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How to design good educational apps for the iPhone

By Maish Nichani, 12 Feb, 2009

In the last few weeks I’ve downloaded many education apps on the iPhone for my 5-year old daughter. (Yes, the phone is hers after work!) At first I didn’t care much about these apps, as long as they kept her busy. But then I started to observe that some apps kept her engaged but others did not. That observation got me interested in the educational value of these apps and then onto what makes a good app. Here's what I found.

Good educational apps have the following qualities:

I will now describe each of these qualities.

Clear goals

This quality is trivial you think? Well, think again. Here’s an example. I chanced upon some apps that teach Sight Words. If you’re like me, you’ll need this definition of Sight Words before reading on.

Here’s the first app.

Sight words app

Here’s how to play.

Now just think about the gameplay. What’s the goal of this app? To help the learner ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the SightWords. Apart from the title of the app, there’s not mention of Sight Words. It’s just like learning any other type of word. That’s real good. Kids care about words not words that belong to a vague category.

Now, consider this app.

Another app teaching Sight Words

Here’s how to play:

Think about the goal of this app. Think a little harder.

Did you realize that you have know what Sight Words are to play the game? The audience for this app are 4-7 year old children for heaven’s sake. This app is not for children. It is meant for teachers, who have a Masters degree in recalling Sight Words.

So, before getting to code, sit down and think about why you’re doing the app, who the audience is and what the goals are.

On the iPhone ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘less is more’. You can’t teach an entire curriculum, but you can surely teach simple concepts and ideas. More about this later.

Useful and meaningful startup screen

When the app is first launched, it has to meet the learners excitement and expectations. Try distracting your kid when the app is launching and you’ll know what I mean.

Here are two startup screens. It’s a no brainer which my daughter prefers.

Startup screens

Here’s simple checklist for startup screens:

It all boils down to figuring out the default setting. If you’re going to display controls on the very first screen, you’ve already burst the excitement bubble. You’ll have to try real hard to recover, if you ever do. So don’t be eager, put some thought and research on how to design the default state.

Here’s how one of my favorite apps presents the default state: the first level doubles as the instruction to play the game. Brilliant.

TouchPhysics default state doubles as the instruction

Interesting gameplay

The majority of the education apps are what I call practice apps. It all about practicing some concept or idea. For example, practicing Sight Words, practicing spelling, practicing maths, etc.

practice apps

Some practice apps are very literal, (Basic Maths), while in others the practice is embedded in the gameplay (Match Lite).

Which one do you think my daughter plays with more?

The other type of apps are theory apps. These apps teach theory or explain concepts and principles, like this one below that teaches the sounds the given animals make:

theory apps

Like the practice apps, there are theory apps that embed theory in gameplay. The TouchPhysics app teaches the concept of gravity but this is not made explicit.

I think kids prefer gameplay. It may be a different case for adults. But let’s keep that for another article.

If you’re designing gamplay type apps, you need to design for mastery. Raph Koster, in his wonderful book, A theory of fun, says that games are fun till they stop teaching us.

“Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.”

So what does that mean? It just means that when designing these apps focus on the learning and the level of learning or mastery. Some apps do it better than others.

mastery levels

Sight Words does not provide mastery levels. This means that kids will find this boring very quickly. Word Fish on the other hand provides 3 levels of mastery and very appropriate levels of mastery to boot.

Here’s one more bit of advise from Koster: “The definition of a good game is therefore ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.’”

If you’ve figured out the type of educational app, the learning and the mastery levels, you now need to think about meaningful interactions.

Meaningful interactions

This will be a tough one to crack, but here it is. With the iPhone, all interaction is done with the finger. So the first interactions are the usual: Tap to select, Tap to view, etc.

These gestures are wonderfully explained in Dan Saffer’s new book, Designing Gestural Interfaces.

What I find troubling is that some app designers approach the gestures available on the iPhone with a wrong mindset. Yes, agree, it does take a while for designing interfaces that take full advantage of the iPhone’s capabilities, but I still think that the design should be approached with a correct mindset. Let me explain.

Have you heard about the ‘Phantom limb’ syndrome? Well, it’s a sensation that “an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body”. The amputees feel that they can still control the missing limb.

I sometimes feel that some apps are designed with a ‘phantom mouse’ sensation, meaning that designers are all the while thinking of the mouse and the stuff the mouse can do even when there is no mouse on the iPhone.

phantom mouse syndrome

The app on the left is an example of the phantom mouse syndrome (in this case the phantom keyboard syndrome).

On the other hand check out the app on the right. It’s a highly addictive app that goes by the name of TouchPhysics. Here the gameplay is quite simple: make shapes using the finger to make the blue ring roll towards the yellow star. The shapes you make are subject to gravity. Now, clearly there’s no phantom mouse there.

That’s not to say there’s no room for the usual mouse-type interactions. There is, just that it should be done in good taste and with the learner in mind. If you design with the mindset that alternatives exist then at least you’ll hunt down and evaluate those alternatives. If you don’t even go down that road, you’ll never know what your missing, and so will your learners. That’s a missed opportunity to design a good app.

Here’s a to-do for getting this part right:

Appropriate feedback

If you’re building practice type apps then you’re likely to include feedback. Here’s a mantra for good feedback: make it quick and crisp. If the feedback is going to delay the gameplay then you’re in trouble.

There are two types of feedback I’ve seen: explicit feedback and implicit feedback.

In the explicit type, feedback is direct, usually accompanied by positive or negative activity on the screen.

In the implicit type, feedback is embedded in the gameplay.

feedback is embedded in the gameplay

Feedback and mastery levels are related. Think about feedback as the ladder to reach the mastery levels, just that there are no steps or rungs in the ladder when the game begins. The right action should add in the steps and the incorrect action should remove the steps. This way the gameplay is about building enough steps to reach the mastery level.

I’ve seen some apps that don’t penalize wrong action. I think this will just make it boring. Kids are very quick at ‘groking’ the underlying pattern of the app. They’ll quickly realize that the can attain mastery with ease. Once they realize that, they’ll get bored.

So think about your feedback mechanism early on during the development, it could determine whether your app sells or not.


I do realize it’s early days for app development on the iPhone. That’s why I’ve got ‘good’ in the title of this article and not ‘great’. There’s so much more that can be done, but I just hope that the development takes place with a good dose of deliberate reflection and purpose rather than just trying to push out code experiments (‘see Ma, I made an app too’). I hope this article gives some pointers to get started on the right foot.

Now, let’s get some ‘great’ apps out there.

8 comments so far

By Edgar Tan on Feb 13 2009

Brilliant article, Maish. If iphone apps kept improving, however, you mightn’t (is this a sight word?) get it back from your daughter :)

By Venkat on Feb 13 2009

Good article! The better games seems to be the ones that are already successful/popular on other platforms. And I agree with you that there aren’t many that truly exploit the full potential of the iPhone’s interface and interaction mechanisms. Motion sensing interactions like throwing a dice or a ball are a few rudimentary attempts that I’ve seen.

By Mark H on Feb 13 2009

Great article Maish! I’m off to download these apps and try them out on my daughters (who also take my iphone off me when I get home). I keep telling them, ‘it’s a phone, not a toy!’. Yeah, right. Who am I kidding?

By adam neaman on Feb 14 2009

Interesting article.  For those who are interested in the general topic of kids educational software, I would recommend James Paul Gee’s “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy.” (Not saying learning should be games, saying complex game designs can teach us about learning design).  Just ignore all occurrences of the word “semiotic” and it’s quite enjoyable (seriously).  I will also shamelessly plug a book chapter I wrote with Roger Schank on “Motivation and failure in educational simulation design.” Cheers.

By maish on Feb 14 2009

Thanks for your comments. Yes, these are interesting times. We now have a device that we can share with our kids.

Thanks Adam, I’ll locate the article in our lib. I’m interested in understanding how to sustain these micro-levels of motivation and failure.

By pouspipromy on Feb 14 2009

Hello, I can’t understand how to add your blog ( sandbox.sourcelabs.com ) in my rss reader
internet signature:  http://hixoh.ru/

By maish on Feb 14 2009

sandbox.sourcelabs.com is not my blog. Nevertheless, I’ve just added the ATOM RSS feed url to the footer.

By Kim Seng on Mar 10 2009

Hey Maish, keep up the good work and write more to share :)


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