FOOD: Bigger than the Plate

The kids recently went back to school and it didn’t seem fair to me that they get to crack on with that heady job of learning while all us oldies have is a more crowded commute.

To celebrate September, and to do some learning, the Razors went on a field trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum to feast on its latest exhibition, FOOD: Bigger than the Plate.

I love the V&A. I love wandering past all the ‘old stuff’ and into a space that, over the years, has given me McQueen, Kylie, Princess Diana, Bowie, and cruise ships. They’re nothing if not eclectic over there. 

What did I learn?
That pineapple fabric is pretty cool, that I need to watch more YouTube (Italian Grandmas Try Olive Garden For The First Time had me hooting in hallowed halls), that chickens are fabulous and complicated, and that the people who get our food to our plates – from cake to carrot – deserve all of our respect. 

Like any good schoolmistress, I naturally doled out some homework after our visit. Here’s what the team had to say:

“I was fascinated by the ingenuity of others and their desire to find ways to be more sustainable (who knew you could make cups and saucers out of used coffee grounds?!). With all the talk of global warming and how we’re ruining our planet, it was comforting to see many examples of people trying to make a difference. (It made me feel like I should do something too!) I also really enjoyed the video reel on how food is produced and farmed all around the world. I’d genuinely never given any thought as to how my iceberg lettuce is harvested and prepped to be sold. I often think about technology and the potential for it to render humans obsolete, so it was quite refreshing to see examples of humans and technology working together in food production.”

Chloe B
“I really enjoyed the exhibition. There’s something that stuck with me from the moment we walked in: 60% of the world still doesn’t have access to clean water. I had no idea it was that much and it’s already made me stop being so wasteful with tap water. I’m a big hypocrite when it comes to eating meat (I love eating it but can’t bear to think about the process behind it) so watching the video reel of a mass production line was pretty disturbing. It might not be enough to put me off meat for good but it’s definitely made me want to make my food choices more carfeully.”

“I thought the digital farming aspect was fascinating. Using computer robotic systems to adjust and monitor climate, energy and plant growth inside a specialised growing chamber really blew my mind. Creating varying climatic conditions for different products opens up agricultural research to the digital generation and could allow for more products to be grown here rather than imported from different countries. It was scary, but comforting, to see how the digital world could farm products locally and help reduce climate change. I like to think of my food being grown organically but if this method could help to reduce the global impact of exportation then why not? The marriage of farming and technology is a beautiful concept and I think it should be adopted everywhere. I also enjoyed LOCI Food Lab where you personally select what makes a great food system and they make an hors d’oeuvre snack tailored just for you. Yum!”

“This exhibition made me think how little I know (or think) about where my food comes from; and that I totally take for granted how accessible it is. I’m out a fair bit during the week which means I’m often guilty of food wastage. I actually stopped myself buying an iceberg lettuce the other day having had my eyes opened to the laborious process from field to supermarket. The final exhibit is LOCI Food Lab where we got to try a canapé of sustainable food which I found surprisingly enjoyable and made me feel positive about the future of food!”

“My general expectation was that I’d come away from this exhibition with some new ideas to help change my behaviours. What I hadn’t banked on was how charming it would also be. FOOD: Bigger than the Plate is as entertaining as it is informative. I could go on about almost every exhibit for hours, but my favourite part was a 13-minute silent loop of short video clips showing the sinister truths of food production (not just obligatory abattoir scenes but the crop-dusting and crop-picking too). When we see these kind of clips on TV there’s usually a narrator stealing focus. This time, the images did all the talking, leaving me with plenty of food for thought.”

Here’s to being well and truly back at school! (If we’ve whetted your appetite, the exhibition will be on until Sunday 20th October.)

Virtually there

My wife accuses me of ‘moderating’ her when I think we’re just having a chat. It’s not because I’ve asked her to fill in a food diary, do a selfie video, or map a series of choices that I’ve written on index cards for what we might do this weekend…honestly, it’s not. (I only did that one time and it was very insightful.)

I bridle, but I think she has a point. For twenty years now, my job has been to put people at ease and then…get something from them. At the risk of sounding Machiavellian, this is my approach to both client relationships and market research participants (or consumers, or humans, or whatever you’re supposed to call them nowadays). 

That’s the job, right? To engage people in conversation and learn some stuff about them. Sure, you’re also going to turn it into insight…and a debrief…or a new brief…but it all starts the same way. With rapport.

This week, I’m interviewing women via Zoom Video Conferencing (my new favourite toy). We’re talking about weight loss and it gets pretty personal. They’re at home and they’ve not had to dress up or tidy up for the camera. I’m at home and I haven’t dressed up either (but I am doing them the courtesy of getting dressed). Our pets walk past the camera and their children can be heard arguing off-stage. It’s like life is only slightly interrupted.

And it’s great. Because it’s rapport. And because I’m good at my job, I’m really good at rapport. It doesn’t matter that there are also six clients on the call (with muted camera and microphones) and that they’re messaging me questions from the sidelines. The questions are useful and their presence is unintrusive. We’re on a level. There’s no fuss or faffing – just space to have a conversation. 

We wrote another proposal recently that recommends virtual interviews only – and I know the client is sceptical. If we don’t win it, I’ll be sad but I’ll understand. But I honestly, honestly believe that if we’re good at our jobs we can develop rapport with anyone – quickly, easily, on all our own terms. 

I’m under no illusions that virtual depths are anything new. But having been a staunch ‘face-to-face’ is best kinda researcher, I’m now changing my tune. Life is hectic, we all want market research to be easy, and none of us enjoy schlepping home from the other side of town late at night and hungry. But we do it because we believe in it.

Maybe we’re just not trusting ourselves to enjoy a different way of chatting; being mutually comfy, staring straight into someone’s eyes and talking? Rapport is what qual researchers should be really good at. So, let’s use it and make everyone’s life just a little bit easier. 

As for my wife, she’s truly excited to be going with me on an accompanied shopping trip where I shall scrutinise her choices and then buy her a coffee for a summary chat afterwards. 

Born to moderate? Moi?



AI and quant

Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates.’
‘Experts warn that AI poses a clear and present danger.’
‘AI cyberattacks will be almost impossible for humans to stop.’

Just a few headlines from recent months. Not a particularly rosy picture of technology, I think you’ll agree! Even the late, great Stephen Hawking expressed fears that AI might replace humans altogether. It’s a huge topic and there are genuine concerns.  

At the start of the year we introduced a new internal initiative, ‘Razor Drive’; where every so often we select a topic which will challenge us and stretch our imaginations. A topic that, in some way, relates to market research – but also doesn’t. Our first was Artificial Intelligence. We ran sessions to help understand AI by digging beneath the surface to get to the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

A March 2018 special report from The Economist pointed out that companies from a range of sectors harnessed AI to forecast demand, hire workers, and to deal with customers. In 2017, companies spent almost $22bn on AI-related mergers and acquisitions; about 26 times more than in 2015.

This led me to think about the role that AI plays in the world of consumer quant research.

The pessimistic mindset is all too easy to guess: ‘We’re all doomed! Machines will take over our jobs and leave us redundant!’.

A balanced and informed viewpoint is often important in these instances, so I’ve done some digging. There’s no questioning the fact that advances in technology have (and will continue to) alter the way we do our jobs. But it’s not all bad…

Recent developments in AI have made identifying emotions & personality traits more accessible and more accurate than ever before. Businesses such as iMotions simplify advanced biometric research by providing companies with the hardware & software to move the ‘lab’ to their office (or location of their choice).

With this technology, eye-tracking, facial expression analysis, and galvanic skin response are all possible on a large scale. We can get an accurate view on where people are looking and how they feel about something based on their body’s natural responses. Other companies such as EyeSee and Realeyes use respondent webcams to detect emotional reaction in a simple and non-intrusive way. The ability to read emotions like this is a game-changer for any researcher, adding another important layer to our understanding.

Trendwatching recently unveiled that there are many fresh examples of brands harnessing this kind of deep human data to help provide even more personalised products and services. For example, Expedia and Palace Resorts ran a campaign with a series of ads split across a screen and used eye-tracking to see which type of holiday consumers were focusing on. 7-Eleven in Thailand and Walmart in the US have also introduced facial recognition technology to track shopper moods around their stores and, therefore, tailor products and experiences accordingly.

AI has also allowed for far speedier analysis of video, audio and text from samples. Companies such as Crimson Hexagon have developed platforms with the ability to process large amounts of natural language data. They’ve also developed algorithms powered by machine learning to detect patterns in online conversation and to automate the classification of these attributes on a large scale.

So where does this leave us humble researchers? In my view, there’s still very much a role for humans in collating and interpreting this data. Common sense and human observation will surely remain the driving force for most successful projects, when providing well-rounded insights to our clients.

Alongside these automated techniques, focused and direct research methods still have a huge role to play in helping clients to tackle specific business issues. Only humans can truly understand clients’ businesses and the wider context – and then use this knowledge to craft an engaging and informed narrative; a fine-tuned narrative that clients can use to action change.

AI is still very much in its infancy. There’s so much more to come, and no one really knows what the future holds. But, in its current form, we should consider it a blessing rather than a curse. The more we acknowledge and understand the benefits of technology enhancing our understanding of human behaviour, the better!

CLICK HERE to change your life!

Online engagement equals cash money – and the tech world is out to get it! Our smartphones are literally designed to be as addictive as possible. No wonder Toys “R” Us struggled; kids are mostly into one kind of toy.

It feels as though every user around the world is simultaneously living their own version of The Truman Show. So what tricks do our smartphones use to pull us in? 

We can draw a parallel between the most addictive form of gambling and the way many social apps now function. What’s more satisfying and addictive than pulling down a slot machine handle? Apps cleverly replicate this pull feature to refresh pages to give the user an illusion of control. Corporations profit by keeping us hooked.

Colour is hugely important too. Eye tracking studies have shown that we’re drawn to bright reds and pinks, much more than to greens or blues. This is why all our notifications are red. Every colour, icon and notification on our phones are meticulously thought out in order to get the most attention and engagement from us.

Remember the Instagram rebrand? They got rid of the brown/beige icon to make it…yep…pinky/red! Airbnb and Google did the same with their logos to make them more striking. I wonder what the impact on our brains would be if our phone screens displayed in black and white? Every app on the home screen would operate on a level playing field. And it would probably lead to less procrastination. (I’ll confirm that another time.)

Perhaps the smartest design feature is ‘infinite scrolling’. There is no need to click to load new content, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and co. You just keep scrolling down forever, which makes it so much harder to stop.

How many of you ever get past page 1 on a Google search? Not many I bet. If search engines suddenly adopted infinite scrolling I imagine we would all struggle. But in a social context, it works to keep you going and going and going…

If you don’t fancy grayscaling your phone, try disabling any non-human push notifications which try to replicate the social interaction we desire. See how your usage drops to a healthy amount overnight.

Video Nation

Real people are everywhere now. They’re on our televisions. In our ads. On our YouTube channels. But, back in the ‘90s, real people were a novelty.

Between 1993 and 2001, the BBC broadcasted Video Nation – a revolving diary series spotlighting the lives of normal people. Inspired by the Mass Observation project of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s (in which everyday people recorded their thoughts, feelings, and experiences), members of the public were given camcorders and invited to record aspects of their daily lives. The footage was then edited into short films and aired before Newsnight.

At The Story 2018 conference last month, Mandy Rose, one of the co-producers of the project, shared highlights from the show as well as insights into how they made it.

Watching the footage now, it’s striking just how natural and unforced it is. Granted an open platform, the participants disclosed their hopes, their fears and their insecurities; from a pensioner lamenting his ageing appearance, to a pregnant mum speculating on her child’s future.

One can only imagine what it was like to watch such intimate scenes at the time – before YouTube made ‘user-generated content’ commonplace. But, unlike YouTube, it was very much a collaboration: participants had the final say over the edit and were closely involved throughout.

Together, this combination of skilled documentarians and everyday people results in a more revelatory, more ‘human’, output than if the participants had simply uploaded the content themselves.

And I think this is why it feels so much more authentic than what passes for user-generated content these days. Rather than an incontinent splurge, Video Nation shorts are tightly constructed, with the human truth brought front and centre – yet another reminder that ‘authentic’ representations are often more constructed than they first appear.

What could this mean for brands? Don’t sacrifice storytelling at the altar of the ‘real’. User-generated content requires the same craft and rigour as any other. And, curiously, feels a lot more real.

I pod, therefore I am: take one

We don’t half wang on about storytelling in the research industry. Well in most industries, really – it’s everywhere. But we’re supposed to be better at it than others. Writing debriefs and ‘telling the story’ is the hardest part of what we do and, having spent another weekend wrestling a story out of a confusing mess of conversations, I’m struggling to remind myself that this is something I’m supposed to excel at.

Telling the story was the biggest learning curve I faced when dipping my toes into the heady world of ‘can’t beat them? Join them’ podcasting. (See my previous blog about my new research ‘toy’.) I quietly went ahead and produced a pilot back in January. I chose a client brand I love – one that’s been generous to Razor over the years – and tried using audio to tell their consumers’ stories in a way that works differently to debriefs and videos.

And boy is it hard. I’m on the cusp of having a second try and here are a few lessons I’ve learnt:

  • You can’t just ‘wing’ the story. It’s all very well assuming that a story will simply emerge from a spontaneous conversation (as spontaneous as any conversation can be when you’re trying desperately hard not to interject with pointless hums and haws). If you don’t know what story you’re trying to tell in advance, you might just find the story takes longer to emerge. Plan more.
  • Push the boundaries. I’m no therapist. As a moderator I’ve often been in a position where I’ve hit an emotional nerve in a conversation and the professional in me acknowledges it and then moves on. But if you do that when capturing an interview for a podcast you’re likely to stop the tape just as it gets interesting. I now know to plan and tease out those moments of raw emotion and not shy away from letting them happen. We have the interviewee’s consent and we’re not there to just listen – we’re there to tell.
  • It takes time (and two). I had no idea that an editor would bring such value to the party! This time round I’ve brought mine in at the beginning so he can help me shape the content before I even start. He will instinctively know what textures I need to weave in to make a better listen.

But the most important thing I’ve learnt is what I should have known going in to this experiment. And that’s that any good story must have some drama. Something has to happen. If nothing happens, if there’s no narrative arc…then it’s nothing better than an eavesdrop.

Here’s a snippet from my first attempt. I might as well put it out there. I’ll embark on round two and let you know whether I’ve learnt from my mistakes.


I pod, therefore I am

I’m a self-confessed telly addict. I’ve a penchant for photography. I occasionally buy art and I’m not a naysayer when it comes to PowerPoint. Basically, I’m cool with visuals.

But spoken-word audio has a hold over me that none of the above does. It’s my solace, my constant companion, my daily diversion. It has a language and tonality that the visually vivid mediums don’t. 

Podcasts are my medium. You’re never waiting for something to happen. Listening to a podcast is a constant cultural update, a chance to learn, a way of being exposed to the world through different lenses.

I trade favourites with friends and colleagues; quickly subscribing when I get a recommendation and unsubscribing, just as quickly, if the first episode doesn’t grab me. I get pod anxiety. I don’t like having too big a backlog to contend with. I like to keep up.

It shames me a little that I have a preference for American podcasts – I feel disloyal to the British accent. My preference for American male presenters makes me feel even more disloyal. I hate female presenters’ propensity for vocal fry – something I learned about…from a podcast.

Recent favourites, despite my aforementioned preferences, is the R4 podcast ‘Fortunately…’ with Fi Glover and Jane Garvey. It’s truly astonishingly brilliant. Just two women chatting. Recommended, and quickly ditched, are two other women chatting; Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton from ‘The High Low’. (If I’m honest, they lost me at ‘Pandora and Dolly’ – can’t bear them). I’m also loving ‘Atlanta Monster’ (yep, more true crime), ‘Gravy’ (food tales from the American south) and will never abandon ‘The Food Programme’ or ‘The Archers’.

This is all leading somewhere… 

I’ve always wanted my own ‘research toy’. By which I mean a ‘thing’ that isn’t quite work but isn’t not work. A thing that would give me a chance to play, to experiment, and the freedom to make mistakes in my own time, not that of my clients’ (yet, anyway!)  A gift to me to celebrate ten years of Razor and a gift to a client who’s been loyal and fabulous to work with for most of those ten years.

I’ve made my first podcast.

How’s that for a cliffhanger?

Stay tuned for my next blog to find out how it went.

Digital natives

Cute little boy in headphones watching something on laptop at home

Today’s kids are growing up in a digital universe with all the power at their fingertips. We already know that the digital world is an enchanting place for kids – but it can also be a dangerous one. Cyberbullying, exposure to unrealistic images, fake news, sexual content, violent imagery…It’s a risky landscape to navigate and could have a detrimental effect on kids’ mental health.

A few weeks ago, YouTube hit the headlines for streaming a video by influential tween icon, Logan Paul. The video showed footage of what appeared to be a dead body in a location, referred to as ‘Suicide Forest’. Shockingly, not only did the video make it through the YouTube filters (receiving 6.3 million views!) but it also made it through to the top trending videos list.

And a few months ago, YouTube caused another storm for allowing violent and offensive content to slip through the net. This time it wasn’t just for the main channel but also YouTube Kids a standalone app built specifically for children and child-friendly entertainment.

It’s not only inappropriate content that is a concern. We see, from our studies, that girls as young as six are not only conscious of their body shape but tend to be unhappy with it. We’ve no doubt this is being exacerbated by the proliferation of videos and imagery they are viewing.

With the staggering growth and penetration of smartphone and tablet ownership by children, media viewing and active, digital participation has become individual and child-led. It is often unmonitored by a responsible adult. This has, not surprisingly, created tension and concern among parents, teachers, and the government with regards to how safe or appropriate the virtual environment is for young people. There’s been considerable investment in education with interventions to help safeguard children but it’s clear this isn’t working hard enough and that the problem stems from children’s homes. Last year, hype on social media led to many children watching an 18-rated, suicide fantasy series called 13 Reasons Why. By the time schools and parents had found out, it was too late. It proves that access to inappropriate content is easy and highlights the lack of involvement parents have in knowing what their kids are getting up to.

A YouGov survey from 2015 found that British parents were reluctant to have conversations with their children about what they’re up to online – waiting until children turned nine to tackle online safety, despite 91% of eight-year olds accessing the internet once a week. Since then, we’ve seen brands such as O2 and EE open the dialogue to support parents with online protection. 02 have partnered with the NSPCC to offer free online resources and workshops in schools whilst EE are also providing parents and children with tips to stay safe online. This comes after 40% of parents reported that they do not consider online safety when buying technology gifts for their children.

teenager with tablet while lying on the floor in the room

So why aren’t parents doing more?

Parents tell us that they feel disempowered and deskilled to monitor what their kids are doing online. A generational tech gap exists between kids and parents. However, whilst parents are aware of stealth tracking software to monitor their kids’ surfing and social media feeds, uptake of this is very low. A key reason for children’s online and autonomous independence stems from the fact that in many households, working parents are the norm and unable to be around as much. This has impacted on family dynamics. Parents are much more likely to expect help from their offspring around the home and in return are often rewarded with ‘screen time’. Modern parenting styles also skew towards a liberal approach of trusting their children to be responsible and behaving appropriately, especially as parents’ perceptions are that their kids are equipped to navigate online safely. And let’s not forget ‘pester power’ which is in force among hormonal tweens and teens. Tired parents find it hard to resist allowing kids to watch a video or get a social media campaign when persistently being nagged by their children – especially if they feel this will socially ostracise their kids in their social friendship circles.

Whilst we all know children under the age of 13 shouldn’t have a social media account, recent studies show that the truth is far from this. There’s a direct correlation with social media activity and smart phone ownership and in some markets, this is as young as seven years of age. But we can’t blame parents. Many social media platforms are unwilling to admit to an underage user base and squirm their way out of being responsible for this invisible cohort. However, pressure from government, children’s charities, parent and school forums is finally starting to have an effect. Facebook currently has 4,500 moderators and last year announced plans to hire more. Even before Logan Paul’s dramatic fall from grace, YouTube announced similar plans to hire thousands of new moderators.

The media giant is now said to be making changes to the way it moderates content, with a greater focus on footage that might violate their policies whilst further developing advanced learning technology to automatically flag content for removal. It will be interesting to see how future safeguards to protect young people will emerge – especially given the technical skill & knowledge, online giants must have within their reach.

But we also must be careful that support for kids doesn’t mean removing their digital access or being too stringent on restricting their online/social media activity, as there are many benefits about growing up digital and is after all, the world they will be working and communicating within, for years to come.

Teacher and kids lying on floor using digital tablet in library at elementary school

We hear from kids, parents, and teachers about the benefits digital access has brought to learning and education and enhancing children’s creativity and problem-solving skills. In this information age, kids have a genuine thirst for knowledge and the boundaries between learning and play have blurred into ‘edutainment’.  Social media platforms are helping kids understand the importance of growing diverse networks and will put them in good stead in the future and they tap into these for career and leisure purposes.  

Growing independence is also helping them learn to self-regulate their behaviour and abide by their own standards of what’s right and fair.

They are a generation of kids who have greater awareness of what’s going on in the world and are deeply moved by the negative impact that man is having on the planet and want to change this. Access to personal technology has also helped them develop new and far reaching friendships. We’ve heard from families about how connected they feel with each other through chatting on social media platforms, allowing continual, intermittent exchanges about what’s going on in their life or troubling them.

The government’s Internet Safety Strategy consultation came to an end last month. It will be interesting to see how we find a way to balance the benefits of children being online or on social media with safeguarding them more effectively.

Lesley Salem, head of Razor Kids appeared as a panelist at the 2018 MRS Kids & Youth Research Conference, exploring ‘the role of research in protecting and empowering young people online’. If you have an idea on how your organisation could get more involved in sharing significant trends around children’s online safety or could have an impact on policy, we’d love to hear from you.


Buzzfeed – reactions to Logan Paul
Buzzfeed – parents’ reactions to Logan Paul 
Mashable – YouTube changes
The Guardian – YouTube accused
Polygon – YouTube
Campaign – O2 and NSPCC
EE – staying safe online
EE – press release
The Guardian – moderating social media
The Telegraph – moderators allowed Logan Paul video


Digital assistance for life

‘She’s changed our lives for the better.’
‘I don’t know how we ever managed without her.’
‘She’s driving me mad!’
‘She doesn’t listen to me.’
‘I had to pull the plug on her.’

Yep. We’re in that new year/January wasteland where most of us are probably adjusting to the snazzy new gadgets we received for Christmas. (Or pets. At least one of the above sentences refers to a dog.) After playing with them during the holidays, it’s now time to settle them into our regular day-to-day routines.

No prizes for guessing what kind of gadget I’m referring to. The top app on Christmas day for Android and iPhone was Amazon’s Alexa app. While that doesn’t reveal specific device sales figures, it’s a strong indicator that smart speakers/digital assistants were the winning gifts for Christmas 2017. Other brands are, of course, available.

Having watched my friends over the past year adjust to having a virtual assistant in the home, I’ve noted several things – including:

  • How incredibly useful they are.
  • How IMMEDIATELY useful they become.
  • They have a bare minimum of settings.
  • They can do so much.
  • They adjust to accents.
  • They solve arguments.
  • My friends’ children ask these devices for everything – including food.
  • They don’t always work as planned.
  • They can do SO MUCH.

I, personally, don’t own one yet. I’m not even brave enough to install a smart thermostat at home. In fact, I’m one of those annoying people who would unplug everything if I could possibly get away with it. (I’m an anxious person – you get the idea…) BUT I’m intrigued to see how others go about their daily lives with them. As a sort of ‘laggard’, I talk to the early adopters and make my decisions based on their experiences. It’s for the best. Technological advances come so ridiculously quickly that most devices are considered out of date by the time I’m ready to buy in.

The other factor (which really doesn’t help my anxiety levels) is the privacy issue. Yes, Google knows everything I’ve ever asked it/written in Gmail/searched on YouTube. Facebook monitors me, Messenger listens to my conversations, and my phone has GPS. I’ve grudgingly learned to live with the price we pay for convenience – and I can switch them off around me when I feel like it. Having a device in the home listening to my conversations however is (currently) too far a stretch for me – even if it does have a mute button. I daresay I’ll change my mind further down the line but, right now, I live in a tiny flat and don’t have to stumble too far to switch the radio or a light on.

So if 2017 was the year that voice recognition hit the big time, what should we expect in 2018? More functions beyond the living room and kitchen for sure. Sleep technology is bound to be the next big thing. Your smart watch might be able to measure the quality of your sleep today, but how about app-enhanced beds for us and our pets tomorrow? Or bathroom solutions to control the length of our showers and water temperature? These can’t be too far away. In fact, I’m sure they already exist – I’m just too lazy to ask Google to verify. And I’ll be inundated with targeted ads for all sorts of tech wizardry if I do.  

Point is, it won’t be too long before the majority of our day-to-day tasks can’t happen without digital assistance.

What would make me cave in? Stuart Heritage summed things up in a way I can relate to:

‘You know how your heart sinks when you go to a shop and accidentally spend slightly more than £30, because it means you have to forego contactless payment in favour of manually entering your pin number with your fat cow hands like some sort of gormless circus monkey? That’s how it felt when I returned the Echo and reverted to digging out my phone, opening an app, typing some words, scrolling through choices and pressing play on my dumb anachronism of a Sonos. What had once been magical had suddenly become a chore.’

(If you liked that, give his whole article a read.)

While the tech isn’t suited to me (just yet), I’m genuinely excited to see how it will enhance the lives of the elderly and those with limited mobility. There’s a world of voice-controlled possibilities out there. 

All I want for Christmas

As a keen observer of kids’ trends over the past couple of decades, Lesley Salem’s noticed very little shift in the play drivers behind children’s gift choices – particularly at Christmas time. Of course, technology is ever-present and impacting on toy design. However, much of what’s on this year’s wish lists are merely iterations of traditional play…

Promoting care and nurture

Kids develop their understanding of other’s needs, and demonstrate love and care, through role-play. Therefore, dolls and animals have always dominated in children’s play choices. AI and robotic technology have transformed the market, so today’s toys are able to learn, evolve, and be more responsive to their owner. Young children have animistic thinking and believe objects are living, so AI and robotics have created more realism and are able to inspire loving moments and emotional bonds with children by responding to touch.

Popular examples include Luvabella Doll which has over 100 phrases and different facial expressions, Zoomer Chimp and FurReal’s Roarin’ Tyler the Playful Tiger learn commands and tricks over time, encouraging longevity of play. These kind of toys are not ‘just for Christmas’.

Promoting fantasy play and safe risk-taking

Some parents might feel uncomfortable purchasing toy weapons but it’s natural instinct (particularly for boys) to enjoy fantasy play involving weapons and super hero role play. It’s critical to their development with regards to safe risk-taking. It also allows kids to feel empowered in a world where they have little control.

Nerf guns continue to storm in sales but desire for action and love of cars are combined with this season’s Nerf Nitro LongShot Smash. Kids can design their own stunts and fire foam cars with powerful, high-performing Nerf blasters. The set includes two foam cars, plus a long-jump ramp for long-distance jumping challenges. Lazer X is another game expected to do well this Xmas and is a twist on laser tag. The set is designed for two players. Each player wears a chest plate that has energy for 10 lives. The experience is likened to being inside a video arcade game with various features that stimulate the senses.

Star Wars continues to be a popular franchise and with Hasbro’s Bladebuilders, users can choose between being a goodie or baddie and customise their weaponry in over 100 different combinations.

The joy of the unexpected

More than ever, kids love games that have an element of surprise or randomness in them to provide unexpected, shared experiences. Combined with humour, games like Pie Face and Toilet Trouble (both by Hasbro), work on the principle that after some time, one unlucky player will either get whipped cream or toilet water splashed on their face. Other toys are also tapping into the idea of surprise. L.O.L. Surprise! by MGA Entertainment is expected to surge this Christmas. Kids are encouraged to peel through layers to reveal treats and accessories before reaching a mystery doll in the middle. As there are so many different combinations, this has also increased its value as a collectable. Then there’s Hatchimals Surprise by Spin Master Toys; small eggs that hatch over time to reveal a unique animal inside.

Promoting skills

The lines between education and entertainment have merged, so edutainment is an important trend to the toy industry. LEGO Boost allows kids to build and code interactive, motorised robots and models with distance, colour, and tilt sensor technologies.

Mattel’s Bloxels allows kids to create and animate play spaces, characters and objects, enabling them to become the artist, game designer, storyteller, programmer, publisher and player in their very own virtual reality.

Cozmo by Anki joins a range of friendly robots that explore the environment, repeat phrases said by their owner, and show off their epic moves. Kids can take advantage of Cozmo’s Code Lab feature which enhances its movements, actions, and animations. SAM Labs is a bit like Meccano for the internet generation. It teaches kids how to code and also develops STEM skills. It includes a light sensor, a tilt sensor, a motor and buzzer.  

Little stars

Kids are growing up in the selfie era, following YouTubers and watching talent shows, so it’s no surprise to see a rise in toys that promote kids’ starring performances. DreamWorks’ Trolls Selfie Karaoke Mic Stand and VTech’s Kidi Super Star are definitely something the parents can mess around with when the kids have gone to sleep!

What about gender neutral?

With all the chat this year on the importance of promoting gender neutrality in play, there’s little evidence of this in toy packaging this Christmas. Cars, weapons, and gaming toys still feature traditional ‘boy’ colours and male models whilst dolls and performance toys come in pinks and purples with female models on the packaging. The reality is, from our research, that whilst girls are more open in their play choices, boys are very traditional and steer clear of anything that has a hint of ‘girl’ on it.  Media, parents, schooling and other cultural/socialisation mechanics have a long way to go to make play more gender neutral.

*Lesley Salem heads up Razor Kids, our specialist kids and family unit. You can reach her on [email protected] .