This partial transcript of the App Fairy podcast has been edited for length and clarity.
Carissa Christner: Today I’m very excited to bring to you an interview with Caroline Ingeborn of Toca Boca. Toco Boca makes the very best play apps that I have seen anywhere, and if you have been playing apps with your children and you haven’t heard of Toca Boca I’d be very surprised. I think the last time I checked out the top 10 paid apps for kids in the App Store, 10 of them were from Toca Boca. In addition to their apps, Toca Boca also has a wonderful e-mail newsletter with great parent tips and information about their apps that you can subscribe to. They even now have a line of non- gendered clothing and accessories at Target so they are just a fantastic app company that I’m very excited to talk with today. So welcome Caroline. And I like to start off my interviews with just some basic facts. So can you tell our listeners where your offices are located?
Caroline Ingeborn: We have two offices, one in Stockholm and one in San Francisco.We have around 60 full time members today.
CC: Let’s talk a little bit about your apps. I have one of your stickers that you guys put out a couple of years ago that says “Take a stand for play” and it’s on my laptop, and the sticker was sort of a call to action, and it’s honestly strongly influenced my personal and my professional life. I do a lot of work with play at the libraries, and with especially open ended play and self-directed play, letting kids decide how they want to play, and I know that you guys feel really strongly about play. Can you talk a little bit about the different ways in which you elevate play as the main objective in your apps.
CI: For us, that is always the starting point—asking ourselves, what are we going to play? …There are really three play patterns that we found that we are good at, and so we always focus on one of those three play patterns, and that is at the core of what we do. We try to understand each play pattern, where they take place and follow through on that play pattern. We rigorously test with kids throughout the development process to ensure that the kids are playing, and that that is the central objective in all of our products.
CC: Can you tell us what you what you consider the three play patterns?
CI: Yes absolutely. So it’s role playing, it’s creative play, and it is experiential play. Examples of our products that are within each of these categories: in role playing, the Toca Life series is a good example of that. In creative play we have the hair salon series, and then we have the lab series, which is an example of the experimental play
CC: That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned just now about testing and evaluating your apps. Can you talk a little bit about that process? How does that work for you guys?
CI: Yes, we work together with kids. We invite kids to our studios in Stockholm and San Francisco. And we also go out to schools and to sometimes even kids’ homes, and we start very early on in our production process with just meeting with kids and looking at how they are playing within a certain play pattern. We often bring in physical toys that represents the play pattern, and we try to understand what is it in this play pattern that makes kids so engaged in it. What is it that makes kids go back to this toy over and over again? And when we think that we have understood what it is, then we start building a digital prototype and then throughout the production process we come back to kids and we test our products with kids.
I often say that one of the most difficult jobs at Toca Boca is the job of our play designers because they are carrying the vision for the products throughout the entire production process. But if you compare it to many other visionary roles at Toca Boca, the play designers at the end, are at the full discretion of the kids. So the final kids’ tests are often the times where Emil, one of our cofounders really call me and say like I think we need to go back and continue the development process because we just had a kids test, and we need to add these aspects to ensure that it’s really really fulfilling the play promise that we have for this product. And so in the startup world many people like to talk about “minimum viable products.” I often refer to our products as “maximum viable products” because we don’t want to go to market with anything that we do not think really uphold the quality that we want all of our products to represent. And that’s the quality that we feel proud of and that we also think that kids deserve. Because I mean if you’re looking for toys and you’re trying out the new toy and it’s not fun like why would you ever go back to that toy.
CC: I think that your dedication to that is really apparent in the quality and in the play value and then the enjoyment the kids get out of playing your apps. Do you ever find that there are differences in the ways that the kids in Sweden play with the apps versus the way that the kids in the US play with the apps or do you find that it’s kind of universal?
CI: One of the assumptions that that Emil and Bjorn made very early on is that we’re more alike where we are kids than when we’re adults everywhere. And that there are these very old play patterns and classic toys that resonate with kids all over the world. Therefore it should be possible to design the same products for kids all around the world. I haven’t found throughout my period at Toca Boca that there is a huge difference when I see kids playing with our products in the US or in Sweden or any other country really.
CC: And I feel like maybe one of the reasons for that is the way that you’ve made them not language-specific, so there’s a lot more flexibility with that would you say that’s true too.
CI: Absolutely. I think that enables us to release our products to the entire world at the same time.
CC: I think it lends a real grace to the apps to be able to know that they are well-designed enough that you don’t have to have a narrator to explain what’s going on or anything like that. I really appreciate that about your apps and about the fact that you’re doing that not only for the very youngest users but also for anybody of any age who uses your apps that you’re that you’re including that capacity, and I think it comes back to looking at our products as toys.
CI: Few toys have any language on them when you buy them, and so why would a digital toy be different from a physical toy in that aspect.
CC: Exactly. You guys also do a really wonderful job of making your games gender neutral and very diverse on lots of different levels. Can you talk a little bit about how and why you do that?
CI: Yeah it really comes from a belief that stereotyping in toys is very limiting. And we want to make products for kids—not boys, not girls— just kids and our products. From the start, all of our products are gender neutral. And then over the years we have developed that into a broader sense of diversity. We’ve tried to make this broad as possible while still being able to take it on. So just not addressing the most obvious things, which I think is like gender, skin tone, hair texture, and age, but also things such as culture, physical abilities, family structures, and body shape. Just to name a few. We have a group internally that have developed an internal way of how we look at diversity when we develop our products and our marketing. And also we have an external diversity board that we can use as a sounding board whenever we have questions around anything that we develop on the topic of diversity.
This just comes from our belief that kids should have the opportunity to play how they want to see representations of themselves, because play it impacts kids understanding of the world around them, and it is going to be a more inclusive society. It’s just important that toys and media stay away from stereotyping for kids.
CC: One last question that I’d like to talk about for a little while is this question of joint media engagement. It’s one of the topics that I’ve talked about it in every episode so far of the very podcast, and I know that your apps Toca Store, Tea Party, and Birthday Party apps that really were designed to work best with two people playing. And so those are somewhat like when I tried to give examples of really ideal ways to use joint media engagement those are actually some of the ones that I like to point out. Are there other ways that the other apps that you have also encourage joint media engagement that you designed specifically for that reason.
CI: Yes, if we look at the Life series, what we’re seeing there is that kids play with that both individually and together. And they also share with each others the stories that they are telling and that they are role-playing with the products and that took a life. It’s really a way for kids to be creative and to express who they are and what is going on in their lives. And so I think that’s at the core of all good role playing experiences.
CC: I agree. Do you have a favorite Toca Boca app?
CI: It is very very difficult to choose. If I was forced to choose one product it is Toca Life Hospital because of the theme- that is a classical theme within play for kids. And that it’s also I think we were it’s an illustration of where we were brave of taking on things that happens in a hospital environment that many other companies I think would have stayed away from.
And so that opens up to playing in a role-playing environment areas of the hospital which might not you know always be very giggly and funny from an adult perspective, but where kids find opportunities to explore and discover and really again identify like how they feel when they are in a hospital environment.
CC: Yeah I think I just recently read the interview that that was talking about the hospital app and how there was there was even an aspect to talk about death and dying within the hospital. Is that true?
CI: Yes it is. I think that’s really important. I mean because you’re right that the way that kids learn about the world is through play and so if we don’t give them opportunities to talk about all the different aspects of life then they can’t work through those.
CC: I think it’s I think it’s incredible that you’ve given them that opportunity.
CI: I think that’s really a testament to the amazing sort of creative vision that we have at Toca Boca, and everyone working on the Toca Life series, and pushing the envelope for what we can do within that play pattern.
CC: My daughter and I were recently in the emergency room and had a conversation with the one of the nurses there whose job it is to improve the life experience of the children who are in the hospital for any length of time and she talked about how the parents were frequently asking her if she has app recommendations. And so I’m planning to give them a list of apps that they can recommend and Toca Life Hospital definitely be at the top of the list because I think that if you’ve got kids who especially are spending time in the hospital whether that’s for a couple of hours in the emergency room or whether that’s on a longer term basis I think that being able to actually play through that is just an awesome opportunity and a great use of technology. So thank you very much for creating that app.
CC: Thank you for putting together that list the recommendation to the hospital. We found that that is one of the many places where our products and apps in general really helps kids in very special circumstances. And we’ve also had we had a little while back we had an organization that works with both kids and adults with disabilities sharing their experience so how they have used our apps working with with their kids and it was extraordinary to see just to the extent you can see kids playing apps that are unable to play with physical toys and their reaction when they get to participate and play. It’s mind blowing and it’s very very touching.
CC: I have a huge smile on my face just visualizing that because I love that feeling or that look on kids faces when they have that sense of pure joy that comes from from true play. Thank you so much for talking with us today.
CC: Today’s episode is kind of a bonus episode, and we get to talk with two different people from Toca Boca. I am really excited to have the opportunity to also chat with Petter Karlsson, one of Toca Boca’s play designers about their whole process. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Petter Karlsson: I’m really glad to be here.
CC: Can you tell me a little bit about Toca Boca technique for developing an app from a general concept into something that kids can actually play on the screen. How does that work? Is there a consistent process each time or does each app develop organically unique?
PK: You always start with a vision for something. So it could be the vision of, let’s make an app where you can cut hair, or where you do food, it could be like the Toca Life series that I worked with, an app where you can role play about everyday life. I mean the vision can of course be much more granular or big or whatever but you have to start with this idea and then build from that. Then you go on to create a concept out of it. So let’s say as I work with the Toca Life series, well, how should this work? Maybe you have some figures and they have homes, and maybe you have also an overview map and these houses where you can put the figures in and transport them on this map between different locations. Or maybe we’re talking more about the theme. So is this an app about a hospital. Okay so the concept could also describe like. Well it’s a hospital. It’s a kids ward, it’s this and that but it’s still it’s I mean it’s more concrete than the vision, of course more, describing what this actually could be. And then of course all of these stages, like the vision and the concept, etc, are signed off by different stakeholders. So, as a play designer, I have approval from maybe a creative director or someone to move on to the next stage. The concept could also be more in sort of a preproduction phase that includes building paper prototypes. When you work with an app that is in a series like I do, you don’t need to prototype as much because we know kids already understand the basic directions. Of course if you introduce new things, stuff needs to be tested, but the core things work.
CC: Did you say that some of the prototypes that you make are actually paper prototypes?
PK: Yeah. I mean it depends on what you’re doing as sometimes different methods are used. I mean absolutely one method can definitely be paper prototypes and there are some beautiful examples that I think you can see online where Chris Lindgren talks about how they made Toca Boo which is an app about this girl who likes to scare her family dressed up as a ghost. The kid plays around with these figures and then you have to sort of create the interaction or assign them. It’s a very basic game, if you have worked with game design before, but it’s a very classic thing to do. You should always test as much as you possibly can because you will always learn things. [In Toca Hospital] there is a secret lab in the basement of the hospital, and they find the whole location is already drawn and they play with it. But with paper figures, I ask them about how the interaction is and stuff like that, and maybe invite them to tap on one of the buttons, even if even if this is just on paper, and then when they did that I just put a whole new block of paper next to it, like unraveling this secret lab and just seeing if—because this was going to happen in the app—when you have unlocked the parcel then this new, complete location unlocks, and the whole idea of that was like this will hopefully create excitement. When we did it on paper, [kids] were like “What is this??” so we knew that if this happened in the app, kids would be even more amazed than this. So it all depends on what you’re doing if you do. If the whole idea is to do a very advanced 3-D game then it’s really hard to make it on paper right.
CC: Well I’ve talked to app designers who say one of the struggles that they have with when they try to do play testing with kids is that they had to get the app developed to a certain point before they can even try testing it with kids and I really like this idea. It’s just like, don’t even don’t even work on the programming part of it, just cut it out in paper and see if the concept works for us. I think that’s a great idea.
PK: Oh definitely. I mean but this depends when you try to paper like one thing I also think it’s really important to do is like OK so we have drawn the scene, and yes. And then we like we have drawn the stalls of the stable where the horses are but we remove all the horses and everything in them we just show them this location printed out the front of them. And then I asked them, where do you think this is, and if they are somewhat familiar with the stalls. Hopefully they will say yes, but if they’re like horse lovers and don’t agree that this looks like stalls if that’s not what they’re like instantly saying, then we have failed.
CC: You guys really understand the importance of letting kids sort of get lost in the flow of play without any adults directing them or telling them what to do or any of that because that’s really where the true play comes from. And one of the things that I really appreciate about Toca Boca apps is that I feel like it’s apparent in the design of your apps that this is something that you pay attention to and that you value highly.
PK: I think [it is] in the DNA of Toca Boca. It’s just one of those core things. You have to test with kids, and if the kids are liking it then it’s good, and if not ,then you’re off andyou’re doing something wrong. And this might sound so obvious but when you see some of the stuff out in the market for kids, you’re like “Who tested this?” I’m new in the business, I’m just happy to be on board this ship, but that has been the case from the start —that it needs to work. I mean this is also sort of obvious, whether you’re designing for adults or teens or older people. But in this case it’s like well test it with kids– if they laugh, it’s probably good. And if they’re angry because this hat doesn’t fit on the smaller character and they super annoyed by it you should probably change that. Of course like you see some things that you should change it make sure you test it again. Did it work better or worse now? And then you go on.
Listen to the rest of Carissa’s interview with Petter Karlsson in the podcast. He speaks about the Designing for Children guide, which can be found here.