Thursday, 29 November 2012

Five tips for making your children's e-book or storybook app more engaging than tablet games

This christmas, one in five parents are considering purchasing a tablet PC either for themselves or for their children. With those figures, it's never been a better time to get involved in the e-book or storybook app marketplace if you think you've got a good solid idea that would work well as an e-book. 

Consider this though before leaping in with both feet. You are up against some serious competition, not just in the e-book or storybook app world, but you're also competing against all those other little distracting things that are available (often for free) on the app stores. 

So here are five crucial tips from recent experience that can help you ensure your e-book or storybook apps zip, kapow and ka-boom!

1) Work on your story and visuals. 

This might seem a no-brainer but the bar is being raised on a daily basis even with individuals and most certainly with independent developers who are opting to self-publish directly through the app stores. 

Engaging visuals are always the key to drawing a child's interest away from animated games put together by teams who may have worked in other fields (web design, game design, production animation and illustration) before working for app developers. If your visuals aren't up to scratch, even if you're planning to put your app or e-book out for the lowest price possible on an app or e-book store, you may need to think again. 

2) Sound is optional but if you're going to use it, make good use of it!

Storybook apps and e-books are absolutely perfect for hearing impaired children, even those that can't read yet. Specific book apps are designed to include hearing impaired children, children with learning difficulties and there are even some really innovative apps for visually impaired children that use sound in interesting ways.

If your story or app uses sound or music, please don't be tempted to just slap on any old midi tune or mumbled text. Seriously consider your intended audience, ensure all speech is clear and matches the text of an app exactly, and please also consider including a mute button on music so that children can enjoy the story without the added distraction of a looping (and sometimes really annoying) soundtrack. 

3) Animated discussions. 

We have some of the greatest animators in the world working in the children's e-book industry who have worked in various other disciplines before moving to children's story book apps and e-books. They know their craft, and they know the best way to take a static book and turn it into something that can engage a child's curiosity and interest. 

We've seen some brilliant print books turned into e-books, horribly let down by ropey (and sometimes downright lazy) animation and then released at a premium price. With the high standards in apps, these stick out like a sore thumb even if they're works that are universally acclaimed and well loved in print form. 

Children are exposed to stunning animation in movies, on TV and in games and we're just beginning to see some real innovation in children's e-books and apps too. If your app cuts and pastes static art together lazily it's going to look naff and will put off your potential customer base. 

4) Think outside the book, control wise.

Time and time again we see brilliant apps horribly let down by utterly confusing and poorly executed user interfaces. Tiny buttons, buttons that are immovable  and placed too close to other tablet screen controls (seems to be a common thing at the moment to place e-book controls far too close to the alerts popup on iOS) and controls that are unresponsive and laggy. If you think you have no patience when you hit a web page that takes more than a couple of seconds to load, imagine what a child thinks when they press a button or touch a control in your e-book or app and have to wait until the app wakes up and does something. 

Many storybook apps and e-books play it safe by using book-like 'page flipping' or on-screen controls to good effect but again, think about the net worth of sticking in a convoluted piece of page animation that can interrupt the flow of a story. 

Likewise, aim for consistency in your storybook apps if you're going to work on a series. Make the control methods match, make them slick and above all make them interesting for children to use. 

5) Break the fourth wall, get them involved!

Some of the best storybook and e-book apps on the market are hugely successful because they not only involve their readers, they immerse them fully in the imaginary world. With more and more tablets arriving on the market every month, more feature front and back facing cameras, more feature powerful processors, and more have the ability to allow a developer's imagination to truly soar. Use the very best aspects of modern tablets to your advantage, particularly when involving children in the story you're trying to tell. Allow them to record their own voices, take snapshots of themselves in the story, even doodle patterns and shapes for characters to wear on their clothes.

As the e-book and app industry matures and starts to run parallel to some of the more interesting and innovative things going on in other media types, it'll be great to see more of the above, and less soulless cash-in stuff hitting the market. We're truly entering a golden age of more visual and interactive ways of telling stories, let's see 2013 truly emerge as the year e-books and story apps get more good press than bad. 

Further Reading

Here's Helen Dineen's excellent article on how to avoid falling into the Powerpoint trap!