Carissa Christner: In today’s App Fairy episode I’ll be interviewing Wolfgang Schmitz from an app company called Ahoiii. Most of the Ahoii apps feature a tiny little sailor in a blue and white striped shirt, and his name is Fiete. Their newest app is one called Fiete Cars, and it’s all about cars and driving. One of the things that I love about it is that they focus on building the road rather than on designing a fancy car and putting on special wheels and whatnot. I think that’s a really unique spin on a pretty common game. I’m really excited to have Wolfgang Schmitz here to talk with us today.
Thanks for talking with me today. So Wolfgang, can you tell me a little bit about the history of Ahoii?
Wolfgang Schmitz: We as Ahoii have existed since 2014 and we are four people altogether. We are two designers, who teamed up together with Karz, who is a programmer, and Sarah, who is an educationalist, so we have four people doing kids’ apps now.
CC: Wow I didn’t I didn’t know that your staff was only four people—that’s amazing. You guys have done so many apps. So can you tell us where your offices are located?
WS: Our office is in Cologne. It’s the heart of Germany.
CC: Can you tell us a little bit about Fiete? A lot of your apps feature this little sailor character. He’s super cute and I know that when I first discovered the Fiete apps I just assumed that he must be a well-loved cartoon character from Germany that you guys were incorporating into an app, but then I did a little more research and discovered that he was actually born in the app, right? Like he he didn’t exist outside before that?
WS: No, no [he didn’t]. Maybe that’s what’s so special with Fiete, because we ourselves became fathers in 2010, and then had contact with many great picture books. We thought, maybe we could do something like that ourselves. So we started to try out many children’s apps, and saw that in the printed book arena, there was much more effort put into the physical product than there was in the digital version. So we came up with the style, and I painted with watercolors.
Then Karz came over—he’s a programmer—and said, “Oh let me have that. Give me that and I will try out something.” And he put together a level that is still in the first Fiete app—it’s the red car, with a tire beside it, and he put a physics engine behind that artwork. And so then I could have the tire move and roll through the whole scene. It was very, very entertaining at that level already. And as we thought about the character, we came up with Fiete. The name is from an area like Hamburg in the north of Germany, where the sea is.
CC: Is Fiete a common name in Germany?
WS: In the northern area, yes. There are newborns that are called Fiete—I am not aware if we are to blame for that—but it’s always been a name that related to the sea. Immediately you picture a sailor in a hat. And we added this kid’s voice into the app to make a warm welcoming intro for Fiete.
[Clip of children’s voices saying “Fiete!” with seagulls in background.]
CC: And it is indeed warm and welcoming. One of the things I’m really attracted to in your apps is the artwork. Can you tell us a little bit about how it’s created each time?
WS: It’s made with real watercolors. So we make up in the computer something that you could do also with your hands. So when you paint a texture, like a square with a color, and then cut it out with scissors, you would have the same result. We just do the cutting inside the computer.
CC: Okay, so you paint them onto watercolor paper and then scan them in, and then you just do the cutting digitally on your computer.
So Wolfgang, about how long would you say it takes for most apps to go from being just an idea to actually showing up in the App Store? Is it a matter of months or years?
WS: It’s very different [for each app]. When it comes to our most recent app, first we completed sketches, which are now one year old. It took a whole year to turn that idea into a fully functional app. Maybe that’s because we throw many things away when we think, that didn’t work, or see things that could work better. So it’s an evolution. But sometimes it happens much quicker. An example would be our Olympics-inspired app. There are 13 different disciplines to play, and it was in the app store in just three weeks. That was a very clear idea, and every discipline is a level, so we could release it with a smaller number of levels, six or seven at first, and then add more after it was in the App Store.
CC: And do you do a lot of in-house testing, like having kids come in and test the apps? How do you find out whether an app is working for people or not?
WS: The first apps were, since we were a tiny, two-person team, just tested by our kids, our friends’ kids… But now we reach out more often to foreigners to provide feedback. We have an app called Fiete Math. It was very, very intensive from the testing perspective. Because a kid should be able to play around with it freely, even without a teacher or a parent beside them. And so it had to be very, very intuitive. And it’s very hard to get to that point—making it clear and understandable for the kid, without any text or spoken words.
CC: That is tricky. I mean, I know that some apps kind of end up taking a shortcut and putting all these like instructions sort of written in there and they’re really, really hard—especially for younger kids that can’t read. And it also makes it hard to have that app work in different countries where different languages are spoken. So I think that you guys do an admirable job of making your apps clean and easy to understand without having to rely on a lot of instructions.
WS: It’s awesome because the time that we take to build the apps is really needed in order to make things easier, and not make things more complicated. It’s complicated in the background, but it’s so easy to use. And that took us a long while, to test that out, different drafts with play testings. But it’s worth the effort, and people really like it.
CC: Yeah that’s a really good point, that making an app easy to play can be really difficult to program. And I really do like Fiete Math. One of the things I love about it is, it’s really simple —it’s just taking different blocks and putting them onto a ship and the ship needs five blocks. And so you put up five blocks and you can put them in whatever order you want and whatever arrangement you want. And I like that, but I also really like that once you’ve done it successfully a couple of times that the reward isn’t a bunch of, you know, explosions, or kids shouting, “Hurray!” or anything like that—that’s really good. The reward of, like, a more interesting block, that instead of just being a square, might look like a bird or a cat or something like that. And I think I think that’s really special. One of the things I really love about your apps is that you tend to take game concepts that are frequently used and you add something that makes it a little bit special, something that makes it all a bit different.
One of my favorite examples of this is probably in Fiete Match, which is basically just a memory game. [One] thing I think that really sets it apart is that… the player is playing against a small virtual Fiete. He adds so much interest to the game because you can watch him—if you are waiting too long before you start the game, he gets kind of impatient or he’s checking his watch. If he gets disappointed because you’re winning and he’s not, then he has an appropriate emotional reaction. And I just really love that you’ve built that in so that there’s sort of this extra emotional content, to talk about how to be a good sport without without [hitting] you over the head with it. It’s not like it’s trying to teach you a lesson on how to be a good sport. I just really like that.
And I was just curious to know, is that something that you specifically think about when you’re creating an app, like let’s make this a little bit, a little bit deeper, a little bit more special, a little bit more interesting? Is that something that you put into your design?
WS: Yeah, of course, that’s always really the point—what can we add to this world that’s not out there yet. And we try to have a really good, unique point inside the apps. In every app, hopefully you’ll find that.
With the memory app that you talked about, that was again, the whole point. Because there are tons of memory apps out there, and they’re easy to program. So our programmer was ready with a memory game in, I don’t know, two or three hours. But we came up with the idea that it would be nice to sit in front of your opponent, Fiete, and then play with him. So, that was the main idea.
We put a lot of work into the emotions. In the beginning he’s very supportive because, the kid doesn’t really know what is happening, but when the kid starts to do too well, he’s not so amused anymore. He’s not really angry, but he’s like a real person. A real person would be, well, a little annoyed if you’re always winning. And we spent a lot of time discussing how he would respond to these different things—we have a really big diagram with all of his reactions in the app. And there was a lot of testing and building his character in a way. Because when you behave in a way, you show a lot of your character. Like if you get angry, you’re not a really nice person to play with. It was very, very delicate to build that. But it was also very funny.
CC: I think you guys did a really great job of walking that fine line, figuring out how irritated to make him look. And you know, kids would also have those same reactions, they’d get irritated if somebody else was winning all the time. And so it’s nice to be able to validate those and also say, you know, you don’t have to get really, really angry if somebody else is winning.
WS: If you pay a lot of attention, you really can see in his face what he is thinking. So if you put up a card that he didn’t see before, then he makes these smaller gestures that you can read in his face that, oh, I told him something that he didn’t know before.
CC: I just think it’s a really subtle and very graceful and really well done app. I think that’s my favorite. Do you have a favorite of the Fiete apps?
WS: I think right now it’s Fiete Cars. Because, you know, I was really looking forward to it. The cars are so… angry, in a way, and we put in really nice motor sounds, and you can do all these cool tricks and things. And I also like the Fiete Math approach, because it shows something that I think will help some kids to get the idea of what math is about. It puts knowledge inside the heads of the kids.
CC: I agree. So one of the other really important concepts that librarians and researchers especially in the U.S.—I’m not sure about around the world, but probably—that librarians are trying to share with parents when it comes to sharing apps with their kids is something that they call “joint media engagement” and that’s kind of just a lot of big words strung together to say, playing apps together, or at least, using apps in a way that builds relationships between people, rather than putting up walls between people.
Sometimes when you’re playing on an app if you’re you know only looking at the app and everybody else in the room is not looking at the app, it can kind of it can feel like there’s a wall put up between you.
So if you have things that encourage people to play your apps with two people playing them together side by side or if you have apps where you can take a picture or a video in the app and then email it to your grandma who lives far away or something like that. That’s some examples of joint media engagement. Is that anything that you guys have ever thought about as you’re developing apps?
WS: Yes of course, of course. Because if you have kids, you know, that kids like to play or build something, and then come and show it to you. It’s the same with apps. So it’s very important to have a save-able area of your app, so they can run around with the ipad and show it to you. And we always think about how kids will behave when they play the app at home. Do they play the app together with the parents, or alone? And I think one of the main positive aspects of our first app is that there is much room for the parents to talk about what they see together with the kid. Because it’s very, very quiet. There is no ongoing push there. There are no pushing animations in that app. It’s really like a digital book. And they can experience it together, all the items that they see. And we really got mail from teachers that said, “It’s so lovely, it’s so perfect, I can really make kids talk with that app.” And it’s really really great for that purpose. It’s maybe not so obvious but there are planned breaking points in some of the apps so that kids can also find an end through the app—it’s not playable for hours. But that’s the purpose. For example, in the Fiete Farm app, you have an arc that follows you throughout the entire app.
CC: Yes, yes. Like there’s even a whole sun that comes up at the beginning of day and sets in the evening.
WS: Yeah. And then there are, I think 12 tasks that you are supposed to accomplish throughout the day. And they’re very simple tasks. And then when you finish, you can switch off the app. So that’s a planned breaking point, to maybe add this as a bedtime routine. We give a lot of thought to how parents can sort of work with these apps.
CC: I agree that it is kind of subtle, and I don’t know that I would have thought about that in that way. But you’re absolutely right. I mean your apps, because they do have that storyline arc, and because they don’t have a lot of invasive music or a ton of really distracting animations, they are perfect for that reason. That whole idea, of a parent and child sitting together and reading an app together, in the same way that they would read a book together, is one of the things that I talk about in my library a lot. And when I’m talking with parents about how to read books to their kids, it’s not just reading the words straight out of the book—but maybe also, you know, starting conversations about what’s going on in the pictures. And so I think that you’re right, you’re absolutely right, you’ve designed your apps in a way that makes it a lot easier for parents to just sit down and experience the app together with their kid.
WS: I have to admit, sometimes it’s not that purpose—we’ll get mail from parents who are like, we came up with a story for why Fiete is here or there in the app. And it wasn’t always created for that, but it’s very nice.
CC: That’s the beauty of an open-ended app, that you can put your own story into it. I love it.
WS: Yeah, I like it when parents can play together with their kids. But some apps are also planned that the kids can dive in for themselves. Fiete Math is a very different example, where you can give it to your kid, they can have experiences with blocks and math, for themselves, to get a clue. Without a parent that is always explaining, you have to do it like that, look what’s happening here. They have to think about it for themselves. And that’s helping them.
CC: Well honestly, I think that is also the mark of a really good app. One of the things I try to encourage parents to do is, the first time that they play an app with a kid (especially if it’s something like Fiete Math) just sit next to them and don’t give instructions. Like, don’t tell the kid what to do. Because, I mean, that’s one of the ways that I judge whether an app is well made.
Can the kid navigate through it on their own without having to have a lot of explanation? Because that means that they’re not going to get as frustrated as they move forward in the app. And honestly, I mean, while it’s lovely when you can have a lot of joint media engagement, if we’re being honest I know that there are times when you just need to have your kid play independently for a few moments or for a little while. And it’s really nice to have apps that you know you can trust to be usable and to not have any offensive content or anything like that in them. That’s one of the reasons I really, really appreciate that.
WS: Thank you.
CC: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today Wolfgang. It’s been a really interesting conversation. And I just really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
WS: Well thank you so much, and thanks to your listeners.
CC: I hope you have enjoyed getting to know one of the creators of the Ahoii apps as much as I have. Be sure to check out our website where we’ll be posting lots of goodies online for you to enjoy. For this episode, you’ll find photos of Wolfgang and the rest of the staff, pictures of their art process, including that flowchart of Fiete’s emotional reactions to the memory game. So cool. You’ll also find some printable PDF pages from their German language activity book, and my personal favorite, a free printable version of Fitz’s memory game so that you can print out the cards yourself and play the game in person with a friend or a family member. So cool. They’re beautiful.