How a tiny developer is taking big media to school

by Alex Porter

November 2 2011

If you have young children, you almost certainly know "Wheels on the Bus" for iPad.
If you have young children, you almost certainly know "Wheels on the Bus" for iPad.

By focusing relentlessly on quality and real-world testing, a tiny Silicon Valley developer is selling millions of early-learning apps.

In the children’s media market, juggernauts Disney and Nickelodeon, with their ubiquitous characters and huge merchandising and marketing muscle, tend to crush the competition. Educational publisher Scholastic, meanwhile, has long ruled the world of interactive learning. But when it comes to apps for kids, the reign of traditional media and publishing giants isn’t so automatic.

The apps market, like the Web, presents another instance in which traditional media may need to look to small, nimble startups for cues on how to make great content. The creators of a series of best-selling educational apps for preschoolers, Duck, Duck, Moose, are one such example.

Founded in 2008 by Nicci Gabriel, Caroline Hu Flexer and Michael Flexer, Duck, Duck, Moose (DDM) launched with an immediate hit, The Wheels on the Bus, an iPhone app that added the interactivity of a pop-up book to a popular children’s song, presented with bright, cheerful illustrations.

The DDM team had noticed that the iPhone’s touch interface was almost instantly accessible to toddlers. “There were very few companies developing content for kids, and many people asked, ‘Who will hand over such an expensive iPhone to a young child?’” says Hu Flexer. At the time, none of the large media companies were developing for iPhone and iPad. Now that kids' apps have become so lucrative, of course, they all are.

Learn, refine, repeat, repeat

Since the launch of their first app, the bootstrapped outfit produced eight more titles. DDM’s staff of now four handles all design, coding, testing and marketing. Team members have specific backgrounds in design, marketing, project management and software architecture. Moreover, Hu Flexer and husband Michael Flexer, classically trained in violin and cello respectively, produce the music in the apps themselves.

Hu Flexer attributes having a lean staff with strong, complimentary skills, to their success. They have very low expenses and reply on the tiny, multitalented team to do nearly all the work. Flexer also credits their open-ended design method in churning out consistently solid products: “Our process is iterative, which is the secret sauce to coming up with good ideas. It goes a little something like this: Observe children. Brainstorm. Prototype. Build. Test with lots of children and parents. Learn. Refine. Repeat all steps again. And again. And again.”

DDM focuses relentlessly on the the quality that first brought them attention and success. Their apps have collected dozens of glowing reviews and awards from tech, media and parenting organizations. Couple such praise with the democratic App Store platform, where the packaging, manufacturing and marketing advantages associated with traditional software retail are negated, and it makes sense that a little David like DDM can focus on great product and take on a Goliath like Nickelodeon or Disney.

Too young for tablets?

Still, it’s impossible for anyone creating children’s and educational content to escape at least some criticism. Advocates of touchscreen learning argue that the interactivity of iPad and iPhone is being unfairly associated with passive TV viewing. Some child development specialists and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), meanwhile, warn that overuse could impede vital social and motor development.

The APP recommends no screens whatsoever before age 2. But with a boom in touch screen consumption—Gartner Research estimates there will be 55-70 million tablets shipped by year’s end—the demand for baby and preschool apps won’t slow anytime soon.

And for beleaguered parents on a crowded flight, there’s nothing that quiets a toddler like a little Wheels on the Bus.

Alex Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.
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