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.
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.
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: