iOS Software Development: A Father’s Perspective

Our feature this week is written by Rod Liberal, creator of Screen Time Media Time Manager for the iPhone & iPad. Rod is one of our Dads here at Moms With Apps, and today he talks about the compelling side of developing for iOS, and the goals he has for the healthy intersection of kids and technology.

In 2003 I suffered a near fatal lightning accident while climbing the Tetons in Wyoming.  In that same year, about 3 months prior to that dreadful day, my oldest son was born.  While most dads’ lives at the same stage are changing for the best, mine had just taken a turn for the worst, at least for the year to follow.

Needless to say, an experience of that magnitude changed me very much.  All my goals, dreams, questions of purpose and self worth, and most importantly, fatherhood came to light front and center with the realization that I wasn’t as invincible as I once thought.

I’ve been developing software and web sites since I got married way back in the late 90’s, as I tell my kids now, and have enjoyed what I do. I see programming as one of the new and one of the last true arts left. It’s a craft, really, to be able to use your imagination and creativity, knowledge and skills, to create imaginative solutions to today’s challenges. I’ve worked for some big companies where you’re one of many contributors and for some smaller ones where the weight of the future of a small group of people rely heavily on your dedication and work ethics. In both cases, my work has provided me with an immense amount of accomplishment and satisfaction over the years.

What changed?

With the opening of Apple’s App Store, independent developers were given a chance to propel their creativity and skills to the fore front of software development, head to head with the big players in the game, right into the consumers’ hands. It’s truly an exciting time to be a software developer today.

What has really amazed me, however, is who the developers are. From stay-at-home parents to 14-year-old students, more and more great ideas are coming to fruition from busy people whose main daily duties involve changing diapers, correcting homework, shoveling snow, compiling code, tending to sick kids, requesting reviews, submitting bug fixes, writing blogs, planning birthday parties, so on and so forth.

These amazing people, I know, I’m trying to be one of them, go to bed every (late) night wishing there were more hours in the day. And they get out of the bed the next morning and hit the ground running to accomplish all they have to accomplish that day plus whatever they may have missed the day before.

Why?

I don’t particularly have anything against multi-level marketing, taxes, and timeshares, but my last 3 jobs in these industries, consecutively, haven’t quite fulfilled my desires of accomplishing anything I may be able to call a “legacy” at some point in my life.

Like many here at Moms With Apps, I decided to put my skills to use for a greater cause: my children. It’s with them in mind that all here have developed and continue to develop iPhone and iPad apps that immensely contribute to our children’s educational, psychological, and social development.

My own app, Screen Time – Media Time Manager, while admitedly not the most popular one among many developers who are trying to feed their family by the amount of time you spend using their products, was written with the same concern and goal we all share here; we want to raise children who have a balanced lifestyle and spend their time in front of the screen with educational purpose while having fun at the same time.

I have met some amazing people since I’ve been networking with other developers and parents here at MWA. There is a very high level of dedication and care put into the apps you’ll find here that can only come from parents who have their own kids as inspiration (and “guinea pigs”).

I’m now the dad of 3 very healthy, exciting, smart, and handsome boys. They will continue to be my inspiration to contribute my skills to this community of equally caring parents and hopefully make a small difference in the lives of your children as well.

There are some exciting things happening here and in the world of mobile apps and you won’t want to miss it!

Apps in the Elementary Classroom

Our feature this week is from Stacey Jett, creator of DoReMemory and NameThatNumber, two educational apps for kids. Stacey’s interest about iPod touches in the classroom inspired her to create apps for students. In this article she shares insights from elementary school teachers about how mobile touch technology is integrated into the classroom environment.

Last Christmas I was given an iPod touch by my family.  I had seen my mother-in-law’s device and heard her excitement over what it could do.  Her iPod was filled with educational apps.  My mother-in-law is not only a wonderful grandmother but also a third grade teacher, and her school district made iPod touches available for the students.  She was so excited about how this could help children in the classroom.  I added the iPod touch to my wish list and started creating apps earlier this year.

So what kinds of apps work in the classroom?  How can they be incorporated into the school day?  And what advice do teachers have for parents with such devices at home?  I asked a couple teachers about their experiences and suggestions.

Reading

Younger elementary students enjoy audiobooks — especially along with the physical book for looking at pictures.  There are plenty of children’s book apps that include interactive pictures with different options for reading and listening.  Middle elementary students benefit from educational word games.  With the abundance of reading fluency testing in public schools today, kids spend a lot of time on language skills.  There are iPods used during small group tutoring sessions with two kids per device and apps designated by the teacher. The iPod touches can be a fun addition for kids who need more encouragement with reading.

Math and Science

Teachers with students who struggle with basic math facts can find many apps to give that extra practice.  My sister-in-law has used her iPod touch in the classroom along with the Elmo Teacher’s Tool and projector so that the whole class can watch an app in action.  She also has had two kids at a time use a device as flashcards.  Using an iPod touch along with an Elmo can demonstrate new math concepts such as telling time and probability.  As a parent, I know my fifth grader likes math challenges.  My app, NameThatNumber, which is similar to a math card game he learned at school, provides fun practice with math facts.

Music

As a priviate piano lesson teacher, I’ve observed that flashcards are great for learning notes.  Repetition is important, but can also get boring. I use educational music apps such as my own DoReMemory.  The students enjoy the instant feedback.  A public school music teacher who works with my mother-in-law also uses DoReMemory and other music apps in her classroom.  She recommends music apps on her website for students to practice at home.

Kids’ Response

Not all children have access to technology at home.  The more tools that are available to teachers, the better for kids.  New technologies often engage students’ interest longer than paper and pencil activities. This new enthusiasm often encourages students to try activities that they once believed too hard or boring. There are wonderful educational apps available in many areas: art, music, math, reading, science, social studies (and more), which can help all types of students.

Finding Apps

Some school districts provide teacher training on iPod touches where they practice with apps recommended by the district.  School districts may also have technology suggestions on their websites that can be helpful to parents trying to find useful apps at home.  Searching the iTunes App Store can turn up great educational apps.  And don’t forget checking out the links at the top of  Moms With Apps for more suggestions on family-friendly apps.

Characteristics of Great Apps for Kids With Autism

We are privileged to have a guest post this week from Shannon Des Roches Rosa: mother, writer, and advocate for autism and special needs. A few months ago, Shannon’s 9 year old son Leo got to know the iPad, and she documented the impact it made for Leo and the family. This post expands upon apps that work for autism, in hopes of sharing with developers specific features that make a difference.  You can find Shannon on her personal blog, contributing at BlogHer, encouraging others via the Can I Sit With You Project, or providing needed resources to families with autism via the Thinking Person’s Guide to Austism. Shannon doesn’t stop. And to the app developers, she hopes you don’t either.

I am always on the prowl for good apps for my son Leo, who is nine years old, has autism — and has found his iPad to be an absolutely transformative tool for apps both special-needs-specific and not. I don’t just evaluate apps with the eyes of an autism parent — I also look at them from the perspective of a former software producer for Electronic Arts and The Learning Company who has no patience with software that isn’t well-planned or doesn’t at least have marked potential. When I choose an app, here are the factors I weigh:

1) Factoring in Leo’s “kid” status before his “autism” or “special needs” label. Leo likes to have fun! And so do his two neurotypical sisters, both of whom hop on his iPad the moment he puts it down. Examples of fun apps that are great for Leo but have general kid appeal: Faces iMake (goofy, beautifully designed collage maker), iEarnedThat (animated, puzzle-based reward charts).

2) Error-free learning. Leo has the most success with activities that do not penalize users for wrong answers, and which instead only let users put items in the right spaces, or which contain prompts that encourage users to succeed. Good examples: iWriteWords (handwriting, numbers, spelling) and FirstWordsDeluxe (spelling).

3) Simplicity. Fewer steps equals a higher rate of engagement and usefulness for kids like Leo. A complicated, many-step introduction may confuse him and prevent him from accessing the apps’ function or content. If you insist on an involved introduction to your app, make sure it can be bypassed with one click. Apps with simple but powerful interfaces: Tappy Tunes (tap your way through popular songs), ShapeBuilder (simple puzzles).

4) Pure, Silly, One-Note Fun. Again, Leo likes to play. Apps that focus on a single function or action make it easier for him to understand games, and have a good time playing them. Two of his favorites: Fruit Ninja (slice flying fruit!),  Scoops (catch the falling ice cream scoops on your cone!).

5) Visually distinctive interface. Plain text interfaces don’t work well for Leo, because he’s not yet reading — but he can remember distinctive visual patterns with uncanny accuracy. An app with a multi-step yet graphically varied and so Leo-accessible interface: Whizzit 123 (1 to 1 correspondence, e.g., how many objects “5” is).

6) Tempo Change Option. For any paced-based, interactive musical, or rhythm-based apps, tempo variation is mandatory. Many kids with autism or other special needs have a hard time processing audio input; they often can’t follow along at the same speed as their typical peers. Leo will either give up or not access an app’s full functionality if he can’t set the tempo to a pace that suits him. An app he adores that could benefit from a tempo change option: Kiboomu: Twinkle Twinkle Preschool Storybook Piano. (learn to play songs by following the colored keys on a keyboard).

7) Flexible Content Management. If an app utilizes user-generated or otherwise modifiable content, then its content management systems need to be extremely flexible. The harder it is for me to quickly retrieve and assemble the content I need, the less likely I am to use that app with Leo. Stories2Learn (social stories), iCommunicate (create icons with photos and audio for learning and practicing words), and First Then Visual Schedule (visual schedules) are examples of fine apps that Leo and I use daily but which could be even better if their content storage and management systems were more flexible — as I hope they will be in future versions. I would kill for:

  • Nested content management folders instead of one big list
  • Ability to save icons with integrated audio and visual components, instead of saving separate audio and visual components
  • Click-and-drag option for rearranging or inserting new icons in lists

I love seeing Leo have such a great time playing with his iPad. It is always a treat to find a new app that appeals to him. And I understand that such apps are still evolving. Currently, apps for kids with autism tend to have a First Generation feel to them, similar to mid-1990s-era websites — some are beautifully put together and useful, some are a bit clunky yet useful. But I’m mostly seeing a lot of enthusiasm combined with frontier thinking. I see a lot more innovation than slickness. And I see apps benefiting my son’s leisure and learning in ways I’d never imagined, and for which I am grateful. I hope the guidelines above will help developers create even more Leo-friendly apps.

Why I Love My iPhone

Our feature this week is from Lisa Brandolo Johnson, co-founder of Grembe iPhone Apps and mother to three growing children. Lisa and her husband created a series of applications to help families march forward together. Their apps cover interactive communication, special needs, motivation, and record keeping. You name it, they are making it! Filled with creative energy and tremendous inspiration, this “Mom With Many Apps” shares why she values technology and how she uses it in her own own home.

I recently read a post on Twitter that asked “How do you know if someone you meet has an iPhone? Just wait a minute and they’ll probably tell you.”  It rang true for me since the iPhone did change my life. It sounds kind of silly since that is what people say about having kids too, but it is true.

Kids do change your life. They bring you lots of wonder but they also take up a lot of your time. As they grow up a little and become a little less dependent on you for their every need, moms need to find balance between the many parts of life that demand time. Kids, husbands, jobs, family, friends, hobbies, and our health. The balance can be elusive. That is why I love my iPhone. I’m not saying it equates to my mother-in-law watching the kids twice a week so I can still have a career, or the friend who will take my kids at the last minute if I need a break, but the iPhone does make my life easier.

Some nights I might get very little sleep if one of the kids is sick. I may have very little energy to care for my 3 young children. Instead of sitting them in front of the TV, I can lie in bed with them and my iPhone can read to us. We love the quality children’s literature by PicPocket Books, Storyboy, and Touchoo. We can all cuddle up together and no one knows if I close my eyes for a few minutes.

There are times when we have to wait in long lines, on bleachers while another child participates in a sport, or at a doctors office. Sure, we love talking together, but sometimes an educational diversion really comes in handy. I may have forgotten paper and crayons, but I can hand my child my iPhone and they can let their imagination soar with My Little Suitcase, or practice sorting, counting, or writing with TickleTapApps bundle pack.
Today was not only Mother’s Day, but also my daughter’s 6th birthday.  There was a lot to do. Her favorite breakfast was being made, preparations for a visit with family were underway, new toys were waiting to be taken out of their packaging, and all the while I wanted to capture her, the essence of her, on her birthday. Six years have gone by fast. My Pictures Talk allowed me to snap her photo and record her voice telling me what six years old meant to her. She wanted a porcelain plate and mug this am, not a plastic one from IKEA, because she was six. She is smart, she is tall, she knows how to take care of her brothers. She is six and I’ve got it all recorded with her picture on my iPhone.

My iPhone is fast becoming that object I’d try and rescue in a fire. It has memories on it that I don’t want to lose.  Sure I could grab a camcorder, but in the bustle of my home life, grabbing my iPhone and using apps is much easier.  In my attempts to balance all the pieces of motherhood, I love the things that help me parent more effectively.  Of course that list includes family and friends, but it also includes my iPhone.