Developer Interview: Adam Skaates of IDEO Toy Labs
We at Appstruck like reviewing iPhone apps. In fact, we love it. Getting down to the nitty gritty, laying it bare, showcasing the best and most interesting for our readers, so they don’t have to plow through deep space just to find a decent app. Really, researching applications is tedious, but great.
But, let’s not forget the genius behind the apps. After all, they don’t simply appear out of thin air. Someone had the insight, the talent, and the capacity to create these iPhone apps so that we may use them to their full power.
We had the fortune to interview Adam Skaates of IDEO Toy Labs, a company that has created two apps I hold in high regard, Balloonimals and Grover’s Number Special. Not only are these kids apps beautiful to behold and masterfully executed, they provide children with an unprecedented educational experience that takes full advantage of the iPhone’s touch and gesture-based interface. I expect to see many more excellent ideas and apps stemming from IDEO Toy Labs in the future.
As I said in the review, Balloonimals has been on my iPhone forever, is one of my favorite apps, and I tend to show it off like some mad person. Who came up with the idea? Was the idea instantly cherished by everyone on the team? Upon its release, was Balloonimals a hit?
Balloonimals was first conceived at a brainstorm based on some human centered research we did. Research is core to our design process at IDEO – so when we started thinking about apps we went out in the world and talked to parents with iphones looking for insights into how they use the device with their preschoolers. One of the things we learned is that kids often use the device to perform for their family members – with apps like Light Sabre and iMilk. We thought about this behavior and looked for more ways to facilitate this natural “family theatre” type play in a positive, fulfilling way. So that was the brainstorm topic. We invited a bunch of designers from IDEO to participate in the brainstorm and balloonimals was one of the ideas from that session.
Who makes up the Toy Lab team? Where are you based?
The Toy Lab is a small group within IDEO that focuses primarily on toy invention. We come up with toy concept ideas, build prototypes of them, and shop them around to toy companies. We started thinking about and researching apps a the end of 2008 because we see them as little digital toys – which fits nicely with the other work we do. We are part of IDEO’s Palo Alto, CA campus. IDEO is a 500 person company spread across 8 offices around the world.
You are part of IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm. How did Toy Labs originate? What made your team stem out from IDEO?
The Toy Lab has been a part of IDEO for over 15 years. It stemmed from the personal passions of long time IDEOer Brendan Boyle – who had a desire to focus his design and innovation around creating great products for kids. Brendan is a Partner at IDEO and has led the Toy Lab since its origin in the 90s.
One of the biggest pitfalls, I think, of kids apps (and apps in general) in the iTunes store is their lack of longevity and creativity. You’d be surprised at how many kids apps center on brightly colored objects or sound device machines. The obvious but mundane. Both of these are good, in principle, but the beauty of an app like Balloonimals is that the entertaining surface belies just how engaging and educational the app actually is. The simple acts of following directions, shaking a phone, taking part in the creation of something, and then interacting with that creation are incredible mental exercises for young children, ones that can reap great rewards. Can you tell me about the research and the labor that went into the creation of Balloonimals?
I’ve spoken to some of the research at the concept phase of balloonimals – but we also did a lot of testing during development to inform and refine the design. We spent a lot of time trying to make the messaging for how to interact intuitive and visual so kids could figure out how to play without reading – which most kids in our target age can’t do yet. We also wanted to understand how kids would react to some of the moments in game. For example, we didn’t know if it would distress kids to see their precious balloonimals explode. Turns out they pretty much all thought this was hilarious – and was most kids favorite part of the experience.
The graphics in Balloonimals really stand out. They nearly stand out from the screen, the balloons are so, balloon-like. How did you achieve these results?
It wasn’t easy. We hired a professional balloon animal performer to come in and build a bunch of balloon animals for us. We used these as a starting point to create our 3D models. We then found some great designers to do the 3D modeling, lighting, and animating – trying our best to make the digital balloons appear as balloon-like as possible. I also employed one of our secret weapons – one of our toy inventors in nicknamed “the master of cuteness” – she helped make the balloonimals super-cute!
I recently tried your app Grover’s Number Special, your latest advent, and one forged from a collaboration with Sesame Street. I must say, there aren’t many names bigger than Sesame Street in the kid universe, so I commend you on this development. What attracted you to a creating an app with the creators of Sesame Street? I assume you’re attracted to their style of education.
Well we’ve been creating toy concepts featuring Elmo and the other Sesame characters for years – and of course we all remember the characters fondly from childhood – so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with the folks at Sesame. Its been a great working relationship that has led to some innovative and fun apps.
Grover’s Number Special, by the way, is fantastic. I felt nostalgia for my childhood and remembered old episodes I would watch. I also see you have two more in the works: Elmo’s Monster Maker, and Sesame Street 123. It’s brilliant how kids can interact with their favorite characters on a small, mobile device like the iPhone. What went into the creation of these apps? It’s almost like watching a video.
Thanks for the complement! If looks like watching a video because it is! We scripted and shot the sequences in Grover’s Number Special live with the real puppets and puppeteers at Sesame Street’s studio in New York. The same holds true for our upcoming Sesame releases. There’ll be new original Sesame footage integrated into silly, fun, and educational game play with each release.
Your team must feel a deep affinity for childhood if your lives revolve around making apps that really speak to kids. Are you all kids at heart? I am, for sure.
We try to be
Do you guys have balloon fights? Please tell me someone on staff actually knows how to twist a balloon animal *crosses fingers.*
Our office warfare usually involves finger blasters – a toy we invented. A Finger Blaster is basically a giant rubber band with a foam rocket attached to the back. There are probably hundreds and hundreds of blasters stuck in the rafters across all our buildings and on top of bookshelves at IDEO from years of stray shots. Its a tough job but…
Is the Toy Lab team engaged in any other lines of work?
Yes, Toy Inventing. Our team specializes in creating and bringing to market new toys. Apps is a growing part of our work but toys is still our main business.
Will there be any future updates to Balloonimals? Possibly some more balloon animals? Some of the comments in the iTunes store indicate people just want more, more, more.
It’s on the list to do – but there’s so many other projects to work on too!
The iPhone is nearly limitless in its potential, as I’ve noted in a few articles for Appstruck. Where do you think the future of kid apps lies? Will they always be cheery and brightly colored, with silly noises to accompany? Or do you think there will there be more serious ones focused on a child’s productivity? Somehow I think they would see less success.
I wonder. Its been interesting to watch the kids apps section develop – we’re starting to see a lot of real quality apps creep up as competition. I think there will continue to be more and more entertainment properties represented among the top kids apps. In general, It’s always interesting to see what ends up on the top of the list – you just never know what will work.
The Droid is the other phone with limitless potential, and it already has 10,000+ apps in its Android store, before its opening day, to boot. Do you see Toy Lab branching out into the Android app store?
Maybe at some point. For right now we’ve got our hands full with iPhone and toy projects.
Aside from your own apps, do you have any favorite apps from the iTunes Universe?
Recently, I’ve been playing Sword and Poker and Catan. I also love the simple fun of Doodle Jump. Of all the kids apps I like what Duck Duck Moose is doing the most – except of course, what we’re doing.
What is the best part about your job? This almost seems too simple to ask . What are some challenges you face?
My favorite parts are dreaming up new ideas to work on and watching the things we work on get released into the world.