The Kids App Market, Part 3: A Wish List

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The Daily

As my third and final post on the kids app market, I have made a wish list. What if things were different? How could the market improve?

Even if all of my wishes were to come true, the majority of the market complexities would remain. Your user is not your customer. That won’t ever change. But as I’ve stated before – things can still improve. All parts of the ecosystem can do better.

This wish list is my way of contributing to these improvements. I want to show that there are many things that could be reworked, changed, or improved. I sometimes get the feeling that people look at this market as stagnant – almost impossible. With this wishlist I’m simply saying: it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s make some changes!

If you missed the first two parts, take a look here first for some more context:
Part 1: The Kids App Market – A Strategic Overview
Part 2: The Kids App Market: Q&A


Product & Developers

  • There’s more to kids apps than ABCs and 123s
    One of the reasons it is hard to find great apps is that so many of them are going for the exact same concept. With the same sort of developer name. With the same sort of art style. Everything looks and feels the same, and it creates the impression of a non-differentiated market.

    I wish developers would take it a step or two further. Yes, ABCs are important. But that app concept is pretty well covered by now. There’s so much more to be done.

  • Define your authorship
    Go beyond the most immediate common denominator when it comes to design. Look at children’s books for inspiration – Jon Klassen or Chris Haughton for example. They have a tone of voice, a look, a sense of authorship. This is far too often missing from kids apps.

  • Where is the Pixar of apps?
    By saying Pixar, I don’t necessarily mean that exact studio (although that would have been lovely too). But where are the studios that have that amount of care and attention to detail? The app studios that love their craft like Pixar loves movies? I understand the financial reality of developing for this space – I really do. But ambition is free. And I rarely even see an experiment with a sense of curiosity or adventurousness. It would reinvigorate the market in a way that is needed to get the excitement back.

  • Don’t forget the parents
    There’s more to this ecosystem than just apps for kids. Apps for parents live in their own ecosystem currently, but there’s a lot of overlap here in terms of communication and discovery. There’s loads of room for innovation in this area.

Platforms & App Stores

  • Delay App Store charges by 24h
    I’ve spoken to countless parents that bought an app (or an IAP) that ended up being bad or disappointing. This had discouraged them from buying other apps in general. This is a huge problem, but an understandable situation.

    To me, there’s a very simple change that would increase product quality across the App Store overnight: move the credit card charge 24h forwards in time. Ask the consumer one day later if they’d like to keep the purchase they made, and if not the charge (and purchase) is reverted. What’s more – the ranking in the store should only kick in based on the purchases kept, which instantly rewards quality and longevity. Finally – let bought in-app purchases be shared across all family devices.

  • Checkbox for kids search
    Identify the searches that are clearly intended for kids and add a checkbox to filter out all results that aren’t in the Kids category. If you want to show up in search, comply with the rules of the kids category (more on that below).

  • Clean up the store
    Screen out the garbage that is cluttering up the search results. Plenty of apps aren’t accepted anyway. It is long overdue to make that list considerably longer. We don’t need more apps like Baby Vampire-dentist office ultimate game for kids. Start by enforcing your own guidelines. These apps are predatory and make the store look bad. Turn them off.

  • Encourage inclusion in the Kids category
    During WWDC this year, Apple announced that they would ban all use of analytics for apps in the Kids category. And while I can understand the intent, this sends the wrong message to the developer community. The Kids category already has more strict requirements than the rest, and several kids developers simply avoid the category and rely on discovery outside it instead. This change penalizes the developers that are trying to comply with best practices and leaves the blatant category misuse from certain developers to continue.

    In my opinion, Apple should be doing the opposite. They should be strongly incentivizing developers to join the Kids category (and by doing so, comply with a higher standard of regulation – which is a good thing).

    In the context of the App Store, incentives mean promotion. Make a Kids tab in the store. Stop promoting any kids directed app that isn’t in the Kids category. Remove apps from kids directed search (as per above). There’s lots to do here to make the Kids category safer for families and better for developers.

  • Follow a developer
    Developers don’t have any way of contacting their former customers in the App Store today. It relies on parents signing up for a mailing list or a social media account and then catch that message when the time comes. There are a lot of steps that can go wrong there. At the same time, consumers don’t want to be spammed from every developer that they ever downloaded an app from.

    A solution could be to let consumers follow a developer in the App Store. That way they could voluntarily get notified when developers of their choice released new products, and receive it as a push notification from the App Store. This would encourage loyalty and help with discovery of new products.

  • Incentivize referrals
    Apple had an affiliate program that they removed recently. Given how difficult discovery in this category is, they should incentivize outside ecosystems to help with this. Finding quality products will lead to more spending since the experience is better. Sharing this spending with the broader community that helps with the discovery seems very fair and reasonable to me. If there has been issues around fraud in certain categories, only turn this on for the Kids category to begin with.

Parents

  • Parents, please pay
    This is simple and perhaps naive, but this is a wish list after all. Please pay for apps. One way or another. Generally, I’m not a big fan of industries complaining that their customers don’t understand their own greatness. But this is an industry that needs support in order to become self-sustaining. And if you want your favorite developers to keep producing great apps for kids, then my wish would be that they got financially supported to a higher extent than today.

  • Take an informed view of screen time
    This is a long and complicated topic that I won’t get into here. The jury is also still out on many issues as we wait for the research to come in. But until then, take a look at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations. And while I don’t agree with everything there, their view on quality over quantity provides a useful lens to have when determining how you want technology to be used in your family. This shouldn’t be a binary matter.

Media

  • Treat apps like culture
    I wish we would stop thinking about apps as software and start treating them as a part of culture instead. Or as a part of media at the very least. Technology is only the carrier – not the category. When apps are seen as small pieces of tech hidden away in the back section of magazines, so much of the potential is lost. I’m not saying all apps deserve to be on the cover of Time Magazine. But looking at them as a part of a broader culture would encourage more developers – and not only kids ditto – to aim higher.

  • Where are Oprah & Ellen?
    This space needs a cultural icon that points people to good things. Like Oprah and Ellen do. They carry massive influence, are trusted in their spaces, and help guide people to great products. Kids apps really needs their own Oprah and Ellen.

Regulation & Privacy

  • Clarity
    In my experience, most kids app developers have the best of intentions. There are easier ways of making money than this, so the immediate gold rush tends to go in other directions. Nevertheless, all of them get tangled up in the regulation that guides this space. Developers are treading on eggshells to not break a law – by mistake.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The developer community just needs clarity in regulation. I’m all for safe harbor programs, but you shouldn’t need one to comply with regulation. I’m not advocating watering the law down – I just want it to be crystal clear when you are compliant and not.

  • Neutral, private, authentication
    Account and data management are often needed to create a great experience. It is also the beginning of a privacy nightmare – for everyone. The kids space would benefit from a neutral, private, cross-platform, COPPA/GDPR-K compliant way of handling identity, authentication, and data management. That way developers could use this and therefore not have to solve these issues individually. Quick for the developers, simple for the user, transparent for parent.

That was my wish list. Please add your own in the comments!


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22 Comments

  1. I love this kind of publications, Björn. I would have liked to read them before doing my apps to make fewer mistakes :P, but I still learn a lot with your words. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Björn Jeffery says

      I wish I had known it before I made all of my mistakes too 🙂 But at least those mistakes informed these blog posts!

  2. I agree that a lot could be done with more proactive enforcement of the existing platform guidelines. When popular kids apps are caught using the FacebookSDK with no obvious repercussions, or apps that are clearly designed for and used by young children side-steps the rules by publishing in outside of the kids category it sends the wrong signal to other developers. It disincentives legitimate players who invest time and money to play by the rules. Make an example out of a handful of bad actors (they are not hard to find) and people will take note.

    • Björn Jeffery says

      Agree. A lot of the rules are already in place – they’re just not being adequately enforced.

  3. Chetana says

    Thank You Björn! for keeping the flame burning on this topic. On the wishlist adding here for product leaders and product designers:
    Experiences we create for kids do not all have to live in the digital world. They can start there (coz that is where we can meet them today) and move to the analog, motivating kids to explore, engage.

    • Björn Jeffery says

      Good point. A good experience can start – or end – anywhere.

      • Chetana, good point, that is my approach. I’m making apps and digital experiences that combine with analog products using a trans and cross media narratives. But as a single entrepeneur and developer, with no resources, is very difficult to achieve the production and logistics. If you are interested, my project is called Tiny Cosmonauts 😉

        • Björn, I only read this article now and very much agree with your points. Our company is a startup, making “hybrid play” adventures and facing the same challenges as you, Chema Juarez, plus the challenge to reach parents in a right way. If you’re interested (in Dutch, but you will be able to understand most of it through the visuals: https://www.avonturenbox-kidiyo.nl). But it’s an interesting -and necessary!- job if you ask me, with interesting times ahead. Björn, I also just read your great speech “in defense of screen time”. It includes so many nuggets that I will definitely share via LinkedIn.

  4. Daniel Donahoo says

    Feels like we haven’t got very far if you still have to say no more ABCs or 123 apps – I believe I wrong a blog post about that in 2012…. :/ (loving your email and thanks for putting the things in your fine brain out there for us to read)

    • Björn Jeffery says

      It’s still very early days. The best is yet to come! I hope 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Bjorn! You are so on point with the industry and the challenges facing companies that are trying to do better. Recent changes by Apple are addressing a symptom, not the underlying problem as you stated but I think their hearts are in the right place. This series is so on point and should be read by anyone in, or interested in, the kid tech industry!

  6. Tatyana Belyavskaya says

    Björn , I agree with most of your points, & I will share the post. Thank you.

  7. Great post Bjorn! I’m a middle school tech teacher who spent 2 years creating an app for parents and children that teaches responsibility. Since I wasn’t able to find something that met the needs of my own child, I developed it. I also thought if I built it, they would come. I could definitely use an Oprah or Ellen right now!

    • Björn Jeffery says

      If you build it they might come, but they probably won’t unfortunately. And your current options are pretty limited too. Hope you can find a way to break through!

  8. Tack Björn.

    Really sensible and straight to the point proposals. Why are we not implementing these already?
    I liked your holistic approach. Developers of apps for kids are often frustrated in a corner. So are parents. App stores are clearly not satisfied how they’re handling this.
    It takes an ecosystem to raise a kids app market!

  9. Great series of posts, Björn.

    I’m reminded of the way the Xbox Live Indie program was structured, and wonder if there are elements of that model that Apple could adopt. It allowed Xbox to curate the mainstream of their platform, so users could reasonably hold some minimum quality expectations when they downloaded there. In the App Store, that’s where the Kids category belongs.

    But it also provided a monetizing platform to small indie devs with interesting ideas that couldn’t get approved for the main Xbox Live channel. These titles were tested by volunteer power-users, then peer-reviewed before they could be published. Titles needed multiple trusted reviews from peers before they became publicly available, and there were limits on download size and what the dev could charge for the game. This weeded out the copy-paste junk like Baby Vampire Dentist and millions of candy-themed match-3 games, while still affording new devs with no funding the opportunity to break through.

    The app mills simply fishing for money with keywords and ASO wouldn’t last long in a peer-reviewed ecosystem, but sincere indies could get a lot of valuable feedback before their app became available to the public.

    Anyway, many thanks for the great posts and the light you continue to shine on our corner of the digital media marketplace!

    • Björn Jeffery says

      I love the peer review suggestion, Clark. That would solve so many of these issues!

  10. Amber Levinson says

    These are awesome suggestions!! Thank you for sharing them Björn.

  11. Wonderful series of articles, Björn. Spot on.

    Regarding ABCs and 123s, I agree that the market is saturated with simple flashcard apps that teach basic letter and number recognition. But if a developer has a new concept that rivals the creativity of Metamorphabet or Endless Alphabet or Dragonbox Numbers, I would hate for them to be discouraged. The bar has been set high, so leap over it.

    • Björn Jeffery says

      Thanks Jacob. There is of course a lot left to do in education in general. I was referring to the undifferentiated side of the market. The part that all looks and works the same way. But there’s plenty of room left for original concepts!

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