Sago Sago‘s apps are charming interactive experiences that aim to engage the youngest players. We recently had the opportunity to ask CEO Jason Krogh to share the story behind the company and to tell us more about their most recent game, “Friends,” which encourages young children to go on a digital play date.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path to developing apps for children?
Like most people in the field, I stumbled into it. Shortly after graduating I bought a used Mac and turned it into a kiosk for an environmental education center. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was fun. I ended up spending almost a decade creating websites, CD-ROMs and kiosks before the App Store came onto the scene. Creating software for desktop computers was always filled with frustrations, especially for kids. Children were typically stationary at a desk, using a mouse, dealing with web browsers and keyboards. None of it was good. I quickly made the switch to working on touchscreen apps and haven’t looked back since.
What is Sago Sago focused on that sets your apps apart in this very crowded market?
As a parent I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reading a book with a child where the author just gets it—they’ve crafted a story that kids can truly relate to and care about. Often it’s really not apparent until you’ve read it with a child. We want parents to have that same experience with our apps.
We pay a lot of attention to the elements that typically get in the way of a good experience for the youngest children. We forego instructions, formal rules and assessment. We put the child in control of the experience, and we don’t try to force the child to use our apps in a single, specific way. Finally, we care about the execution. Building smooth, responsive software is a complex engineering challenge. Take Ocean Swimmer as an example. The art team created nearly 4,000 frames of artwork for the project. The app took nearly a minute to start up, and it wouldn’t even run on older devices. The motion was choppy and there would be a few seconds delay randomly during game play. It took weeks of effort by the developers to get it to a point where everything was quick, responsive and could be played on all our supported devices. So much of the quality comes down to the execution.
How did Sago Sago come into being?
The idea was hatched over lunch with Bjorn Jeffery, the CEO of Toca Boca. At the time our team was dividing itself between work for clients and our own projects. Toca Boca had found amazing success with their apps and as we spoke it was clear we shared a lot of the same basic principles. We founded Sago Sago as a sister studio to Toca Boca’s team in Stockholm. We work on our own products with our own roadmap, but share a lot expertise.
Is the work of Sago Sago influenced by a particular line of research or educational philosophy?
We are heavily influenced by the philosophy of Maria Montessori. We feel strongly that kids are natural learners and the role of parents and educators should be to provide a framework and set of materials for kids to teach themselves. But more than any theory, I think we’re inspired by Marie Montessori’s passion, commitment and pragmatic approach to learning through direct observation. Nothing is more instructional than time spent with children.
How much play testing with real kids do you do during the process of making an app?
Spending time with kids is essential to our process. We hold play testing sessions roughly once a month. In the course of development, an app has typically been in front of 20-30 kids. The primary focus is on addressing usability issues, but it’s also really important to help inform our design decisions in a more general sense.
With Friends, kids have the opportunity to go on “play dates” with the different characters, and interact with different activities. It’s also fun for kids to play either alone or together with a parent. Can you share a little bit of the background behind this app, and some of the choices and possible challenges that you encountered in the design and production process?
We are always looking for themes for our apps that children can relate to and trying to get at the heart of how kids see them. For example, the greeting at any play date is often a high point in my own daughter’s visits with friends. It doesn’t matter if her friend is already at the door, she needs to ring the doorbell (many times). She will greet a friend she hasn’t seen for a few days as if she hasn’t seen them in years. So we built that into the app. We also look at ways that kids can exert a level of control they sometimes can’t in real life. In the case of Friends, they choose who to pair with and then guide the character to their friend’s house just as a parent would.
The co-play component of the app is important, but it emerged very naturally out of the design. In other words, we didn’t set out at the start to create a co-play experience. We build all our apps to support as many fingers working away on the screen at once as possible. In the case of Friends, we love that two kids or a child and parent can take on the role of each of the characters. This is one of those happy indicators we see in play testing—when kids start to talk as if they are the characters and act out various scenarios. We saw this early and often with Friends and it was a sign we were heading in the right direction.
The challenge in Friends was finding the right balance in control. Some of the activities have a logical end point (such as eating). But others (such as the trains) don’t. At one point we had the train drive off screen when it was assembled. But in play testing we would see it drive off just as the kids were acting out a story with it. So we had to try to a few things until we arrived at the solution of an inactivity timeout.
What are some of the challenges and successes that your company has faced in terms of marketing/distribution your apps?
Distribution is easier than at any time in the past. Nearly anyone can get an app published on one of the major app stores. But discoverability is a huge challenge both for app developers and the families buying apps. Many developers underestimate the amount of work it takes to get any sort of visibility in the app store ecosystem. A large part of our success lies in mapping our a multi-year strategy and just sticking to it. Each app is a new chance to introduce ourselves to parents. The Friends app proved to us that we are winning them over. It is coming up to 18 months and 10 app launches since we published our first Sago Mini app and only now are we really hitting our stride.
Jason Krogh serves as CEO of Sago Sago, a Toronto-based Toca Boca Studio focused on developing digital toy apps for children five and under. The apps build on children’s natural curiosity and creativity. Sago Sago’s releases include apps such as Sagi Mini Friends, Sago Mini Forest Flyer, Sago Mini Sound Box, and Sago Mini Bug Builder.
Jason has a B.Sc. in Environmental Science from the University of Guelph and made the transition into new media when he began developing online media for the Vancouver Aquarium and Science World. Jason established himself as an expert Flash developer, trainer and author and has presented at international conferences including the Annecy Animation Festival, FlashForward and FlashintheCan.