became president of PlanetGirl.com, a subsidiary of Girl Games, Inc. Here, I am responsible for every aspect of running this online network for teen girls; editorial, design, production, sales, marketing, and operations all report into me. The design decisions I make are macro level: I look at what works for the audience and thus for the company.
Tell us about the interface structure and goals of Mattel products? Of PlanetGirl.com.
A primary design goal of any product should be to meet consumers’ needs. When I arrived at Mattel, the needs of girls in their interactions with computers had not really been considered in the context of mass-market media. We did primary research with thousands of girls to understand those needs.
Barbie-age consumers have specific needs, interests, and skills, which differ across that age spectrum in ranges of about two years each (4 to 5, 6 to 7, etc.). In order to make products with the widest possible appeal, we needed to consider many of those needs in the context of any given title. For instance, we had to be sure that our basic interfaces and icons were extremely clear and required no reading so our youngest users could navigate through the interface. We needed to make icons and hotspots large enough so small hands that lacked fine motor skills could still click easily. And yes, girls 4 to 7 really do love the trademarked color known as Barbie pink!
Similarly, the online design of the customizable My Design friend of Barbie doll was challenging in that we needed to represent all of the possible options without implying that there was a "default" or that one choice was preferred over others. We struggled, for instance, with how to represent skin coloras a swatch? Our eventual solution was to show the different colors as face options with the same hairstyle and eye color so consumers could see what they were getting step by step. An important goal was also to move the consumer through as few screens as possible as quickly as possible to encourage purchases, but to also make changing one’s mind easy and fun, so we implemented a "you are now at step X" indicator. We also had to encourage conversion from a child’s experience of creating her own design to a parental or other gift purchase, so we needed to enable the sending and printing of doll designs.
At PlanetGirl.com, we have other consumer challenges. We identify many of those through research conducted by the nationally recognized Girl Games Lab. Today’s 13- to 17-year-old girl is totally media savvy and prone to media multitasking. She’ll be watching TV, Web surfing, instant messaging, talking to a chain of friends on the phone via three-way calling, listening to a CD, reading a magazine, and doing her nailsall at the same time! So getting her attention with lots of music, sound, and motion is key. That’s why we opted for an all-flash site, which helps keep things lively. It’s also important to give her a sense of control and accomplishment at a time in her life when she may not be feeling that in other arenas. So we created a pull-down navigation system that makes it easy for her to get around, and lots of places where we publish girls’ submissions, including poetry, music, and photography. We give her lots of opportunities to participate in polls, surveys, and quizzes and instant feedback on the results. We also have color coding and an icon system for each of the nine channels within the site, so a girl instantly knows where she is and what the headlines on the home page point to.
For girls and women, the technology needs to be transparentit’s what you can do with it that matters.
Creating content-rich designs is a special area of interface design. What sort of process is used for design? For usability evaluation? How many people are involved in the design process, and how are skills and roles distributed in the group?
We’ve developed a databased template system that we update periodically. This system enables us to keep our production really efficient. For each update phase, we review all the comments we’ve gotten from site visitors and from research participants. Then the half-dozen people on staff directly involved in the creation of the site brainstorm our needs and create a design document for the phase. We currently work with an outside studio, DNA Studios in LA, to implement our concepts, and we go through many review iterations with their staff designers. Those iterations include an intensive qualitative round with our consumers, evaluating ease of use and their reactions to design elements.
At this moment [December 1999], each one of us wears many hats, with interface design the best-distributed skill. Our staff is growing rapidly and will be at almost 30 by June 2000. By then, we will have more defined roles in our design process, including an art director to oversee the overall look of the site and specific executions within it.
You have been vitally involved in a new genre of software products devoted to girls. What motivates you to work in this area? Do you have advice to give others who would follow in your footsteps, or who wish to be more involved in this area of software development?
I’m personally motivated by the need to do new things. So when I saw that just a few years ago there were no computer games for girls or that women represented less than 10 percent of Internet users, I wanted to change that. Females are the majority of the population, so I get livid when our needs are ignored, and I like to play as big as I can, so reaching out to a mass market has always been important to me. Selfishly, I also like to think that 30 years from now, many of the women in the world will remember that their first introduction to computing, by then the most indispensable yet transparent tool of everyday life, was via one of the products I created.
Advice to those who’d follow in my footsteps: 1. LISTEN to your consumer. She has a lot to tell you. 2. Make sure you have a good sense of balance. My footsteps are usually in stiletto heels.
Do you have any mottoes or personal words of wisdom you remind yourself of from time to time? Any favorite reading? Any disasters or extraordinary successes you’ve learned from? Would you like to see standards and guidelines developed for this particular type of endeavor?
Mottoes: 1. I am not my consumer, and though I may empathize with her, I never will be. 2. Any software project always will take twice as long as you think it will and will cost three times as much. 3. Trust your instincts. You’ve earned them.
Favorite reading: 1. Three newspapers a day and dozens of magazines each month. 2. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, the most elegant little book on grammar ever written. 3. Site submissions from girls.
The Barbie software I developed was so extraordinarily successful out of the box that it completely vindicated my belief that girls need something just for them, hence motto #3. As far as disasters, I learned my motto #2 the hard wayenough said.
The marketplace tends to set its own standards with regard to technology, and interactive media give the consumer the opportunity to vote with their mice to set interface standards. (That doesn’t mean either of those are good standards, but realistically that’s what happens.) I’d like to see some kind of quality standards, since so much software product just doesn’t work right. But in general I’m wary about standards, which I feel can create a homogenization of product and deaden creativity. The same is true of guidelines, but I’d like to see more how-tos written that capture the rich oral tradition that’s developed in the industry.
Nancie S. Martin
Interviewed by Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson
©2000 ACM 1072-5220/00/0200 $5.00
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