Three things I learned about building my first iPad app for children

A few months ago, I launched my first app on iTunes. It is a free game for children aged between 2 and 4, featuring Australian animals and puzzles, called Clever Possums. I wire-framed the game interactions, designed the game branding, drew hundreds and hundreds of animals, and recorded all the voice over, and my co-founder Dan did all the programming and launching of the game. That’s what we call a straight up Design/ Tech split. We did it without a scrap of investment, in our own time, after our small children were asleep at night. You may ask “So how did it go? Did you launch, become a huge success, and get filthy rich?”, and I would reply “Rich in experience, my friend, so very rich in experience… but still so humble of wallet.”

If you were a bit curious, you might ask a little further… “So, were you expecting to actually make money?” And if I was going to be truthful, I might tell you about the huge dreams Dan and I had about making a modest 10 grand, splitting it, and going on holidays with our families. Like seriously, I never indulged in dreams of rubbing wads of cash on my nipples, since that would be a little over the top, and I do that on Sundays anyway as a sort of hobby, but I did hope that we’d have enough to buy a cocktail with at least 4 layers of colours in it, and a tiny umbrella. Perhaps even a jaunty olive, or a debonair swizzle stick. Then when we launched the app for free, I finally figured out there was a slight hole in my strategic plan. So, in answer to your question, these days I’d say that we gained a lot of experience and I’d love to share three key things that really stand out for me.

1. It will take you ages, so be prepared for the long haul.

Look, I’m going to assume something here. I’m going to assume you have a pretty full life and that you don’t have the time right now to drop everything and just  do your project. So I’m going to assume that, like me, you’re going to be making an app or doing a project on the sides of your job, your family, and your secret life as a double agent.  So with that in mind, let me say that it will take you three times longer than you ever anticipate. We were actually pretty disciplined to start with. But then life got in the way. I think you should anticipate that the project will stop and start, but you should use the initial momentum to do as much as humanly possible when the enthusiasm is high. But at the first, map out a rough team timeline for how long you think this is going to take, and then privately, triple it. If you’ve never done a project like this, then your estimates for how long it is going to take are going to be wrong. That’s just a fact. It’s even harder to accurately estimate projects for new(ish) platforms and technologies. The only way to get better at it, is by doing it.
You also have to understand and accept the opportunity cost that working on your project will mean before you start. What I recommend is that you think back to one project that you did, at some point in your life, that took ages but you finally finished it. Honestly, this doesn’t have to be a digital project… my father took his car engine apart on our kitchen table and he reassembled that monster in only 8 months! And when he finished, he realised that the he had left out three quite critical tiny bits. But by god, he finished it! So think back to your ‘car engine’ story and recall how it was to be facing a seemingly unending and spiritually gruelling project and how you finally did it. Because you’ll need all that, and more.
These days, getting a mentor whilst your build your thing, seems to be much easier than when we started. If you can, get a mentor, someone to talk you down off the ledge when it all gets a bit crazy. Here’s a list of start-up mentors in Australia, and there are many more springing up around the place. Use the google to track them down.

2. You need some basic project infrastructure.

You should set up a proper project backbone right from the start. This should include a base camp project, or a free blog, and you should set up regular weekly Skype meetings, if you aren’t already meeting in person. Look I can’t stress highly enough how critical this will be. Why will this be so darn useful that you’ll forever praise this one handy suggestion, and in fact make me a shrine in your bedroom? Because… the sense of inertia is a project killer. And at first, what you might be doing is some critical planning stuff. In fact if you aren’t planning, and you are straight in there at the coal face, I’d say, back off. (“Doomed from the outset” is what I might think, but wouldn’t as readily say, because I’m diplomatic like that. ) So the first couple of weeks you are setting up your project, writing notes, doing audience research, scoping the competition, and maybe talking a lot with your co-founder if you have one. Maybe you are accumulating documents as well, and links to awesome web articles. So by the end of the week, you’ve done lots of work, but without a project base, there will be nothing to show for it except for files on your hard drive. And in four weeks time there’s nothing to show for what you did four weeks ago, even though, you know you did *something*. And lets say that you are working with someone else (if not immediately, but eventually) then it’s really great to be able to login to somewhere and see what they’ve been accumulating, thinking, and doing. What we did is we created a free blog on Blogger, but only viewable to us. We posted ideas and articles there every week. At the end of the first month we could look back and say “We have momentum”, even though what we had was really just a collection of project related pieces of a puzzle. We stabbed the fatal sense of project inertia through the heart, and I’m really proud of that. These days, we would probably use Basecamp for something like this.

3. If you have a partner in the venture, then they will make a HUGE difference. Don’t co-found with an ass.

Actually, let me expand this to ‘anyone’ you involve will make a huge difference, but a co-founder or someone like that is going to make a massive difference. I know it sounds crazy, but try very hard not to partner up with an a**hole. You want someone professional, reliable, fun, and committed. In our case, that was Dan, and I was variously none of these things, but he’s a patient guy. And what would be really good is if you can get some clarity on your roles pretty much upfront. For example… in our case, I was the designer, Dan was the coder. When we were designing the logo, I’d ask for feedback and Dan kept coming back to me, saying “Just a bit more work required”. So then we got to the point where I thought the logo was actually done, and he didn’t, so I had to say, “Ok, but as the designer, I’m calling it, and it’s done.” Equally, when we were building and testing the product, I kept thinking of new interactions that would be super nice that were out of scope. Eventually Dan made the call that certain things wouldn’t be done this launch. Roles, lines in the sand, make sure you find someone who can draw one and respect one.

As a side note, if you do find someone you can work with, be aware that creating something cool with someone amazing is actually one of the joys of work. Working with Dan on this project opened my eyes to what work could be. As a result I quit my job at the time, and went looking for more satisfying and engaging design work, and I’ve never looked back. He’s an inspiration. But enough about Wonder Dan, make sure your co-founder is a good nut. Get it said in words what they expect of you. Forgive them when they don’t deliver and make sure they forgive you. If you are making them proud to work with you, then you are doing the right thing.

So those are my three big things. Prepare for it to take a long long time. Do the right thing and get your project ground-work in place early. And make sure that your co-founder, (or any team mate you bring on) is as excellent as possible.

Oh and if you have a kid aged 2 – 4, why not download my game to your iPad and show it to them? It has kangaroos, koalas, butterflies and goannas… like this one. That’s pretty awesome.

An Australian Goanna.

A drawing of a lovely Goanna, from the iPad game ‘Clever Possums’, for 2 – 4 year olds.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi, I loved the app, my daughter (5 years old) did too!!
    We noticed that on the “Find two of the same!” the animals tend to repeat itself, we got 6 ulysses butterflies (3 pairs) in the game. 🙂

    Thanks for the app and keep doing this great work!


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