Developer Spotlight: OK Play
October 26, 2021
Built in collaboration with a team of child-development experts, OK Play’s interactive stories do more than entertain, says the app’s chief scientist, Colleen Russo Johnson: They give kids a space to express what they want and need.
To do so, the inventive app makes children the stars. As they discover pirate treasure and encounter planet-size smoothies, they’ll record their own dialogue, color in scenery, and snap selfies to make each story character as unique as they are.
We spoke with Russo Johnson and founder Travis Chen about the importance of emotional learning, why building a responsive development team is key, and how the app has helped families through difficult times.
How is OK Play different from other education apps for children?
Russo Johnson: Starting with social-emotional learning was very intentional for us. As parents, we saw something missing in the apps our kids use. There’s a lot of ABCs and 123s and not a lot of focus on social-emotional learning. The way OK Play uses interactive technology lets kids place themselves in the stories — not just read about what it feels like to be mad or sad or happy, but actually act it out. They can see themselves making those faces.
What learning curve did you have to overcome to launch the app?
Chen: Well, Colleen wasn’t part of the group back when we first had the idea for OK Play. We all had our superpowers across product and play design, the business side and fundraising, but we didn’t have the skill set on the science of how kids build confidence, empathy, kindness. As soon as we met Colleen, there was no question that she was the superhero we were missing: someone who’d devoted their entire life — academically, professionally, and personally — to child development.
What’s been the most rewarding feedback from OK Play’s audience?
Russo Johnson: In our very early days of beta testing, a mother of two brought us to tears sharing what OK Play did for her children. This pandemic has been hard on all of us, and our stories were helping her daughters understand it’s OK to feel emotions in very real ways. She also shared how their faces light up when they see themselves as the stars of our stories, since, as an African American family, they rarely see characters who look like them onscreen.
What’s a technical achievement that you’re particularly proud of?
Chen: We’ve built our team and technical infrastructure to be able to update the app really quickly. In one story, a character falls down a well, and we got feedback from a parent that their kid was very scared when that happened. We updated the story so the character pops back up out of the hole, and we pushed it live within the day. To be able to respond so quickly and make our stories as inclusive as possible is something I’m really proud of.
Any advice for fellow app developers?
Chen: I think you need two very important things. One is to create ways to listen to and interact with your users, specifically to aid the development of your app. You don’t want it to be totally open-ended, because you could get flooded with feedback that can be hard to make sense of. Then second, you need a team and fundamental technical infrastructure that allows you to quickly adapt. These two go hand in hand. Once you get that user feedback, you need to move quick.