Family Fun on the iPad: Spotlight on Bay Area Developers Who Make it Happen

by Moms With Apps on December 18, 2011

Families are launching their own apps. With ideas that spark in living room labs, moms and dads are capturing great ideas and turning them into digital playgrounds. In this post you will meet several Bay Area developers who were inspired by the children in their lives to invent modern outlets for creative play. Their goal is to emphasize the conversational and educational potential of mobile technology.

Everyone profiled is part of the Moms With Apps forum, which is a grassroots collective of family-friendly developers who share best practices on making and marketing apps. In December they met in person at the Moms With Apps Workshop to tackle key issues in the kids’ mobile marketplace. What’s the best way to launch an app? At what price? On which platform? These questions illustrate why networking is so valuable to the independent developer entering a marketplace flooded with apps.

Here you will meet moms who worked as software engineers and are now coding their own apps. You will meet husband and wife teams who create the concept and outsource the programming. You will meet big cousins who beta test apps with their little cousins, and dads who bootstrap businesses with friends. Regardless of the method, their products are defining how mobile content is created, and many families are benefiting from the results. 

Nirupama Bala | Froylc | Murky Reef

As parents of young children, we experience first-hand how a fascinating theme can increase engagement and learning. For example, my 4 year old son could remember spellings of Lego Ninjago words more than other words he came across. Experiences like this set us on the path of developing an app with a theme. The activities and curriculum in the app are connected together and integrated with the theme. It allows learning to be more natural and less fragmented by subject areas. It allows literacy and vocabulary to grow progressively and smoothly.

In my app, Murky Reef, the theme is about a coral reef and its sea creatures. The app is like an interactive book explaining the coral reef ecosystem, the creatures that live in the reef, their inter-dependency, and their top predator in the reef – sharks! The games in the app are based on a fictional reef story, where a hungry shark is attacking the reef fish and the player must answer questions to save the reef. The questions cover math, language arts, and logic.

Our team is three people strong, including a software engineer (me), a graphics artist and a usability expert. We discussed the concept, theme, game and activities.  With this initial work, we started prototyping. We would go to local schools and have the kids play with the app as part of their choice-time activity. We received feedback by watching the kids play. Based on this, we would revise the app. When we were satisfied, we worked on polishing the app and releasing to the App Store.

We designed Murky Reef with the following attributes in mind:

1. Thematic learning in immersive, engaging and fun environment
2. Foster critical thinking skills in cross-curricular activities through games
3. Develop empathy and curiosity for ocean life

In summary, Murky Reef is unique in seamlessly blending reading, science, language arts, math and critical thinking skills with interactive and engaging game play ALL in one app!

Mike Doonan | Doonan Speech Therapy | Speech With Milo Apps

My wife, Poorani, is a Speech-Language Pathologist with her own private practice working with children in need of speech therapy.  She carried around a giant bag of materials that she used to work with kids wherever she went- flashcards, games, etc.  She also spent about one to two hours each night preparing for the next day of therapy by coming up with crafts or gathering together old materials.  Then we got an iPad, and inspiration hit.  She used it in therapy, and the children LOVED it.  They responded to being able to touch and interact with the device.  The only problem was that there was not a very good selection of apps for building language skills.  So we decided that we would try to build an app that engaged children in building basic language skills. SLP’s had forever worked with flashcards and pictures.  We had an amazing opportunity to give children animation that they controlled at their fingertips.  We figured, at worst, we would have a very expensive- but great- tool that just Poorani used.  We created Milo, and it caught on better than we ever expected.  We will continue to produce apps as long as children need them.

We receive emails daily from parents, teachers and SLP’s.  There is no greater reward than hearing about a child that we are directly helping speak.  Poorani is fortunate enough to do help children daily in therapy, but now she can help children worldwide with Milo.

The Doonan Family, creators of Speech With Milo Apps

We developed the app as a husband/wife team. Poorani had the brains and creativity, and I (Mike) had the skills to manage the project and spec out the app.  We outsourced the project using elance and 99designs.  We got a lot of help from Poorani’s contacts in the SLP world and good information on the web (Mom’s with Apps!!).  Once we got a partial build, Poorani tested in therapy and with our daughter and her friends.

Several features make our app special:

1. We built it as a collaborative tool.  Our apps are not meant to be handed to the child for them to learn.  Milo needs to be used by the child and parent/teacher/SLP.  The collaboration makes for a better experience for both.

2. We offer high quality at an affordable price.  Many SLP apps are north of $20.  We wanted everybody that needed Milo to be able to afford him, so we priced our apps very cheap relative to our competition.

3. Assistance – We offer instructions on how to use the tool from a licensed SLP.  This is great for parents who want to learn and work with their kids at home.  We have also recently introduced ‘Therapy Ideas’ to some apps, which gives our users three therapy ideas per week from a professional.

4. We focus on one skill per app and do it very well.  We keep things simple and focused.  Anybody can understand how to use our tool very quickly.  As they get more advanced, they can use our Settings to customize the tool for their needs.

5. Milo and his friends – We have six apps that focus around the same core characters (Milo, Melvin and Maggie).  The familiarity brings helps children interact with the tool even better.

Michelangelo Capraro | Kidoodle Apps | Pirate Scribblebeard’s Treasure with Oscar & Josephine

Kids love touchscreen devices – these gadgets are like magic to them – but I’ve always felt that there are too few apps for kids that encourage them to be creative and use their already amazing imaginations. With the many addictive games and apps that spoon-feed content to kids, I wanted to make something for my own son that let him do the creating. With this as inspiration, Pirate Scribblebeard was born!

After stepping away from my design firm of 7 years, I committed several months to designing and building the app.  Along the way I took on contract work to bootstrap the design and development. My wife, son, friends, and others helped with testing, voice overs, and more.

The family at Kidoodle Apps

Pirate Scribblebeard’s Treasure provides kids with a starting point for their fertile imaginations to blossom through drawing– no scary blank canvas to intimidate them. Fun characters narrate each page and encourage them to draw anything they want! Delightful surprises add to the fun.  In a time where schools are cutting arts, addictive casual games are everywhere, and our culture is seeing a decline in creative thinking and problem solving, I wanted to give parents and children an experience that fosters creativity with fun artistic play and see these magical touchscreen devices as creative tools.

Madhavi Sankholkar | MyVijan LLC | iLuv Drawing Animals

Since I was in college, I wanted to start a company so I could create and combine everything I love doing into a product. I was an engineer by profession, an artist by nature, loved to write software, but I also loved to teach and simplify things! Growing up I always had ideas about how things should be taught.

I spent time after my masters in the corporate workforce. After getting married and having my daughter, I wanted more freedom to develop personal interests.

Madhavi & Team

Once the finances allowed, I took the plunge into implementing my ideas. I began by creating a website for kids to learn Marathi (my native language). The idea was to create something like starfall.com but in Marathi and later in many other Indian languages. Later I realized making an app would be a great idea, so I created my first app: Marathi ABC, followed by ABC Hindi. I continued by creating iLuv Drawing Animals with the help of a very talented graphic designer and a team of developers.

iLuv Drawing Animals is feature packed, and boosts confidence for kids by teaching drawing skills. The app offers a wide selection of animals, and features such as editing and saving to a book. The purpose of the app is to create love for drawing in kids of all ages.

We worked meticulously to make sure each drawing is simplified so that the steps can be understood by everyone. Our goal is that with a few repetitions, kids should be able to remember those steps enough to replicate on paper. It is encouraging to receive such positive feedback from all over the world. We continue to improve the feature set based on the customer recommendations, and are eager to help our users create art and learn drawing techniques.

Bob Bruce and Emmy Chen | Abitalk | Phonics Silly Sentences

In May 2010, Bob bought Emmy an iPad for her birthday.  Emmy liked it, but our 5 year old son LOVED it.  It was a very intuitive platform for young children.  It is portable and easy for kids to use. The iPad seemed to have so much unrealized potential.  We decided to start making apps to help kids learn, with fun and engaging features to keep them interested. We always test our apps with real kids, and it is very rewarding when we see their faces light up as they “get it” with one of our apps.

Team Abitalk

Developing the apps was easy for us, because we both have decades of experience in object oriented programming.  Our first apps took a couple of months to develop. Now that we are familiar with the API, and have plenty of code to reuse, we can go from an idea to a finished App in several weeks.  Our portfolio includes over thirty apps in the Apple App Store. Our challenge has been in marketing and promotion. Neither of us has a background in marketing, and we are not avid users of social media. We are just now starting to use Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube to promote our products.

Most of our apps concentrate on early education (preschool, kindergarten, and first grade), when kids are beginning to read and benefit the most from one-on-one interaction.  Rather than a single app, we have a series of apps to help kids learn the alphabet, learn word beginning sounds, understand phonics, and create sentences.  We have found that kids learn best when the app is simple and emphasizes one skill.  Ours apps have entertaining animation and plenty of feedback so kids know if they are on the right track.  We keep the learning fun by giving rewards such as stars, diamonds, and “bonus games”.

Ahmed Siddiqui | QwikMind, Inc. | Go Go Mongo!

After watching my 2 year old cousin unlocking my iPhone without any instruction, I knew that there was something magical about this device.  English is my second language, and my 2-year-old cousin also was just learning English.  After this experience, I decided to design a game to teach her the names of different foods.  I released my first iOS game in March 2011, called Go Go Mongo!  In this game, a cute and cuddly monster named Mongo runs around catching food falling from the sky.  When it launched, it got into the top 25 for educational games, and started getting reviews from mom bloggers.  They all kept saying, “thanks for making such a great healthy eating game!”  This was a bit strange to me as I designed this game to teach English!

Ahmed's cousins, the inspiration behind the app.

A few weeks later, I received a tweet from a parent saying that his 3-year-old daughter wants to eat cauliflower after playing Go Go Mongo!  This was the greatest accomplishment of the game because kids were having fun while also learning about fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats.

My key learning was that children just want to have fun.  You have to sneak in educational messages into the games without making them seem like “homework”.  Although I was not able to teach English with this game, I did get the kids to learn more about eating better.

Survi Gopal and Kunal Desai | Niyaa | The Monkey and the Crocodile

As kids we were fascinated by the Panchatantra classics. These are old animal fables that are told in every household in India. As part of our nightly ritual of reading 3 books to our 3 year old, we introduced these stories to her. We were surprised to see that she showed the same love and interest towards these books as we did. She loved the animal characters and also enjoyed the plots in these stories. Her favorite was Monkey and the Crocodile. Another characteristic in our home is raising our kids bilingually. We would narrate these books to her in Hindi that were written in English. Inspired by our kids we wanted to share these timeless treasures with the rest of the world. We decided to create our first storybook app on the iPhone “Monkey and the Crocodile – by Niyaa” which included both English and Hindi narration.

As a wife who is a software engineer and husband who is a product manager we are an ideal team.  We have both worked with various companies in the Bay Area including BabyCenter, Oracle, HP, Kana and others for more than a decade now. We have always wanted to do something on our own. After Survi left her job at BabyCenter to be with the kids, we decided to make our dream come to reality and put our industry, technical and experience as parent educators, in building mobile apps for kids.

Avid readers of Mom & Dad's storybook apps

After embarking on this journey we realized that creating a story book app is like making a movie. It is lots of work but at the same time tons of fun. You need to have a great story, a beautiful design and an excellent voice over.

We had a great story concept. However, the first thing was to ensure that these stories are in public domain. We looked up old manuscripts and after lots of research we gathered the information we needed. Next we wrote a script and went through iterations of editing it with the help of professional children’s book authors. Each character in the app was given a distinguished look and had specific characteristics. We worked diligently with our designer and voice artists to bring the characters to life. We put in a lot of effort and preserved the original integrity of the folktale but at the same time rendered it in a way that would make it enjoyable for young kids. At every step we tested the product with our kids and other parents and kids who volunteered to give us feedback.  Finally in late July we launched our first storybook app Monkey and Crocodile – by Niyaa followed by Little Blue Jackal – by Niyaa in November.

The app is special because these moral-based stories are real gems that convey important messages in a fun and witty way. It is an excellent bedtime app and has a Sleep Mode feature that is popular with our users. In Sleep Mode, the kids can enjoy the story without any visuals. It is also a bilingual app with both English and Hindi narration

Our plan is to share these Panchatantra stories via today’s medium of apps and ebooks. We have two storybook apps in the app store and plan to release few more over the next year.

Ush Patel | Bright Start Apps | PreK Letters & Numbers

The story of BrightStart Apps began at a play date in Toronto, Canada, during which the dads were talking work and the kids were doing the play date thing. That discussion led to a comparison of apps which best held the interest of our young children, and how there wasn’t one app or developer brand that really stuck out.

We asked ourselves, ‘If we were going to build the ideal kids app, what would be the key ingredients needed to keep the interest of the kids playing it?  And just as important, how can we provide parents with the confidence that their children are receiving a quality learning experience at the same time?’   We spent some time researching the apps that were already out there, and soon derived a simple, entry-level app for pre-schoolers, with reporting functionality for parents and educators as a brand differentiator.

BrightStart's Lead Beta Tester

Des took on the job of building the back end reporting function, I took on the design and playability and we partnered with a contracted developer to build our core Apple iOS app. After many iterations, the first of a series of apps was taking shape:  Pre-K Letters and Numbers, a tracing application aimed at kindergarten kids who are just setting out to build a foundation of language and numeracy, develop fine motor skills, understand phonics and build their vocabulary with the bonus of blending common letters and counting.

The early-education specialists we worked with asked us to include phonics, letters, numbers and blending into the application to cover different methods of teaching and learning. We designed unique characters, music, sounds and simple yet bold illustrations, including fruits, vegetables, animals and items around the house to help with the learning experience.

It took us nearly 6 months to complete our first app from initial discussion to Itunes store. I’m sure we could have done it faster, but the journey was one of learning for us and  the output should be positive for the kids who engage with our app. I should mention the great people we have met along the way including Lorraine Akemann (Moms With Apps), Ahmed Siddiqui (Go Go Mongo) and Jennifer Bogart (Apps for Homeschooling) who have given a lending hand in shaping our products and company.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne December 19, 2011 at 9:27 am

Love these stories by developers. I also am a parent who built two apps because my children have a lack of story books that reflect their culture and faith. So Allah Made The World and Ramadan Mubarak Happy Ramadan! were born. So far it seems i might be ahead of the curve in this niche market. Sales are slow but steady. I hope to release a mainstream storybook app in the new year.

Anna Hines December 19, 2011 at 10:30 am

I am struck by how much of the inspiration comes from these parents responding to their children. How wonderful it is that stories and information that would be cost prohibitive for printing, marketing and distributing as physical books and materials, can now be done digitally. Hopefully, this will help with cross cultural awareness as well, as other children are exposed to these stories.
Thank you all for sharing your experiences.

Chris Straka December 19, 2011 at 1:47 pm

One of the joys of working with this group is the shared, intense focus in developing something fun, useful and wholesome for kids and their families. Yes, we all hope to make living at what we do, but our first thoughts we’re about our kids, our customer’s kids and how we could create something of value. What a refreshing, enriching, and fulfilling experience it can be.

Alesha December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I love this post. Great people with great stories.

Bev Dean December 30, 2011 at 3:37 am

Earlier this year a friend suggested I get an iPad for my young son William, who has Down syndrome. However I struggled to find apps that he could use, because of his learning disabilities and poor fine motor skills. My husband, Colin, and I are software developers so we decided to write an app for him.

From talking to other parents in the UK with disabled children, things snowballed, and we’ve launched a non-profit social enterprise, “Special iApps”, and with the help of volunteers from many nationalities, we now have apps that are being used in 30 countries!

Like the parents featured in this article, we’ve found that keeping things simple and involving other parents and professionals is fundamental to meeting the needs of all our children.

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