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5 useful lessons from writing an app for kids

It always starts with an itch. Today, there aren’t really many good apps to teach kids to read Hebrew. The best one is “Kesem’s Monsters” – and when I tried getting my son to play it, it annoyed me. He liked playing it – but I thought it wasn’t teaching reading all that well.

About a year ago, I was already finished the German skill tree in Duolingo – and I knew what I was looking for. There is an important difference between teaching an adult a second language, and teaching a child to read. While the problems are similar, the adult already knows how to read – it’s a basic skill that is generally transferable between many languages. The child however is normally a native speaker – they already have a good vocabulary – but they need to learn to read, a completely new skill.

So about a year ago, I started working on a reading app for my son. I wrote it in Swift for iOS, which was a fun experience learning a new statically and strongly typed language. The main game for the child was: see a written word – and tap the image it represents. So for the word “Horse” – the child would need to tap the horse icon, as opposed to the house icon.

Here is a demo of the app:

A demo of “Learn to read Hebrew easily”

The app is already available on the app store here. I also built a site for it. Following are 5 lessons I learned while working on this app.

1 – Your free time can make an impact

Working on a startup while having kids is draining. Not just your time – but your energy too. A few years back I decided not to feel guilty about not having the energy to work on a side project. It’s ok at the end of the day just to sit on the sofa and watch some Netflix with your significant other.

However, sometimes you do get that itch to build something. It builds up in you. And when that happens you will find some time. An hour when everyone is taking their afternoon nap on a Saturday. Another hour at night when everyone’s already sleeping.

And the reward in satisfaction is there. You can look at your time and say “I built this!”. It doesn’t have to be the next billion or even just million dollar startup. It can be something as small as a blog post. But it will have an impact.

With this app I knew I was really onto something when I got this feedback from a beta tester (translated from Hebrew):

“Thanks to you, a young first-grader who we just recently discovered also has a development disability (he is a foster child) is advancing his reading and enjoys using the app. Thank you!”

With this, I knew that even if I stopped there, and there won’t be a single additional installation of this app, I made some impact. Not every idea or project you and I will build will have this specific impact. But they will do something.

2 – How to motivate children to learn by playing

Humans are amazing reward optimizers, and children are even more so. Here are some learnings on what worked for me.

  • Provide visual and audio reward and encouragement for every success
  • Make it clear what’s an error and what isn’t
  • Don’t leave loopholes for getting “progress” without learning, children love exploiting those!
    • A bug I described here – my kid would click multiple times on a right answer to earn the points for it multiple times
    • For an image with alternative words you need to pick from – the child will read only the first syllable to find the correct word
  • The meta-game is critical!
    • In my app I added a reward screen where every 5 levels you get another animal added to this reward screen. This encouraged children to continue playing through the levels to get all the rewards.
  • Be careful with negative feedback
    • In an early version, my son would visibly lose points on making a mistake. He got really upset and stopped playing, which surprised me, I didn’t expect such an emotional connection to the points he earned.

3 – A single good experience is not good enough

From the people who installed the app, or tested it I got very good feedback. It’s a great feeling! However, many children played through all the levels once in about an hour, and then stopped playing.

Learning from that – the next major version of the app will have a different engagement model – where I would aim to get the child to play a little more each day. The rewards need to be built differently, and long term engagement needs to be the focus.

4 – Spend just a little bit of money and your work will look professional

Initial beta versions of the app had a white background and I recorded the narration myself. These days, getting some quality graphics and good narration does not cost a lot! You can get very good results for not a lot of money on fiverr.com or upwork.com.

The different response I saw from people before and after I put in these changes was surprising. Before – “cute toy”. After – “wow, you built this?”.

5 – It takes a lot of work to make an app a success

This app is not yet a success. I never expected it to be a great financial success. At most I hoped that some children, including my own, will improve their reading.

To make an app a success takes doing a lot of things, which are hard to do in your free time.

  • Build a good experience
  • Support both iOS and Android
  • Build a website
  • Build a facebook page and maintain it
  • Get screenshots and demo videos for the app store page
  • Write some good copy for the app store page
  • Promote your app with advertisements
  • Track users using analytics and encourage them to use/share/review your app
  • Implement some monetization – be it ads, purchase price of the app, in-app purchases, whatever – this takes work

Happily enough – these days it’s easier than ever to do these things cheaply and easily – but even then it’s still a lot of work.

When working on a side project, you should enter it with open eyes and be aware of what is the most you can expect from the level of investment you put in.

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