Behind Touch Press: developing apps for children of all ages

The Generation Remix MasterClass held on March 23rd during the Bologna Children’s Book Fair was the occasion to meet John Cromie, Chief Technology Officer of Touch Press, the English app developer and publisher founded shortly after the announcement of the launch of the iPad. We had the chance to discuss with him about his work and team.

First of all, what about the process behind the creation of apps?

Often publishers think that making an app is like building a piece of software or publishing a book. In some ways what they do is merging these processes. The result? A sort of strange linear process where you spend a lot of time creating a detailed specification and a lot of time working on the budget while the creative side is handled later. This approach just really doesn’t work and the reason is very simple: building an app isn’t the same as publishing a book or creating a piece of software. It’s a very different process that comes from recognizing that the app is a new medium in itself and needs a craftsman-like approach rather than an engineering one. Creative people need to be involved in the very beginning of the concept as well as the engineering team, the people who are actually going to build the app and make it work.
We don’t devote a lot of time to formal testing but we do a lot of informal testing and we use focus groups from time to time. For children apps particularly we have worked with families and in some cases we have worked with a few schools but we don’t have a formal program of focus testing.

What about the team behind Touch Press?

Touch Press is a small company since we have about 25 people among which 7 in the engineering team, 3 in the design team, 7 producers (and assistant producers). Then there’s marketing: many people would not consider marketing to be a part of the production team but we like to include marketing representatives in each project team from the very beginning. Ultimately we want to make apps that actually sell so while we want to be very creative with our apps we also want a match between the app and the target audience. There’s the marketing team coming to place. So you can argue that engineering is part of the creative activity, as well as marketing. The key to get the app right is to make sure that all those creative disciplines are working together effectively and that the team develops a passion for both content and audience. We always have to keep in mind who we work for.

So isn’t it true that developers are from Mars and designers are from Venus?

Engineers have a very logical way of thinking and a very logical perspective. The typical user instead would be approaching the app from a very different perspective so what I try to emphasize in our team is not for the engineers to compromise with their logic and analytical skills and not for the designers to compromise their design but for both of them to understand what’s important for the other person on the team and to get the best out of both. For example if the engineer says to the designer that something just isn’t logical, the designer should listen very carefully and understand what it means; similarly, if the designer says to the engineers that it may be logical but nobody is ever going to think of it that way, the engineer should pay some attention to that. Engineers should think of themselves as facilitators rather than builders, and that their job is to make the experience possible. So as we craft these apps, we like to think about what the experience would be for the end users. It should be very exciting and immersive: the job of engineers is to actually make it possible. Very often we come up with ideas where it may seem it’s not possible to do it and that’s where we have to make sure that we have people motivated to try make things happen. Very often the approach you see from IT departments and software engineers is that if something is difficult, it can’t be done and it means very often you end up with mediocre interfaces because nobody actually tried hard enough. We have a lot of debates, meetings and robust arguments but we listen to each other. It’s a constructive environment rather than a disruptive one. If I may suggest a book about this, I’d definitely say Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull.

Why apps and not another medium?

Apps are a new medium: they are not as TV, the Web or a book, they’re unique and, simply, they don’t have to be confused with anything else. They require original work: the content may not be original but it definitely has to be re-imagined. It also means that  there are new ways to use it, to develop it and to interact with. One of the reasons why the app is so significant as a medium is that it’s a very personal experience. People don’t quite appreciate it because the difference between an app on a tablet and an application on a desktop computer is very subtle. Both of them are computers, you can interact with both of them  but the reason I think a tablet or a phone app is different is that you hold it in your hand. It’s very personal,  you are more physically closer to the device and you are actually touching it, it’s tactile and you take it with wherever you go so it becomes part of your life. You can’t carry around your desktop computer but you can carry your tablet or phone and use it whenever you want. It’s about the context in which you use them. All of this creates a different kind of interaction. Also, the difference with the app is that it’s like a book, you own the app you buy it in the App Store and this creates a sense of personal interaction.
Another important aspect is the technical capability of the device, the fact that you can use it to explain things in more interactive ways. For example we recently made an app called Incredible Numbers: basically it’s an app about how exciting math is. Interactivity is used to explain interesting mathematical questions like the math behind musical notes. It would have been difficult to convey in a book, in a TV documentary since it needs a lot of words or long explanation. When you can do it yourself interactively it’s much easier to get the point across. What we try to do is to think about what kind of story we are trying to tell, if it just has to be a series of pages the users turn or if we can present it in different ways, in interactive ways which happen to engage the users in a much deeper way.

How many apps have you developed so far? Are they always publisher-driven?

At the moment there are 20 apps in the App store. Many of them are in partnership with publishers and they’re often equal partnerships. In many cases publishers have come to us, in some others we have gone to publishers. And, in a few cases, we have originated our own apps. Take for example our best-selling app, The Elements,the very first app we developed: the writing and photography was done in-house. Developing an app can take from about 3 months at the minimum for the smallest app all the way through to Disney Animated app, which took around 18 months. As for the categories, it’s really difficult to set one. Let’s say we do apps for children of all ages.

Interview by Elisa Molinari (Associazione Italiana Editori)

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