Designing Planet Lettra: ‘The big question is “why?”‘

Receiving the Children’s Technology Review Editor’s Choice award in January of this year for Planet Lettra—my first ever educational app, the product now of over 1200 hours of work and a one-person effort—was a great thrill and honour.  It is not an exclusive honour; over a hundred apps earned that award for “Excellence in Design” in the last year.  It is nonetheless an acknowledgement of the quality and value of what I’ve made.

The reviewer’s comments did, however, give me pause.  I quote:

There [are]…no time limits, no levels to complete, no points to accumulate, no in-app purchases, no sub-menus to get stuck in. Just words and letters to discover. The big question is “why?”

I assume the question is not why would one want to discover words and letters but rather why did I avoid all those other things.

There are some upcoming “Dust And Magic” events produced by CTR at which developers discuss the strengths and weaknesses of recent apps (among other things), most notably AppCamp in May 2016.  I would love to attend these events and be part of the discussion, but for time and money reasons, it’s just not possible this year.   However, I’d like to answer the reviewer’s question here and share this with the editors at CTR with the hope that if and when the subject of Planet Lettra comes up, some of these thoughts may make it into the mix.

Pure Learning Experiences

Planet Lettra was inspired by watching my youngest son, four years old at the time, play with the text-to-speech feature on an XO (one of the OLPC laptops) before he could really read.  He would either painstakingly transcribe words from books he knew, hit enter and listen to the computer read what he’d typed or he’d enter nonsense and have the computer read that.  He could do that for upwards of an hour: type stuff in and see what came out.  There was no other motivation than making the computer talk.  In designing Lettra, I was trying to stay as close as possible to that pure experience.  I imagined it as a box of alphabet blocks with special powers or like the box of gears described by Seymore Papert in Mindstorms.

Although Planet Lettra is in the “educational game” category of the App Store, it is mainly meant to be an environment for building words (and now phrases, with addition of the belly feature) with or without guidance and which gives players spelling and phonics-related feedback on what they’ve made, including of couse reading it aloud.  In the end, I did add the creatures, whose reactions to bubbles (costumes, making faces, spitting out bubbles) are certainly an important motivating factor for most kids.  When a creature spits out your bubble (which could even contain the player’s name), however, it’s just funny; there’s no suggestion of failure.

With no scores or achievement levels to compare, I find that kids play Lettra side-by-side without feeling like it’s a competition.  I think there is an age at which competition with one’s peers can be a healthy source of motivation for some students, but for the target age group of this app (6-8 years), I prefer to avoid it.

That being said, there is room to introduce more game-like elements to the app.  For example, I would like to add “Fussy Eaters” to the family of bubble-eating creatures on Lettra in a future update.  These creatures would somehow prompt the player to feed them specific words and doing so would somehow be celebrated.  There are already several distinct regions on the planet surface and the “land of the fussy eaters” would be another one that players could explore.

Children’s UX

Coming into the development of this app, I had no experience with touch based interfaces (or graphic interfaces at all, for that matter—my programming experience was making signal analysis software in grad school).  My frame of reference for UI/UX considerations was my observations of my own kids when they were very young playing educational games on our desktop computer.  I imagined that, since Planet Lettra was meant primarily for pre- or early-readers, avoiding UI elements that had to be read would make the app less frustrating for kids (and consequently, for their teachers and parents).  The first version of Lettra (May 2015) took users straight into the game.  A screen of text-based help could be displayed but vanished if the “?” tab was released and all settings were in the iPad Settings dialogue.

I’ve since learned just how tech-savy five and six year olds are and how completely at ease they are with most UI conventions (“play” and “home” buttons, video controls, etc.).  Also, nobody thinks to look in Settings and nobody wants to leave the app.  Lastly, text-based help was obviously no way to help early readers be autonomous.  So in version 2.0 (November 2015),  I was quite comfortable adding a main menu screen with a settings option and a video-based “guided tour” tutorial with standard controls (pause, scrubbing).

Respect For Family Life

I don’t know how many times I’ve called my kids to the table for a meal and been asked for “5 more minutes to finish this level”.  This never happens when they are playing a board or card game let alone riding their bike or building with Lego (although I do usually have to allow time for looking at what they’ve built… same with Minecraft, come to think of it).

I understand and respect that trying to complete a level is a meaningful goal for the player and that well-designed educational games can use the level mechanic to motivate players to master any number of new skills that can be valuable outside the game.  Nevertheless, when supper is ready, it’s ready!  And any game that uses levels or the concept of progress towards a goal but does not provide a way of suspending the game (completely saving the current state of progress at arbitrary points in the game) is, from the point of view of a parent, somewhat evil. Strong words, but that’s what years of “5 more minute”-ing will do.

This whole issue is avoided in Planet Lettra.  Players are continuously building words and feeding them to creatures, so there is basically no loss of state if the player goes away from the game.  They pick up the fun where they left off.

In version 2.1 (March 2016), I added the “belly feature”: now when bubbles containing real words are fed to the creatures, they live on inside the planet and players can go there to review them and rearrange them to make silly phrases.  I debated whether or not that collection of words should be restored automatically when a player starts a new session.  Honestly, if a kid really wants to write a story (rather than play around with words and letters), I would show them how to use a text editor app.  So for now, every session starts fresh with an empty planet.

The Golden Rule

I’ve described elsewhere one of the guiding principles I have vowed to respect in any apps/games I develop: “No shooting. No shopping.”  The latter half of this principle, in my mind, rules out in-app purchases right away.  (Although it means more than that to me.)  I personally prefer to pay up-front and try to make those purchases wisely by turning to trusted sources like CTR for suggestions.  So as a parent and consumer of apps as well as a developer, this is an instance of the Golden Rule.  That being said, if developers are transparent in their use of in-app purchases and respectful of children and families by creating digital spaces free of solicitation, I can accept that they have a role to play in building viable businesses in today’s app marketplace.

The reviewer’s question was a simple one, but the answer is clearly anything but simple.  The choices I made in developing Planet Lettra and in subsequent updates were informed by a wish to create a playful digital space free from competition and judgement, my changing understanding of UI/UX design requirements for children and my own experiences and preference as a parent and consumer.