Intel® App Innovation Contest 2013

Developer Insights Interview Series

What makes a successful educational app? A chat with Pierre Le Lann of Tribal Nova

- October 15, 2013 by Marc Saltzman

Offering inspiration and motivation, the educational app maker talks about creating compelling content for digital devices

Offering more than $100,000 in cash prizes, the Intel® App Innovation Contest 2013 recognizes the world’s most promising desktop apps created for Windows 8-powered Lenovo tablets and all-in-one PCs.

To help provide Get-to-Market vision and strategies for developers, we’re profiling a number of companies that have earned critical and commercial success in the app space.

Here, we catch up with Pierre Le Lann, Co-General Manager and Co-Founder of Tribal Nova, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) company, on creating and marketing educational interactive content for kids.


Marc Saltzman: Tell us a little bit about Tribal Nova and HMH, and the kinds of apps you focus on.

Pierre Le Lann: Tribal Nova has built a reputation developing multiplatform learning games that are both educational and fun, and are played by many kids across the globe. We publish a number of game-based learning programs such as PBS KIDS PLAY! in partnership with PBS, and our i Learn With program for tablets and mobile phones – both powered by our Kidcore back-end adaptive learning technology. Tribal Nova was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) in April 2013. We are thrilled to have joined one of the leading global providers of education solutions. HMH education solutions are used by 50 million students in over 150 countries. It’s exciting to combine our game development expertise with HMH’ s educational content and learning design expertise to take on bigger challenges.

MS: Not many developers can claim they’ve won prestigious awards for their work and partnered with such esteemed organizations as PBS. What’s your secret?

PLL: We focused a lot of our energy on innovation. As an example, we started building our technology to track children’s learning progress in our games back in 2006. It was pretty groundbreaking at that time. We also tried to innovate on many fronts, not just technology, for example user experience, business models, and so on. As another example, we developed Woozworld in 2009; it’s a very unique virtual world created by tweens that continues to break new grounds in terms of user-generated content. Its success resulted in the product being spun off into a separate company three years ago.

MS: Not all products are successful, though.   

PLL: We tried a lot of things. Some of them worked, others did not. We were lucky to access great Canadian new media innovation funds as well as raise $10 million in funding through several rounds of financing, so we got a chance to develop many games, in many shapes and forms, and improve products until we got a number of them right.

MS: HMH says its educational content lets kids “learn where they want, when they want.” How has technology changed the educational environment over the past 10 years?

PLL: I believe that we have made big strides in the past ten years towards the goal of providing a personalized learning experience for each child. The notion of tracking learning in computerized activities and using this data to influence a learning path is now much more common. The challenge now is to scale it with sound learning design. As an example, I believe there are over 1,300 items in the common core K-12 program which learning we would like to support by using technology. Developing games or other learning experiences that are fun and accurately designed to teach each subject, and making sure the data we track can be trusted to reflect actual learning progress, takes a lot of expertise, research, time and money.

MS: Can an app change the educational space?

PLL: Educational content providers have an important role to play if we want technology to truly change the educational space. Indie developers like Tribal Nova, before its acquisition, have been able to develop a few apps in the preschool space with educational consultants. . But I believe only established educational groups have the capital, expertise and research rigor to develop full programs for older kids and the distribution channels to get these programs in schools. I also believe that the association of games with learning has become fairly widespread in people’s minds and so there is greater ongoing supplemental education taking place outside the classroom. There is also a growing acceptance of free play sandbox type games as an important form of learning, and not just learning ABCs.

MS: Can you clarify what’s changed since the beginning of the century?

PLL: The past 10 years have seen a growing gap between home and school, in terms of adoption of technology for learning. As a result, kids live in a highly technological and fun world and study in a low-tech one that in many cases looks very much like it did 10 years ago.  It seems schools are adopting tablets much more rapidly than previous technologies though, so hopefully this gap will reduce over time.

MS: You mention tablets. How have these touchscreen devices reshaped the education landscape?

PLL: Tablets and touch technology have had a profound effect. I do not think many people foresaw it would be so impactful. In general, touch has a magical effect that is hard to describe. In comparison to the mouse, it makes the experience more intuitive, more organic, more natural in many learning contexts, such as using your finger as a paintbrush, counting things, and so on. It has had a particularly big effect on preschool kids. As an example, prior to touch, kids under 3 could not play our games, not necessarily because their brains could not solve the games, but because they could not control the mouse. Now, 2 year-olds can start learning through games and puzzles. I look forward to reading studies on how starting this cognitive process one year earlier will affect brain development. Tablets have also made a difference in the lives of children with special needs. I have read many moving stories from parents.

MS: Has the mobile app revolution changed how your software is sold, distributed, organized and consumed?

PLL: The mobile app revolution has significantly lowered the barriers to becoming a developer and therefore has unleashed a huge wave of creativity. As a result, there are thousands of brilliant apps for learning specific subjects that were not tackled in the ‘90s when there were only a few educational software developers in the world. Back then, we were investing half a million to a million dollars per CD-ROM, so it was primarily invested in core subjects that had the highest market potential such as math and literacy. By coming fresh to the educational software business, indie developers have also brought a lot of innovation and new ways to learn things.

MS: Is there a downside?

PLL: Unfortunately, we have lost the sense of continuity we had in educational software programs. With mobile apps, most kids consume bite-sized learning games that are unrelated to each other, in random order. I doubt it can hurt, but it is not optimal. But most of all, the revolution has also created hundreds of thousands of apps that claim they are educational and may not have even involved an educational expert in the development process. And parents may not always have the knowledge or willingness to seek resources to tell the difference between educationally sound apps and the rest. Creating a thoughtful learning design, involving educational experts, doing several rounds of tests…all of this makes creating true educational games or apps expensive compared to other types of apps. Democratized direct access to consumers is great but it is hard to break from the crowd of low quality games. Quality does not always magically rise to the top and marketing is key. Average price points are also not helping. So the economics for educational apps can be challenging.

MS: There are thousands of app developers who focus on education. What advice would you give a budding app developer on creating compelling content?

PLL: The preschool space is fairly saturated. You have many more opportunities to break new ground in the 7+ year-old space or even adult education. At this point in the game, concentrate on niche targets. There will be less competition, more room to innovate and it will be easier to develop apps that fulfill the targets needs. Be careful not to pick a niche that is too narrow though. If you live outside of the U.S., look for problems to solve in your country or community. Pick a subject that is relevant to your country and culture. There are still much fewer apps available in other languages than English and the majority of educational apps address western culture educational needs. We are getting significantly higher conversion rates on our French apps than English apps. If you are passionate about or know intimately a subject in education, consider developing your app around it. You will bring to your development a wealth of knowledge that can make a difference. Dragon Box (http://www.dragonboxapp.com/) and Math Doodles (http://www.carstensstudios.com/mathdoodles/mathdoodles.htm), both designed by indie developers, are great examples.

MS: What would you be looking for from app developers creating compelling education-focused mobile apps?

PLL: Think of education broadly. There are many more things to teach than ABCs and 123s that can be more useful to learn where you live. Take the time to think about your subject and concept. Do not rush into the first idea that comes to your mind. Search and read about big educational challenges. There is a wealth of information available from academics and thinkers in the ed-tech community that not enough people take the time to read. Do your homework. When you have an idea, check what is already available in the app stores that may be similar.  The world does not need another tracing letters app. If you cannot find anything similar, it is a great start. Educate yourself on educational app design. The Dust or Magic YouTube channel contain videos of presentations from some of the best educational app designers and researchers in the space (http://www.youtube.com/user/dustormagic). As an example, I recommend a very interesting talk from Gail Lovely that provides insight on what educators want and useful app design advice for developers who want to target the school market. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MM4NgoS-idk). If you have limited time and resources, I would recommend you focus on the actual learning experience and how using your app increases knowledge or mastery of your subject, rather than building up complex tracking systems to measure and report progress. Have a big heart. Obviously you should strive to build a sustainable, profitable business but if your primary motivation is to make a difference and offer the joy of learning to kids and adults, this will make the whole journey much more enjoyable.

MS: Great tips, Pierre, thank you. What can today’s developers learn from older programs or technologies that could help improve today’s apps?

PLL: Technologies and game design have evolved tremendously in the past five years but learning theories from constructivism to behaviorism have not changed. Check out this great talk on learning theories and app design from Barbara Chamberlin at the University of New Mexico that also has a couple of interventions from veterans of the big ‘90s educational software companies. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueLNJH6GX9E)

MS: With so many apps available, do you have any advice on how a developer can get the word out, to help spread awareness and generate sales?

PLL: The $2 to $5 cost per install advertising rates driven by social games makes it very challenging to get a positive ROI [Return on Investment] from advertising with educational apps, especially if you have only a few apps so the lifetime value of the customer you acquire is less than $10. Advertising on specialized educational blogs has not provided a good return on investment either when we tested it. If you are an indie, I would not spend time and money on advertising at this point unless you really are in a position where your acquisition cost of a customer is below its lifetime value. The biggest bang for your buck is App Store’s Search Optimization (ASO). I suggest you learn the ropes yourself since it is not very complicated with tools (such as www.searchman.com or www.sensortower.com). This can have such an impact on downloads that I would not hand this to a consultant if I were you. Fairly rapidly you will know as much as they do. Start by reading up on ASO on the web since each app store has different search algorithms. Develop one-on-one personal relationships with bloggers. This takes time but it’s rewarding because it gets the word out and can contribute to your search ranks, as well.

MS: These are great. Any other related tips?

PLL: If you are building several apps, cross-promoting apps with tools such as Chartboost is also quite helpful. There are pros and cons to the paid versus free with in-app purchase models. There are also pros and cons to making one big app or a suite of apps. I would recommend you make these business decisions from the start though because they will impact the structure, design and user experience of your app. 

MS: What is the biggest creative or technical challenge in creating an effective educational app today? 

PLL: In my mind, a big challenge for educational games is to make the game mechanics teach the subject in order to make the learning experience unique and more effective rather than use classic game mechanics that can be applied to any subject. An additional challenge is to do it in a cost effective way so the development cost is in line with the market potential of this specific subject. Alternatively, since there is a lot of existing educational content, and turning every subject into a game can be a complex undertaking, another big challenge is to do “gamification” right. I am not talking about just a couple of badges and rewards, but building a meta game or system that engages students long term and builds intrinsic motivation to learn even if the learning material is dry.

MS: Where are the biggest opportunities and trends in the education mobile app market?

PLL: Here are a few areas that I believe are interesting to explore:

  • Game-based learning
  • Co-play for educational purposes, either in the same room or remote, real time or asynchronous, among peers or intergenerational, and so on.
  • Use of video camera (recording voice, gestures, faces, etc.)
  • Sharing, viral aspect, and in general, social interactions in learning

MS: Finally, any additional advice specific to the Intel App innovation contest?

PLL: Demonstrate innovation primarily in the concept and the learning or the gaming user experience. These are essentials. You only have a couple of months to develop your app.  Graphics can always be improved later. Innovation can take many forms: subject, concept, technology, user experience, environment (school, home, etc.). Try to innovate in at least one or two of them. New technologies or new uses of technologies are cool and always exciting. Just make sure they serve the educational goals. How you engage the user is as important as the subject you teach. If the user is not compelled to open the app again and again over time, he/she will not be learning your subject. Engagement and motivation in educational apps is a subject in itself. I wholeheartedly recommend reading this presentation from Sebastian Deterding (http://www.slideshare.net/dings/dont-play-games-with-me-promises-and-pitfalls-of-gameful-design).

MS: Thank you very much, Pierre.

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