The latest research report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "Discovering Kids' Apps: Do Family Strategies Vary By Income," centers on the decision process parents make in downloading educational apps. With so many free apps with dubious educational value, how is a parent to decide which apps are worthwhile? On the flip side, what information can educational app developers provide to aid in discoverability?
As indicated in What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps, the majority of children's apps do not have any kind of educational benchmark. Highly rated apps on sites like Common Sense Media, Parents' Choice, and Children's Technology Review may not correspond with app store rankings, consumer reviews, or featured app lists. Parents desire to know an app's age range or developmental stage focus, information that is often lacking in app store descriptions. Because of this, many parents, in particular those in middle and higher income levels, engage in "app trialing," in which they download the app first and play it before the child ever sees it. Lower income parents in the study tended to choose the educational apps to download whereas higher income parents were more likely to involve the child in the decision making process.
Whether due to virtual good concerns, freedom from ads, or a perceived higher educational value, higher income parents were more likely to purchase paid apps. Though there is no evidence that quality corresponds with price, many highly regarded apps do cost more. Lower income parents downloaded fewer apps overall and tended to prefer free apps. They also were more likely to depend on app store information rather than seeking out information on other sites. Among all income levels, parents relied heavily on "word of mouth" reviews from other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends.
Higher income parents expressed frustration with app store descriptions, feeling that they needed more guidance from educational experts. They wanted assurance of efficacy, which could have come from more prominent notice of research or recommendation.
With so much competition in the app store, particularly in Pre-K educational apps, developers know that they need to appeal to parents as well as kids. They can send off their apps for review to parent-friendly sites and they can provide the necessary information for parents to make informed decisions.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.