Ratings screens in children’s apps need to die — and they’re not the only thing

Mini-G has been faffing about with an iPod touch and — whenever possible — her parents’ iPhones for some months now. If ever you need a reminder about your generation’s looming obsolescence, stick a toddler in front of a high-tech device and see them master it before they’ve even figured out how to talk. Anyway, since we’re at the point where mini-G can use apps alone (albeit supervised), I’ve made some observations.

First, I’m broadly positive about the whole screens thing. I don’t believe a kid should be glued to any kind of screen for long periods of the day, but mini-G learned how to attempt to say ‘mouth’ from Metamorphabet, and has apps that have boosted aspects of empathy and dexterity. After a session has gone on for perhaps 20 minutes, an iPhone is — typically without prompting — turned to sleep mode and returned to the relevant parent. (Elsewhere, books are read, Lego is played with, puzzles are completed, telly is watched, and wheeled walkers are driven around the kitchen as if it’s the Indy 500. So: balance.)

Secondly, however, it’s clear some developers of apps for children either haven’t tested them all that much on actual children using them on their own, or fundamentally don’t care about the user experience as it relates to said children. Here are some things developers should avoid when making apps for kids:

Ratings screens.
These aren’t exactly loved in apps for adults, but it’s reasonable to include them — reviews and ratings can be important for an app’s success. But throwing up a screen along these lines on an app being used by a 20-month-old child? At best, a parent will be there and grumpily turn off the app. If not, the child will get frustrated and bounce out to the App Store. (And developers who reason very young kids do not remember their favourite apps — as in, apps that don’t annoy them — let me tell you: you are wrong.)

Long launch animations.
 Yes, we know you’re probably very proud of that lengthy animation you had commissioned, your company logo bouncing around like a cartoon character hopped up on sugar. But here’s the thing: no kid cares a jot. In fact, mini-G exits apps with remarkable speed if they don’t ‘do’ anything interactive. You’ve probably got two or three seconds. By all means include your intro, but make it immediately skippable with a single tap. Otherwise, you’re just this tech generation’s DVD producer.

Visible IAP.
 I’m not against IAP in general, not even in apps for children. Developers just need to ensure apps aren’t exploitative. However, in apps designed for children, the IAP needs to be hidden behind some kind of settings screen. I’ve seen too many apps now where you get the first bit for free, and then a kid taps on something that flings up an IAP window. Sure, they’re not going to purchase anything at that moment (well, unless they’re very tech savvy and you are asleep); but the child will get frustrated at not being able to easily exit that screen and get back to the fun parts, or when they inevitably end up back on that screen on a fairly regular basis.

Fiddly navigation.
 It takes time for the dexterity of young children to improve, and yet children’s apps are full of fiddly navigation elements. So make interfaces chunky. Ensure that if a kid accidentally exits to the main screen, they can continue by tapping a suitably massive button (it turns out a big Play symbol is a good one to use). If you don’t, you may find kids simply exit the app and don’t go back.

April 7, 2016. Read more in: Apps, Design, Opinions, Technology

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Low-hanging fruit for Apple and gaming, part one: MFi controllers

I recently wrote about Game Center — twice, in factand even made a video about it. But there are other areas in gaming that I feel Apple’s neglecting or overlooking, for whatever reason. The first is MFi controllers — third-party console-style gamepads that can be used with iOS devices and now also Apple TV.

The original MFi controller release was a mess. Apple seemingly didn’t understand that it was splitting the iOS ecosystem into two camps — games with or without support — and then fragmenting it further, due to offering alternate controller specs. The ‘standard’ controller has a D-pad, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. The ‘extended’ controller adds two more shoulder buttons and analogue sticks.

Oddly, the industry standard Start and Select buttons were omitted entirely (in favour of Pause, recently itself replaced by Menu on controllers designed for Apple TV), which I have on good authority very much annoyed several developers. (Update: Matthew Bolton adds that the “omission of click buttons on sticks” is “[a]nother pain for some ports,” while developer Filip Radelic complains that iOS lacks the means to assign controllers to specific players.)

Presumably, someone was trying to do an ‘Apple’ with controllers, particularly with the standard layout, in simplifying everything. But as far as I recall, only one company (Logitech) ever released a standard controller, everyone else plumping for the more complex option. I imagine this was confusing for consumers, even more so if they bought the Logitech, grabbed a game boasting controller support, and found they couldn’t actually control it, since the MFi controller was expecting extended controls.

That’s assuming anyone could find a compatible game in the first place, because Apple oddly broadly ignored controllers in the iTunes Store. You’d think the company would at least flag controller support on game pages (something it does on Apple TV), and also automate an App Store page listing compatible games. Instead, it’s left to third-party sites like Afterpad to pick up the slack, which is baffling.

Today, the MFi ecosystem is fairly mature, with a reasonable range of controllers. (My personal recommendation is the Nimbus, unless you’re desperate for a form-hugging option, in which case grab a Gamevice, in the knowledge it may not fit the next device you buy.) But Apple needs to do more to help.

So my first piece of low-hanging fruit for Apple and gaming is:

1. Add a section on all App Stores that lists games that are MFi controller compatible, which is automatically updated and, preferably, that itself can be searched and/or filtered by genre.

And speaking of genres, that’ll be the next bugbear I’ll be addressing in this series.


April 6, 2016. Read more in: Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions


The top three Apple products ever, as decided by a toddler

It turns out that tiny humans are fond of Apple products, too. Our own particular tiny human (21 months at the time of writing), has expressed preferences for specific hardware in certain ways, most notably by gleefully smacking it with baby paws, or wailing in an eardrum-splitting fashion when it’s suggested that said Apple hardware is, in fact, someone else’s.

Here, then, are the top three Apple products, should the company want to directly target the next generation today.

1. Apple keyboard. 

For some reason, keyboards are like catnip to tiny humans. SMASH SMASH SMASH. This is especially so when a keyboard happens to be connected to a Mac on which daddy is doing work while on deadline.

2. Apple TV remote (pre-Siri).

Our living-room Apple TV is a third-gen, and mini-G decided no-one else is to be trusted with the remote (to the point when daddy accidentally stopped Peppa Pig, said remote was snatched away and hidden beyond reach). The only tiny snag is mini-G’s current usage, which is CLICK BIG BUTTON UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS. (Often: playing an entirely unsuitable trailer.)

3. Daddy’s iPhone. 

We had a knackered old iPod touch knocking about, and that became mini-G’s, loaded up with kiddie apps that run in iOS 6, and music for sleeps. But it turns out that daddy’s iPhone is SO MUCH MORE FUN. Cue: evenings where daddy watches Peppa Pig while mini-G quickly switches between Novation Launchpad, Endless ABC, and My Very Hungry Caterpillar, in a manner that makes daddy’s head spin.

March 31, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Humour, Television

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Enjoying ‘lighter later’ – the joy of daylight saving time for a SAD sufferer

I always get a little giddy at this time of year, and that’s because of the prospect of longer evenings. I’m one of those people who doesn’t get on with winter gloom. Whether I actually have seasonal affective disorder or not, I don’t know for sure. But I do know that as the evenings draw in, I feel a sense of foreboding, like a cloak of oppression lurking just out of reach. When the clocks change in October, instantly plunging evenings into early darkness, it’s like a cloak that surrounds me until the longer days return, and that I constantly have to fight.

Fortunately, at the advice of a Twitter chum, I stumbled across a SAD lamp that helps me through the worst of times. It sits on my desk, searing my retinas during the bleakest days of winter, somehow tricking my brain into thinking sunshine is blazing outside when in fact everything is shrouded in inky blackness peppered with the occasional half-hearted glow of a street lamp. But on Friday, I put my SAD lamp away, and it gave my heart a little leap of joy.

It’s for this reason that I remain militant in my support for daylight saving time. Yet every year I see an increasing number of people grumbling about it. Mostly, it seems, people hate the clocks changing by an hour twice a year; and many people complaining (lots and lots of people in the USA) live much nearer the equator than I do, and so aren’t affected nearly as much.

Here in the UK, we’d have 3am sunrises at the height of summer if daylight savings went away, yet would lose ‘lighter later’ evenings. There have been attempts in the past to address this, with campaigns suggesting the UK moves to the same time zone as France. I suspect nothing will change in the foreseeable future, not least because the Daily Mail would explode in a froth of fury if THEY over in THE EVIL EU would ever TAKE OUR TIME ZONE (or something), regardless of the various studies that suggest the UK on CET would reduce depression, energy use and road deaths.

Still, I’m happier again for seven months now we’re on summertime; but I certainly wouldn’t complain if everyone in the UK somehow forgot to put the clocks back come October.

March 29, 2016. Read more in: Opinions

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“This service is ending”. The curse of the Smart TV

I have a Smart TV. It’s not overly smart. It’s a Samsung, and looks quite nice, but the interface was seemingly designed by a sadist. The TV runs on-demand ‘apps’, which take ages to load; Freeview audio is always out of sync, despite Samsung going ARGLE WARGLE WILL FIX SOON HONEST BARGLE at regular intervals; the panes within the interface lurch and spin as you switch between them; and the menus seem to have mistaken accessing options for an exciting game of hide the settings.

But what’s most struck me of late is how temporary the ‘smart’ bit seems to be. This telly is about a year old, but now barely a week goes by without a little message appearing at the top of the screen about a service ending. Mostly, these are for apps I don’t really care about, but Samsung itself pulled off a doozy last summer, removing 40 per cent of the front end, so it, apparently, could make improvements and add new features in the future. Naturally, there have been no improvements and no new features since.

What gets me is that tellies are all-in-one units, which are designed to last many years, but it’s clear the software on them isn’t. And this has made me reconsider what I’d go for in future — a much dumber TV to which you can attach an Apple TV or equivalent box. At least those appear to have a bit more of a future, cost little to replace if you want to upgrade or switch units, and tend to add more capabilities over time rather than take them away.

March 24, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Technology, Television

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