From left to right, Nicci Gabriel, Caroline Hu Flexer and Michael Flexer
I’m sure you have heard of the saying that good things come in threes. I’d like to apply that saying to a quirky and creative company behind some of the most popular children’s apps in Apple’s iTunes store.
The titles behind the apps are themes from nursery rhymes, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Old MacDonald, and Wheels on the Bus. However, one app that Duck Duck Moose created takes inspiration from something different — a school of fish. Their app Fish School, is directed towards introducing letters, colors, shapes, numbers and matching towards the preschool set of youngsters.
I recently had a chance to exchange emails with Caroline Hu Flexer, co-founder of Duck Duck Moose, to find out more about their design firm of iPhone/iPad apps.
The iPad Baby: How was Duck Duck Moose formed?
Hu Flexer: Duck Duck Moose (http://duckduckmoosedesign.com), was started by three friends, Caroline Hu Flexer, Nicci Gabriel, and Michael Flexer. When Caroline and Michael got their iPhones in 2008, we noticed how our then-two-year-old was captivated by the iPhone and quickly learned to use it. Using the touch screen and drop-dead simple interface design, our daughter could find the camera, take photos, then flip through the photos she had taken. We liked the idea of having high-quality, educational apps on our phones to entertain our children when we were stuck waiting at a doctor’s office or restaurant. As a mom, I was always carrying around a heavy bag full of toys and crayons to entertain my children. I thought it would be great to have educational apps on my phone since I always have it with me. To create children’s apps, we knew that we would need an outstanding designer and illustrator, and Michael immediately thought of Nicci, whom he had worked with at two previous startups.
We launched our first iPhone app, Wheels on the Bus, in January 2009. We now have 5 titles: Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Fish School. Three of them have HD versions for the iPad: Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Fish School.
The iPad Baby: As creators of Duck Duck Moose, what sort of background do the three of you have?
Hu Flexer: *I have a background in design and business. I previously worked as a Product Manager at Intuit and at IDEO. Nicci has more than 10 years of diverse design experience and has won several awards for her designs. She was most recently the Creative Lead at Sharpcast. Michael has 20 years of experience as a software engineer at several startups, including Siebel Systems, Gain Technology, Sharpcast, SkyData, and C3.
Michael and I were also trained as classical musicians, and we produce the music in our apps ourselves. We’ve recorded the music in famous concert halls as well as in our basement with Michael’s piano trio, the St. Michael Trio.
Clockwise: Screenshots of "Its Itsy Spider", "Wheels on the Bus", and "Fish School"
The iPad Baby: How does Duck Duck Moose approach the development of apps?
Hu Flexer: We have a very collaborative, open-ended design process in which the three of us all contribute throughout. This is our process: Observe children. Brainstorm. Prototype. Build. Test with children. Learn. Refine. Repeat all steps again. And again. And again. The key elements of our approach are:
“Observing: Looking at the world through a child’s eyes” – We observe children’s play patterns, and watch what they do and what they love. This is our source of inspiration. We notice that children like to play peek-a-boo, collect things like eggs, and blow and pop bubbles, for example.
“Brainstorming: No ideas are too wild” – The three of us bring very different perspectives to the table (from varied backgrounds in design, engineering, music, business and children), but we have a very open way of working together. We defer all judgment and encourage wild ideas. We don’t just brainstorm once. We are continually brainstorming for new ideas and new refinements as we start an app, do the first sketches, build it on the iPhone, add the music and sounds, and test with children. At every step of the way, there are opportunities for creativity and looking at the app from a new angle.
“Iterative development: It’s all the little things that create the magic.” – After brainstorming, creating wireframes and illustrations, building the app, adding music and sound effects, and testing with children, we will repeat this process several times, developing in an iterative fashion up until finally submitting an app to Apple. Because there are only three of us, we are able to continue to iterate until the end, and some of our best ideas often come at the end. We make sure that every pixel, interaction and sound effect is coordinated and resonates with children.
The iPad Baby: What are some of the challenges you experience as developers in the development of new content?
Hu Flexer: It is challenging to be one out of 250,000 apps on the App Store. It is a very competitive environment with more and more companies entering the space. As a small company of three, we do not have a large marketing or PR budget. We’ve taken a grassroots approach to PR and social networking, are learning as we go.
The iPad Baby: Who are the voices in the applications?
Hu Flexer: Brennan Pursell, Karen Frankenstein, and Jennifer Evans Beatty are the singers (http://duckduckmoosedesign.com/our-story/credits) in our applications. Brennan Pursell is a childhood friend of Michael’s and a History Professor at DeSales University. He sang Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and German, and also recorded Itsy Bitsy Spider. Karen Frankenstein is my cousin and a soprano soloist at Staatsoper Hannover, and recorded Wheels on the Bus. Jennifer Evans Beatty is our daughter’s preschool teacher at Bing Nursery School at Stanford University. She was the voice in Baa Baa Black Sheep and Fish School.
We used our four-year-old daughter’s voice for the Wheels on the Bus “Gibberish” track, the egg counting in Fish School, and other sound effects in Itsy Bitsy Spider and Old MacDonald. We also used our nine-year-old neighbor’s voice for some of the sound effects in Itsy Bitsy Spider and Baa Baa Black Sheep.
Screenshot from "Baa Baa Black Sheep"
The iPad Baby: When making apps, who do you test each program on?
Hu Flexer: Children and their parents. Since our apps are for such young children, we have to design for and test with both children and their parents since they are often playing together. This is sometimes a challenging task since adults and children have very different approaches to technology. We also test with educators and other technology and design advisors.
The iPad Baby: Is there a specific target age that you develop games for?
Hu Flexer: Our apps are primarily for preschool and early elementary school-aged children (1-7 years old).
The iPad Baby: Why did you select to make games for the iOS devices?
Hu Flexer: We started with the iPhone because we saw how our two year old was captivated by the device. It was the first touch screen with a simple design and user interface that was accessible even to the youngest children. Apple’s App Store made it possible for even small developers to create apps and distribute them to users all over the world.
The iPad Baby: With other platforms available, like Windows/Mac, Android and Windows Mobile OS, what does iOS have that is attractive for you as developers?
Hu Flexer: Several things about iOS are attractive to us, including:
Great touch screen devices with intuitive interfaces that are accessible for young children
A limited number of devices and screen resolutions to design for and test on. This is critical since we are a small team of three.
A centralized AppStore that handles the distribution and a lot of the promotion.
A large installed customer base who is interested in well-designed, high-quality apps.
The iPad Baby: What plans do you have in the near future?
Hu Flexer: We have more musical and educational apps in development for young children. We currently have more ideas than we have bandwidth to implement.
For more information on any of the discussed apps or Duck Duck Moose, go to http://www.duckduckmoosedesign.com.
*DISCLAIMER: The previous interview was conducted via email format during July 27-29, 2010. In some instances, Ms. Hu Flexer’s words were changed to first-person language, versus third-party language that was received in the original emails. No other content was changed.