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How to make apps for children

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-07-2017 Avantika Bhuyan

Check the phone of any preschooler’s parents and you will find a smorgasbord of learning apps. From tracing letters and learning sounds to running a cafeteria and learning about hygiene—there is an app to teach all this and more. My own phone resembles a virtual storage cabinet, with apps of all shapes and colours arranged haphazardly. There is IntelliJoy ABC Phonics, Dr Panda Café, Peppa Holiday, Lego Duplo Ice Cream…the list goes on.

Educationists are still assessing the benefits of learning apps, but according to a 2015 paper co-authored by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist specializing in child development and learning, these “present a significant opportunity for out-of-school, informal learning when designed in educationally appropriate ways”. Another article on The Wirecutter website lists some essential traits, which seem to be common to successful learning apps: open-ended, with automatic stops to encourage children to pause the game and turn to the real world.

It makes one wonder: What is the kind of research and testing that underlies the process?

It all starts with the overall objective. “We believe that kids learn through play, just as Stuart Brown describes in his book, Play. So, Dr Panda apps focus on the play experience rather than curriculum-based learning,” says Tom Buyckx, chief marketing officer at Dr Panda, which targets three- to eight-year-olds, and whose apps have been downloaded over 65 million times globally. “Our apps often have a theme or direction, built around a certain skill such as storytelling, empathy or logical thinking.”

The designers at the Dr Panda Game Studio, headquartered in Chengdu, China, then explore ways to create an environment in which children can practise a skill while having fun. “A great example of this can be seen in our Dr Panda Café app, which is not just about selling sandwiches and coffee, but also about making your customers happy. The starting idea was to create a game about caring and empathy,” he says.

Source of inspiration

These vibrant environments are not dreamt up by game designers in isolation. There are discussions with teachers, parents and psychologists. At the Chicago-based IntelliJoy, which has garnered over 50 million downloads, the requirements are written by a curriculum specialist in collaboration with a game designer. The game designer then collaborates with a colleague for the detailed requirements for each screen. The team, which targets children aged 2-6, also consults child psychologists on how to properly structure the app’s reward system, the menu structure, number of activities, and more.

Feedback from parents, educators, reviewers and, of course, children helps shape the process. “Once the beta app is out, we have the kids take it out for a spin—one child at a time, rather than in groups. We then tweak the apps to reflect the takeaways from this field testing,” says Alex Turetsky chief executive officer, IntelliJoy.

At Dr Panda’s Game Studio too, prototypes are tested with children. “Feedback on the app stores, via our support channels or social media, is also followed closely,” says Buyckx.

For instance, when the team released Dr Panda Carnival, it found that many users had difficulty finding the mini-games, so an update was added to guide them. At IntelliJoy, an autistic child’s father told them that his son, who had never uttered a word, said his first words along with the voice over in their Kids Preschool Puzzles app. “To give you an example of incorporating feedback, we were also told that autistic children really benefit from seeing actual photographs. So we used real photos in our Kids Learn Shapes,” says Turetsky.

In June, games like ‘Sweet Baby Girl Summer Camp’generated the most downloads for the Lithuania-based TutoTOONS.

The designers ensure that the inspiration for these apps comes from children’s everyday lives, to help them relate better. “Game topics could range from baby girls and boys to cute pets, magical ponies, doctors and princesses. We listen carefully to what kids and parents say and create a safe place for children where they can recognize activities from their daily routine,” says Mantas Kavaliauskas, chief executive officer of the Lithuania-based TutoTOONS. The most popular TutoTOONS game of all time, Jungle Animal Hair Salon, has seen 12 million downloads. In June, Kiki & Fifi Pet Beauty Salon, Sweet Baby Girl Summer Camp and Baby Animal Hair Salon 3 generated the most downloads. These mobile games are created for three- to 10-year-olds, mostly girls.

“It’s challenging to create valuable content for kids, so we keep learning about our players every single day by testing games, following trends, and by organizing workshops with experts. Furthermore, TutoTOONS was founded by the team which has created hundreds of educational games and cartoons for primary school kids in the past,” says Kavaliauskas.

Intuitive design

The colours and animation are chosen so that they do not hurt the eyes. At Dr Panda, neutral and pastel colours are preferred. “When we make a game, we decide on colours and backgrounds based on the gameplay and usability over what may be considered cool and stylish,” says Lin Yan, co-founder, Dr Panda. With Dr Panda Train, the team wanted to present a theme in a straightforward and recognizable way. “That’s why we chose the side view of the train so that the kids could drive the train as well as help serve the animal passengers on board,” says Lin. This enhanced the role-play experience for children.

At TutoTOONS, the design of Kiki & Fifi Pet Beauty Salon is special. Instead of drawing and colouring a given template, children are allowed to give free rein to their imagination, experiment with colours and design new looks. “We build games that encourage kids to be creative and curious, and at the same time develop useful skills and habits. For example, cleaning games can teach them how to keep their rooms and toys tidy, hospital games can help kids prepare for a doctor’s appointment, baby and pet care games can foster kids’ caring and sharing skills,” says Kavaliauskas. The team adds mini-games where children can learn numbers, shapes, and improve their motor skills using smart devices.

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A key concern for parents is relevance and appropriateness of content. Now apps such as YouTube Kids, one of the most popular apps in India on Google Play, allow parents to be in control. However, app designers don’t want parents to participate solely in a restrictive capacity.

According to an article in The Guardian, “Children do use apps alone, but that doesn’t mean they’re just digital babysitters as critics often suggest. Increasingly, developers are designing their apps in the knowledge that parents will often be sitting alongside their kids and being an active part of the process.” As Kavaliauskas puts it: “We receive feedback that parents and grandparents enjoy TutoTOONS games as much as kids.”

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