Designing apps for young kids. Part #2

If you missed it, check part #1 here

In the first part I focused on general UX requirements you should consider when working on a kids app. In this second part I want to dive more into the product design and business sides of such apps.

First off, let’s talk about the most common genres of apps aimed to 3–5 years old (the same target we considered in part #1).
To do so, take a look at the top 15 free, paid and grossing apps for kids on the App Store (Source: AppAnnie). As I mentioned in the other post, tablets are the best choice, in terms of device, for this age group, therefore I’m looking at the charts for iPad here.

We can identify 3 major buckets: educational, videos and simulation/experience game.

Educational apps

This is a genre very dear to parents, and, as we’ll see in a bit, the most lucrative for developers. And this makes sense, as parents are willing to pay for things they value, and education is for sure one these.

Educational apps though, are also one of the most challenging kind of apps. First of all, they have to be believable and authoritative. To do so, they usually requires investments in order to get credibility. Certifications or awards like the Teachers’ Choice Award can do the job, as well as qualified testimonials and being aligned to Government standards for education (i.e. Common Core Standards, in the U.S.).

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Activities creation, interactions, games, etc must be supervised by qualified mentors, with expertise in education of this age group. And testing with kids is also very important, of course, as well as collecting feedbacks from teachers. Getting educators on board is definitely a strategy to pursue.

Plus, of course, there’s an added layer of difficulty when it comes to disguise learning as fun. Parents want to perceive the first one, but kids look for the second.
A fine balance between educational value and entertainment has to be found.

The most common subjects for these apps are math and language arts. For kids a little older than 3–5, apps introducing to code logics (like blocks based coding. See Kodable, Hopscotch or Apple’s Swift Playground) are a gaining lots of attention.


A note about UX on educational apps:

For young children feedback should always be positive, never negative. Does this mean they should get rewarded regardless the answer? Nope. It means that they should get rewarded for right answers, and encouraged for wrong ones. This is very important.

So, for instance, if the answer/activity is right, they should get a “Well done!” kind of feedback, if the answer is wrong the feedback should be something like “Are you sure? Try again!”. Normally there isn’t a real failure state, kids should experience and learn by trial and error (many digital products for kids rely on Montessori methods).


Educational apps can be paid, meaning pay once and for all, or subscription based. If you’re planning to make an app that includes a finished number of activities and or gameplays and you won’t release new content on a regular basis, then you should go with the paid app approach. If, instead, you’ll be constantly releasing new lessons/games/subjects/… the subscription based model is the one to pick. This second choice clearly requires a much much bigger investments, a dedicated team constantly releasing new stuff, servers to store users profiles, maybe a crossplatform system including multiple touch points (mobile app and desktop website, where users should be able to jump across seamlessly).
The subscription model though, is also the most profitable one. As you can see in the image below, the top grossing app, meaning the one that generates most cash for the developer, is a “free” (note the quotes) app. Being free and top grossing, means being subscription based or having really good IAP (In App Purchases). In this case, ABCmouse, leading educational platform for kids, is subscription based. They offer a huge curriculum of activities, spanning all possible subjects.

Of course, for indie devs or startups yet to be funded and with limited resources, the paid app route is absolutely a valid option.
I’ve been working with a startup based in Milan, called Colto, and with them we created an educational gaming experience for children to learn the basic vocabulary of 12 languages. The app, called Eli Explorer, is a stand alone app, with a single gaming experience, doesn’t of course require a subscription, but is fairly priced for the download. To build credibility, being a new product and player on the market, the app as been submitted to several awards and collected a “Best app” award at the European Conference on Game-based Learning in 2014, as well as a Parents’ Choice Award.
This app is a good combination of educational and the next genre I want to talk to about, which is:

Simulation/Experience games

The game of “pretending” is a typical kids activity; imitating adults is a natural learning process in kids development. Some apps take inspiration by this to make simulation games where kids can experience things like being veterinarians, hairdressers, musicians, doctors, fire fighters or even airport security officers.

Two main players in this kind of products are Toca Boca and Dr. Panda. These apps are usually structured as “worlds” or “environments” where kids can experience different kinds of activities, each one made of simple tasks. Some of them can be just endless repetitive tasks (repetition is key in kids learning, they don’t get as easily bored as adults when doing the same things over and over), while others can include mini-games with a real objectives to achieve.

“A child playing with an iPad while seated at a table” by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

These games has also a layer of education, but the gaming component is usually higher than products focusing mainly on learning.

What I personally like about Toca Boca’s products is that, in most of those, kids have direct experience on the activity, without the mediation of a character performing the actions. So, for instance, in Toca Hair Salon, kids can cut characters hair directly with their finger.
The creativity component is also another big feature of these games. In Toca Tailor, kids can create outfits for the characters using a series of tools and libraries of patterns, or even snap photos to create their own patterns.

Some of them can be just explorative experiences, like the Sago Mini series.

The most common revenue models for these are: paid app and free app with IAPs.
Sago Mini and Toca Boca (the second actually acquired the first, so technically they are the same company) usually offer paid apps and 100% free apps to drive awareness on the brand (older apps or maybe apps that didn’t perform great or “mini” apps). While Dr. Panda, for example, uses the free app with IAPs model. You can download the apps for free, play with a limited portion of it and unlock more by buying the full version. Clearly, all the transactions are gated and accessible only by parents.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Video apps

What we analysed so far were active forms of entertainment, but there are very successful apps providing a passive experience. I’m talking about video apps. Youtube, Netflix, Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, PBS… All major players in video content offer some kind of app (or dedicated section) for kids.

The educational value of course varies depending on the IP (Intellectual Property). The popularity of the tv series and characters and the content offer are of course a major driver in the success of such apps.

In this case, the saying content is king it’s absolutely true 100%. The experience has to be simple and enjoyable, the content has to be easily accessible, well organised, categorised, but the big role here is played by the content itself.

Some apps can offer tools for parents, like timers to lock the app and avoid binge watching and things like that.

Most of these apps requires, as you can imagine, a subscription (sometimes included in the TV provider’s), given the constant updates. But there are also free options, such as Youtube kids or PBS.

Conclusions

As I mentioned in part #1, advertising in children apps is NOT an option (App Store’s guidelines forbid any form of advertising on kids products). 
We took a look at the most common concepts for young children apps and their revenue models. In the next part I’m planning to take a look at some innovative products involving AR and mixing digital with real life toys.

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Part #1 is here