Tell us a bit about the background of SagoSago. How did you get started and what led you to focus on apps for young children?
Sago Sago was born out of a deal struck between my old company, zinc Roe, and the Swedish children’s app studio Toca Boca. At zinc Roe we worked on a wide range of interactive media projects for kids – everything from kiosks to websites and apps. But our passion project was a set of apps we created just for toddlers. The apps were well received, but we knew it would take a big investment to make it into a viable business. As luck would have it Toca Boca was doing amazing work with their kids apps and was looking for ways to build on this. It was a partnership that just made a lot of sense for everyone. Two years later, we’ve published our 12th app and have more than 5M downloads.
As for me personally, I was drawn to kid’s media because it requires a combination of different skills. I love working at the intersection of disciplines so this was perfect. Designing for children is an extreme form of user interaction design because you’re dealing with users without a lot of preconceived ideas for whom instructions are simply not an option. Young children just feel their way through experiences. It’s an incredibly fun challenge.
SagoSago brings a certain joy and humour to their apps which is delightful to young users. How do you decide what works best for children or is it a process of experimentation?
A magical combination of informed guesswork and observation. No amount of experience and expertise can get around this. As an adult it is impossible to fully untrain yourself and imagine how something feels through the eyes of a preschooler. We talk a lot within the team about what make’s kids laugh and the need to keep things relatable. And we invite kids into the studio regularly to play and test out our ideas.
A lot of game and app developers create gender specific games, you guys don’t – in your latest app “Fairytales” the main character dresses up as both a knight and a princess. Do you ever find yourself having to pull back certain elements of an apps design to prevent it leaning towards a specific gender? What are your thoughts in general on the genderization of games?
We purposefully design apps that are fun and satisfying for boys and girls. As a parent it drives me crazy when I go to the toy store and everything is divided into boys and girls sections. Good luck finding a toy power tool that isn’t overtly masculine or a makeup set that isn’t overtly feminine. I want my daughter to grow up having opportunities to play knights and princesses. It’s as simple as that.
From a visual perspective your designs appear to have their roots in Japanese culture, most notably, the Kawaii style. I’m thinking of characters such as Hello Kitty. How much of an influence does this have on your visual output? And I’m curious to know if your apps enjoy any additional success in asian countries where Kawaii is particularly popular?
Yes. The Kawaii style is a big influence. The visual style is the work of Aaron Leighton – our lead illustrator and art director. The magic of the art is that it’s simple – their are no outlines and a minimum of details – and yet distinctive and recongnizable. And although it is appealing to very young kids it also doesn’t feel ‘babyish’ and is appreciated by older audiences. Our apps do well in asia and I have to think the visual style contributes to this.
How do you guys design and develop a game. What is the process from start to finish?
It always starts with a real-world play pattern. The explorer apps are inspired by flap-books. Pet Cafe is inspired by manipulative toys used to teach counting and sorting in preschools. Ideas often kick around for a while before they take shape and many ideas end up in the bin. If we’re feeling confident about an idea we’ll start sketching, wire framing and prototyping. Then there’s a moment when the idea is 90% there and we move into production – artwork, animation, coding and play testing with kids. Near the end we try to step back, find the fun and put in a little extra something. Last comes the polish and QA phase where we are ironing everything out. Then the work continues as the marketing team kicks into gear – preparing app store material and promotional plans. The whole process can take anywhere from 4 months to a year.
You are a sister company to Toca Boca, another very popular children’s app developer. Do you work in tandem? Do they offer support when you are working on a project? Is there a healthy competition between the two studios?
We work in separately but cross over on strategy, marketing and expertise. Each studio has their own team, brand and roadmap. It’s a good setup – we benefit from the exchange of ideas but at the same time are free to take our own path.
You seem to have a small but focused team. What does it take to join SagoSago? What qualities to you look for in team members?
We look for creative technologists and tech-friendly creatives. Everyone on the team brings a core skill but also a willingness and interest in the other disciplines. One quality we look for is the ratio of expertise to ego. The best staff are those who are good at what they do but also humble enough take on feedback from a 3-year-old.
You guys have recently branched out into the complex world of plush toys and by extension – merchandising. This creates a whole other layer of design and logistics for your company. What drove you guys to take this bold leap? How long did it take to build and launch this wing of SagoSago? What did you learn?
Our merchandise efforts are very much a work in progress. We are interested in this because great play experiences happen on and off the screen. The plush toys we did with Monster Factory gave us a chance to test the market and learn as much as we could about the business. It was a really positive experience and has really shaped our plans going forward.
The Apple App store is littered with good but unknown apps, what is the key in your opinion to a successful product launch and growing a business on this platform?
It sounds obvious but you need to create a best-in-class app. It can be simple, but it needs to be the best app for the intended purpose. A good-enough app just won’t fly. Secondly, you need to think about more than building an app. If you want this to be viable you need to map out a plan and be in it for the long haul.
How do you see SagoSago evolving in the future? Is there a particular thing you guys are excited about?
We want to create better play experiences and we’ve really just begun. I’m excited about the upcoming apps, but I’m even more excited by the state of our team. There are so many great ideas and things are just coming together so well.