On Sunday afternoon, the day before the opening of the 2015 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, children’s app developers, designers, and publishers gathered for the second annual Dust or Magic Masterclass, a four-hour discussion of the business of creating and selling apps, as well as some current standouts, including the winner of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award, My Very Hungry Caterpillar from StoryToys in Ireland.
The program opened with a presentation from Warren Buckleitner, founder of the Dust or Magic Institute, during which he explored the dos, don’ts, and design decisions that can lead to an app’s success or failure, drawing on references to Julia Child’s magic ingredient, butter (with apps, the “butter” is active learning, said Buckleitner); the cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget; and Play-Doh (with regard to an app’s reactivity, “When I touch it, how does it respond?”).
Buckleiter also emphasized the importance of disequilibratation in the learning process, i.e. creating the right type of confusion in a child’s mind that stimulates growth and new understanding. “A bad interface, a reading level that’s too hard – that’s confusion for the wrong reasons,” he said. “You want to confuse [children] for the right reasons. You want to get their mind off balance. With regard to app design, Buckleitner suggested a less-is-more approach. “Know when to use white space. Know when to let the child take control. I can count on one hand the number of designers who are disciplined enough not to push content on a child.”
After getting a peek at some of the apps that received “special mentions” from the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award jury, including David Wiesner’s Spot from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Toca Boca’s Toca Nature, Emmet O’Neal, chief product officer at StoryToys, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the winning app, My Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was selected from more than 190 entries from 27 countries. In the app, one of several to feature Eric Carle’s classic character, users guide the caterpillar through open-ended, 3-D scenes in which users can paint with, make music with, and, of course, feed the green caterpillar (the text of the book is not used in this app). “We wanted to make sure that whatever way a kid wanted it to work, it would work that way,” said O’Neal.
During an informative and too-brief State of the App panel in the afternoon, Pierre Abel of L’Escapadou, Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, Valerie Touze of Edoki, and Eric Huang of Made in Me fielded questions from moderator Neal Hoskins about the current app market, pricing, and the relationship between print and digital products for children. For Made in Me, Huang anticipated a shift in the company’s business model from seeking out marketing partners and business-to-business sales to a focus on selling rights to its own digital products. “Me Books [the company’s e-bookstore app] has become a platform, small but growing,” said Huang. “We had no idea it would turn into a rights business. We’re essentially agents now. Long-term, I think it’ll be more profitable.”
Wilson of Nosy Crow noted that while the app market for users up to age 12 nearly doubled last year in the U.K., it only represents 5% of the overall market there. “I think we are still challenged by parental, educational, and librarian willingness to engage in digital reading, particularly for younger children,” she said. Abel added, “I think the market is growing, but there are a lot of competitors. If you are new in the space, it’s more and more challenging to have some visibility.”
All four panelists said they have experimented with a variety of pricing strategies – free “gateway” apps, bundling, and “light” versions – with mixed results. Touze described attempts to draw app buyers into Edoki’s products with small, free apps to provide a window to the larger, paid products. “It was difficult because we got bad reviews. Even when it’s free, people want it to be great.” For Abel at L’Escapadou, a subscription model, with users paying a monthly fee for access to a company’s apps, seemed an attractive model. “If you look at the educational space, subscription works. Why not in children’s?”
Imagining a future in which “the ability to decode text ceases to become necessary,” Wilson emphasized the importance of creating engaging reading experiences for children on-screen. “I believe we have a huge duty to make sure some of the screen time is reading time. Some play is story, some story is play, but they’re not synonymous. Children get better at reading because they practice reading.”
The session concluded with presentations from Shazai Makhdumi, global head of educational apps and business development at Google, and Abel at L’Escapadou, who offered tips for developers trying to make their apps stand out in the Android and iOS marketplaces.