MEET THE DEVELOPER
Dad the developer
How Raul Gutierrez’s kids inspired him to launch Tinybop.
“I make it with my child in mind.”
When an educational app developer makes a statement like that, you know that those apps are going to be a cut above. Because, of course, if you’re creating something for your little one, a lot of thought and tender loving care is going to go into it.
We spoke to Raul Gutierrez, the founder of Tinybop, the Brooklyn-based studio dedicated to creating apps that aim to inspire and educate kids – and all of which come complete with the proud stamp of parental love.
Gutierrez is a father of two and nicknamed his kids ‘tiny bop’ after their favourite Korean food, bop (meaning ‘rice’ in Korean). After his kids began showing interest in smartphones, Gutierrez took it upon himself to develop quality educational apps for them. And so, Tinybop was born.
The decision to develop educational apps was inspired by your son, is that right?
When my eldest son was in kindergarten, he asked for an iPhone instead of a birthday party. Both my wife and I were surprised by his request as we’d tried to have a no-screens childhood.
I wanted to understand why this was so important to him. When I asked, he calmly explained that the device could be a tool, or a toy, or a storyteller. He called the iPhone an “everything machine”.
At that time, I’d decided that I wanted to start my own company after more than 20 years working at the intersection of art and technology. It was 2011, and it was clear to me that eventually, virtually every adult in the world would have a phone in their pocket.
The conversation with my son made me realise that all kids would have access to phones too. So I began to closely observe everything my boys were doing on the iPhone. The more I played with my children, the more I saw the potential of iOS as a learning platform.
Soon after, I reached out to designers and engineers who shared my interest in developing digital educational content and founded my development company.
We hear your children were essentially the founding members of Tinybop?
Sure, because they really were our testers. Our children provided immediate feedback on what they thought we got right and where we made mistakes. As we continued, some of our kids’ friends and classmates also helped us with testing. Their input was very special and valuable to us and all the testing paid off. Our first app, The Human Body, reached 4 million downloads in its first month.
Did Tinybop have distinct goals from the very beginning?
We started Tinybop with a very clear set of values. Our process always starts with questions. What are the most important things today’s children need to learn about to be successful in tomorrow’s world? How do we embed learning in interaction? How do we let children tell their own stories? Can apps fill a learning need that cannot be provided by books, toys or museums?
Each app starts with a question and contains the answers to that question. All of our apps are designed so your children can explore and experiment while asking questions and discovering answers on their own.
Take The Human Body for example. A question might be “What happens inside the human body when we eat?”, to which the app allows the young learner to pick up an apple to consume, and watch how it’s digested inside the body.
Once the apple is digested, your child might see the other food icons on the screen and ask questions like “What happens when we drink milk?”, then try to experiment with that.
It’s important for young learners to experiment, to encounter unexpected outcomes and also to try different methods. Children are free to try very different things when they’re not daunted or discouraged by unintended outcomes.
We were very careful to avoid any mechanisms of win-loss or right-wrong so we could encourage young learners to try different things, without feeling discouraged.
The Creature Garden is a great example of that. When a child is creating their own imaginary animal, there are no boundaries to what they can do.
Such freedom breeds fantastic animals and stories that grown-ups could not have come up with, even in their wildest dreams. We’ve seen some out-of-this world stories of incredible animals during our play tests, and the unfettered imagination and innocence of a child’s mind is always deeply touching.
Tell us about the childhood photos featured on Tinybop’s website.
On our website, we say Tinybop was “built by former kids”. We display childhood photos of ourselves because we want to show kids that we were once just like them.
Our mission is to create playful learning experiences. In order to build these kinds of experiences, we must put ourselves in the mindset of children and allow ourselves to play as we create. We ask ourselves questions like, how do children see the world? What is their emotional reality? How can we go back to that state where every day is full of magic?
You’ve developed and released 17 apps over nine years. Some things changed while others remained the same. What were they?
I started Tinybop with a clear blueprint. I’ve been following that plan step by step with the apps we’ve developed, and I would say most things have remained the same in terms of where we’re headed. In fact, I recently went over the early sketches of our apps and was surprised by how much of them we kept in the final product we released.
All our apps have been localised in over 40 languages. While it used to take us months to translate everything, we now can do this very quickly and we’ve a much better sense of how to work with artists than we did in the past.
Another rule of thumb is to never have ads or in-app purchases. We believe this is what most parents want and what’s ultimately best for kids, but it also makes marketing apps difficult. We don’t track kids or collect any personally identifiable information so we rely on word of mouth to get our story out there. This is probably our biggest challenge.
Therefore, building trust with parents over a long period of time is very important to us. I believe that, based on that trust, our name will one day have a reputation similar to that of well-known storybooks or science books, and stand out in this industry as parent-approved educational content.
Apps are like tiny cathedrals. Each requires the work of many hands to make it perfect, so when I see one of our apps on the App Store, I’m always reminded of the people who made them.
Out of all your apps, what one are you most emotionally attached to?
Apps are like children: it’s hard to choose a favourite, and some are a bit more difficult to manage than others! We often get letters from parents telling us they think their children will want to become doctors after playing The Human Body. Also, a very timid student apparently became more confident in class because of Me: A Kid’s Diary.
My own children have surprised me over the years explaining science concepts, and when I ask them where they learned it, they say, “Dad, we learned it in Tinybop apps!” I knew The Robot Factory would be a success when my younger son (then age seven) created over 100 robots in the app and was excited to tell me stories about each and every one of them. Within a day of the app’s launch, kids created several hundred thousand robots. Now the number is in the tens of millions.
When I hear or see these things from my son, the developer side of me is very proud, while the parental side of me feels great responsibility. Because I know children can become so immersed and invested in an app, I want to deliver the best educational apps I can make.
What future plans do you have?
Tinybop apps are frequently used in classroom settings. Our apps have been downloaded almost 2 million times to schools, so we’re working on enhancing our support for teachers who are starting to include Tinybop in their lesson plans.
Overall though, I just want children to have fun while learning something, whether it’s at home or at school.