Watch Timbuktu presenting at the LAUNCH Conference

Today is a great day! We are about to publicly present the new Timbuktu at the Launch Education & Kids Conference in Mountain View. We have been rehearsaling a lot these days, and are now eager to jump on stage. We will also talk about the three most important lessons learned since we started working on Timbuktu one year and a half ago. Take a look! And follow the live stream! We’ll be on stage at 3.30pm (PST).

1) Be courageous. If you simply copy traditional paper activities for kids (like connecting the dots, or coloring shapes) but you don’t add editorial value to your product, your app will fall by the wayside of all other apps that do the same thing.

2) Know your customer. Have kids actually tried out your product? In the age range you’re targeting, can they move the iPad as you want them to do? Do they easily get the navigation? It’s one point that’s really easy to miss, but it’s so important. Always do user testing. When it comes to kids, in our experience it’s better to do it live.

Timbuktu Magazine - awesome apps for kids2

3) Don’t underestimate your audience. This is crucial. Don’t treat kids like dumb grown-ups. If you think you want to teach them something but not learn anything from them, you’re on the wrong track. The most effective learning processes occur when there’s a mutual understanding and when you treat kids as your peers.

4) Don’t be ideological. This is when you’re convinced for whatever reason that your customers should behave in a certain way and they’ll understand sooner or later what’s the best for them (and that’s your product). This doesn’t work. Be open-minded. Listen to your customer and be open to understanding how they actually behave and how you can be a good solution for them now.

5) Respect parents. Would you want your own kids to buy things online every time they grab the iPad? Probably not. Neither do the parents of the kids who might use your product. Find a way to offer them smart and clear plans, costs that meet their needs and are designed accordingly with your product. Rian van deer Merwe is really mad at app developers who don’t pay enough attention to this.

6) Don’t design crap. This has two meanings: a) if your product is cheesy, don’t bother hiding it with a great look. It might work anyway (there are several examples of this approach on the App Store); b) if your product is not cheesy, please don’t let your design be crappy. Kids deserve beautifully designed products. Don’t give them an ugly app.


7) The iPad is not interactive paper. We believe that in this overcrowded market, the winners will be those who design projects that are not merely “books for iPad,” but that are genuinely digital native products. Children still need stories, but we have to understand how reading (or listening to stories) has changed in the tablet era.
Some key questions to ask yourself could be:
– Do I need a cover?;
– Do I need to flip pages?;
– Do I need bookshelves?

The creativity and simplicity of Toca Boca answering to these questions, I believe, it’s the secret sauce that makes their products great.

8 ) Words are important. Take good care of the words that you put in your app. Digital native children are shaping their vocabulary, and their idea of the world through the apps we’re producing. You don’t want to foster a superficial approach to reality, you don’t want to make fun of their imagination. You want to reinvent and rediscover the world together with them, app by app. The words you use are a good starting point for this.

9) Measure what matters. That’s the mantra here at 500 Startups and it’s particularly true also for kids’ apps.
The ones that we found more important for Timbuktu are the following:
– How often do our user use our app?
– For how long?
– How long does it take for them to come back after the first open?
– How much time do they spend on it per session? Does that match with our expectations?
– It’s the app lifecycle what we expected it to be?
– Is the navigation clear or it needs improvements? (That’s important because if it doesn’t work effectively it can make your analytics foggy).

I stretch the importance of “compare with your expectations” because your users might use your product not exactly as you imagine. That’s something you want to discover because it should drive the development of new features, and eventually will help you make your app more awesome.


10) Clearly indicate what’s interactive. We know how much effort it takes to make your stories interactive. You want to be sure that your readers enjoy every bit of your app and don’t get frustrated touching elements that are not actionable. If things are clear without glowing arrows, you’re awesome. If not, don’t hesitate to put arrows where you need them.


11) If advertising is part of your product, you’re responsible for it. If advertising is part of your revenue model, know that it’s going to be part of the users’ experience. Understand what works the best with your product, and be creative. It’ll take some effort, but it’ll make a huge difference.
12) Find the best distribution channel. Try out many channels and measure the one that gives you the best conversion rate. If you use them wisely, Facebook and AdWords campaigns can help you figure out the most effective distribution strategy for your product. Don’t only rely on the App Store. Even if you get featured, it might not generate the results you expected.

[Illustrations by Daniel Kondo]