Our day in the sun – Featured in New and Noteworthy in the USA!

Amazing news – Frosby Learning Games appeared today on the UK iTunes iPad Education section, right next to my idols and all round masters of the kids app genre: Toca Boca! I took a screenshot for the record. Then came even more amazing news – our app was featured in Apple’s New and Noteworthy section in the USA! Frosby Learning Games appeared today at 53 in the US Education for iPad charts in America, which is huge! It then rapidly climbed over 2 days to no. 17 in the US and 10 in the UK. Fingers crossed we get some good reviews now :)

Frosby iTunes New and NoteworthyOk, here are the reviews after one week in the UK and US charts. The UK has been kind to us, but the US (a much bigger audience) really varies, but I like that. Someone discovered a rare sound bug, which explains her 1 star review – this is very bad luck. The bug has been fixed on the next version, but her comment remains for now. Why do people do this? Anyway, a bug is not a complete deal break – most apps have them in the beginning, so hopefully it didn’t put too many people off. This morning a review came in (below) which made my day. The customer said he would pay $5 for it – and this is what quality apps are actually worth! Many people don’t realize what a great deal they’re getting on the appstore. Great apps selling for $1 or $2 have had a huge amount of work put into them, so need to sell in very high numbers to eventually make a profit.

By far the best children’s app I have found when it comes to variety, strong mental development and fun. The artwork is amazingly beautiful just like the snapshots show, lots of color and detail (not drabby and dull). Would pay $5.00 for this baby!

And this UK review was also exactly what we’d hoped for:

Wow! This app is real treat for the kids! Lots to do, many challenges, positive reinforcement, literacy and numeracy – all in a beautifully designed world that wanders from feeding moles to cleaning bus windows and dressing a snowman! Music is soft and gentle, not grindingly annoying like other apps, the voice is lively, fun and clear (my 4 year old now tells me “you’re great!”) My kids keep coming back to this again and again, yours will too!

Appstore Reviews UKMay 1st ’12 – We’ve now reached the top 10 education charts in Australia and New Zealand!

May 11th ’12 – The family app review site has given us the thumbs up!

Famigo Review

 

 

Making Apps for Kids – My Journey Part 2 : Interaction and Navigation

App no. 2: How to create a fun, educational app?

As I’m not yet a parent, my first app, an experimental children’s eBook story called Vlad’s Vampire Bats was me guessing what kids might like. Now that I was attempting an app with some educational value, I had a responsibility, and this required more research.

My next app: Frosby Learning Games, has been even more experimental to make than my first. It is a series of different scenes – teaching counting, size, colours and dress-up games where kids can learn parts of the body. I’m working with what I have – code that I’ve collected, modified and reused, some previously created characters and scenes, and brand new designs. I wanted to make something fun for kids, that covered a few early learning topics: counting, size, colours and single words through game play. There are now many specific counting and maths apps on the appstore, but I wanted to get away from categories, so the child would forget they were learning, and hopefully return to the app again for the characters and interactive touches. It’s also a showcase for my design style.

The addition to the team of an old friend and voice actress Julia Scott Russell was much needed. Julia has the gift of being able to create the most obscure cute animal voices I could think of. We recorded numbers both in her normal voice and ‘chipmonk’!

In Frosby Learning Games we went the extra mile to record unique sound effects to give some Hollywood production values. As a creative, rather than technical team, original sound is something we can provide that, like our characters, is unique to our apps. Sound in apps and games is often treated secondary to the visuals and ‘tacked on’ with cheap sound effects, but it’s a huge part of the experience. It does take a huge amount of time to record, edit and code though, so allow plenty of time to get right!

In three of the scenes, the child can ‘rub out’ parts of the screen, to clean off mud, dig a tunnel and de-mist the windows on a bus. It feels like this is the kind of experience that only tablet devices can provide, so we added a squeeky noise for an added sensory touch.

Frosby Learning Games Counting

Frosby Learning Games: Wipe away the mud with squeaky sound effects!

Finding an audience and getting feedback

Julia has helped shaped the app by user-testing it on friends’ children, and consulted her friend, Sarah Krafft, a nursery school teacher to help us understand how children of 3-5 might react to our games. The first review taught us many basics that being non-parents, we had no clue about! My first scene started with 3 molehills, with the question: “How many moles can you find?” She told Julia that there weren’t any moles there, and that kids of that age cannot even visualise a mole coming out of what looked like 3 poos on the screen! So we stripped it down, went over every scene and simplified everything. I broke scenes down that were trying to do too much in one go and made 2 scenes out of them. I always forget this rule, which a college tutor once told me years ago: “Break it down.”

Wording and Challenge

Another key issue was the caption text we had on each screen. 5 year olds cannot even read yet, so the text would only serve as instructions for parents. She advised us to change the wording too, and to avoid phrasing a sentence as an order. The voice over would need to be upbeat and casual, and not necessarily match the caption text exactly. Instead of “Find 4 mice in the cheese,” she suggested “Can you find 4 mice in the cheese?” “Can you” is a challenge, and kids like to be challenged with a task, and they love to compete, just like adults. When confronted with the task “Can you dress the scarecrow,” my friend’s 5 year old’s immediate response was “Yes!” and she immediately got to work, putting him together. Incidentally, even my letter 4 had to be changed into the simplified symbol with vertical strokes! Single words in the games would also have to be all lower case.

Here lies the difficulty of designing educational programs or games for kids. Children have different abilities and the difference between say 3 to 5 is huge. What is challenging for a 3 year old could be far too easy for a 5 year old. And above that, they are playing Nintendo DS games, or dare I say Angry Birds, which make your number counting app seem like a baby’s toy!

Is your educational game boring? Try uncertain rewards!

On one scene, in which you have to choose the right coloured ball of wool for a choosy cat, we found a way around the gap in age range and ability. The scene originally was setup so that the child would touch the coloured ball of wool that the cat was touching. If the child knows the colours well, then this would be insultingly obvious: it wouldn’t be a game. So we made it an ‘uncertain reward’: instead, we have no idea which ball the cat wants, and the child has to guess which one she wants. If they guess wrong, the cat makes an angry sound and his claws come out! Guess right and a speech bubble appears with the right colour.

Frosby Learning Games app colour cat

"Uncertain rewards": A promo screen from Frosby Learning Games.

To navigate, or not to navigate? That is the question.

The interactive dilemma: when to give functionality, and when to guide the user? People have come to expect full functionality in interactive media. They want to be able to turn sound on and off, and flick between pages at will, but what happens when your user is 3 years old? A 3 year old will press on anything that looks touchable. If they like the look of your arrow buttons, they’ll press it repeatedly, and skip through your lovingly made pages! In Frosby Learning Games, we decided to automate it. Since it is a series of games to be completed, the child has to finish the scene, before it moves onto the next one. But for certain scenes, such as the dress up games, I added an arrow, so they could stay and play for a while, before moving on.

Different strokes for different folks – here’s why you should leave your office:

A completely unpredictable aspect when designing for touch screens is that people touch the screen in different ways. Something magic happened in Regents Park one day, which changed everything. I was on the finishing touches of my app (or thought I was!), and was showing it to a friend. A 3 year old and her mother walked up to the bench we were on, and sat down. The girl pointed to the iPad and giggled to her mother. It was a divine moment – how perfect that my target demographic would appear like that to user-test my app! I put the iPad in her hand and watched. The good news is she was mesmerised. The bad news was how she touched the screen: she often used her whole hand, which set off the “5 finger swipe”, which scrolled into another app! I didn’t even know you could do this, so within a few seconds, she was teaching me!

I also discovered that my touch points weren’t big enough. Kids may have small fingers, but your touch points should be as big as possible, especially if the app is to be played on the iPhone. She also pressed the screen very strongly with her finger. She often dragged though an object, which meant that it wouldn’t move. One has to touch down on the object in its touch area first to move it. Even adults drag and touch the screen is different ways. Some move objects in a quick motion, and some slowly (as they should!)

I realized that I could improve some things, but at the end of the day, it was a new medium, and I couldn’t control everything. So I went back to my mac and spent another full week on tweaks…

My next chapter will be about Marketing and selling apps. It’s a hot topic that I have yet to fully understand. Once I’ve released a few more apps in the appstore I’ll be able to properly comment!

Frosby Learning Games is in the appstore now.

Here’s the taster video:

Promo Video

 

Making Apps for Kids – My Journey Part 1 : Design and Code

Should designers also learn to code?

It is now nearly a year since my adventure into app creation began, and what a year it’s been! Learning new skills is always exciting, if you really get into it, in the way that it becomes addictive and obsessive: there’s an infinite amount of things to learn. I’ve learnt to code, which is a new thing for me, and I hope this blog will inspire other designers to feel that they have the power to develop apps without having to hire a coder. Firstly, there’s the development costs involved. Secondly, there’s the fact that one has to relinquish control on the project. I’m sure there are many designers and animators out there who have great ideas for interactive projects, but feel powerless to start, due to their lack of technical knowledge.

Now, I can see myself working with programmers in the future, but I feel that the functionality that goes into a visual, animated app is actually very much part of the creative process. Designing interactive apps for the iPad is a medium that is barely established. The rules haven’t been written yet, and the game is wide open for experimentation. Call me a control freak, but in order to tell a coder what I want to happen, I would need to have a solid plan and detailed wireframe before I even started. That doesn’t sound too fun, right? And as Picasso once said: “If you know exactly what you are going to do, then what is the point of doing it?”

As a designer, if you’d asked me even a year previously if I wanted to learn programming, I would have said ‘No way – it’s ridiculously complicated’! It’s surprising how, at the right time in life, we can be ready to tackle anything.

Using Flash to make iPad apps

For me, the impetus was the announcement that the Flash software could now export to iPad and iPhone as stand alone apps – something many people seem to have missed. This doesn’t mean that you can see Flash in a web browser on the iPad or iPhone, but through the Adobe Air plugin in Flash, you can create and sell apps. I’d been working as a freelance Flash animator for years in London’s ad agencies, but my main interest was to somehow get my character brand: Frosby, off the ground. I started by making an interactive Flash website, with the intention of building a virtual world, but handling this alone quickly became too much. Later, having worked in a company that owns the online world ‘Bin Weevils.com’ – I saw what was needed to keep a site of that size going: a team of animators and developers, constantly adding new content to keep thousands of demanding 6-12 year old kids coming back. I put the project on the back burner for a couple of years, and I’ve recently returned to it.

Flash is still the best tool for creating educational learning programs and games online, but as an online platform it’s fading away, due to the shift to mobile web.

This has created a double-edged sword. Steve Jobs has famously been declared as the man who killed off Flash. But on the positive side, he did create the Appstore, which allows designers and developers a chance to directly sell their digital content as apps, which is a revolutionary step that has customers now willingly paying for content. Although for how long and at what price is the next question. Whatever the outcome in this fast moving economy, I could not resist having a go, and have jumped excitedly onto the Apple platform: “If you can’t beat them, join them!”

Since I’d started with Flash and loved using it, I wanted to re-use my knowledge for app creation. But here’s the catch: the programming language had completely changed, so I had to learn Actionscript 3 (AS3) from scratch: the coding for buttons, how to turn sound on and off through code, to more complex interactivity, such as drag and drop and a counting and point system that would enable me to make basic games.

Frosby Learning Games Scarecrow

A Drag and Drop Scarecrow game from my kids app: Frosby Learning Games

In my college days, as a graphic design student, I’d been more into filmmaking than design, and I learnt the whole process from start to finish. I would spend hours editing the footage I’d shot to a soundtrack – the patience needed to tweak a time-based project is unbelievable, but boy was it satisfying to get that sequence perfect! And then came interactive media…

Get ready for time-travel

And now, I feel I’m close to those short film days again, but with a new dimension to deal with: Interactivity. This element is truly mind-boggling – I think of it as being like time-travel. A film, painstaking as it is to make, is at least linear. It moves in one direction, from beginning to end. The viewer is led down the exact path the director wants him or her to take. With interactive media, if the user is on page 2 of a story (the present) they can navigate back to page 1 (the past) or forwards to page 3 (the future). The implications of this can get hugely complicated. When the user presses the button to move on, the present doesn’t exist now right? Not exactly. Let’s say on Page 2, the child can press a little bee character, who flies down onto a flower and sings a song. Half way through the song, the child gets bored and changes page. The sound, which is playing through time, has to be told to turn off, and furthermore, what state is page 2 in, when we navigate back to it? It needs to be back at the start of it’s sequence. Imagine your pages are filled with interactive objects, and you can see how every small detail has to be managed and thought about. To give the viewer the exact functionality you want them to have, when buttons are touchable and not, or for how long, becomes a real craft – it really is engineered entertainment!

App no. 1: Creating an interactive eBook story: my approach

My first app, Vlad’s Vampire Bats is about a lonely vampire with a curse – everything he touches turns to bats. It was a concept that I thought would work for touch screens, so I wrote and illustrated a linear story, as one would a picture book, with at least one or more interactive elements on each page. With some AS3 code I found on forums and tutorials online, I managed a few nice touches: the child can drag a flaming candlestick to light up the room, they can pick flowers, and feed baby bats in a bat sanctuary. In my apps I try to find a balance between the linear direction of the story and play: at some points there should be scenes where the user can play with something. It could be a touchable animation with a funny sound, or something that’s immersive and entertaining. This is what the medium is best for: creating a pleasing sensation in the world you’ve created that’s an end in itself. I added a looping animation on as many scenes as I could, for replay value. The child can then move on when they’re ready, at their own pace.

Vlads Vampire Bats

A screenshot from my first eBook app: Vlad's Vampire Bats

So what have I Learnt about designing an educational app for preschool children? I’ll cover this in my next chapter: Interaction and Navigation.