How many great business ideas come from the mouth of a six-year-old? This one did. The founder’s daughter asked her mum, “Please write me a story.” She wanted a book which would have her as the heroine. From that little seed grew an idea, one which would lead to a ground-breaking app: Mr Glue Stories.
We all want children to read more: we want them to appreciate the excitement, reflection and joy that comes from being absorbed in a great story. But there’s a problem: in our always-on digital age, children want to be stimulated by gadgetry and often find traditional books dull. How can we literally make a child a hero of a book, fully integrating them into the book’s action? In other words, is it possible to bring digital and print together?
The two founders of Mr Glue approached us with these ideas. Having analysed and explored them, we formulated an idea for an app, targeted at 6-8 year olds. However, even though it was a solid idea – and one which we knew would appeal to parents, teachers and children alike – we knew we needed to push the technology to create the product we, and the founders, dreamt of.
The technical challenges stemmed from the fact that there were a lot of images, a lot of variables, and a lot of functionality. When the app was being developed there were dozens of apps that catered for separate interactions: voice recording, drawing, and reading. But our aim was to bring this all together. This meant potentially using a lot of memory which, of course, could slow the whole app down.
A good example of these obstacles was the sound recording function. This allows a child to record a voice, or sound, that’s integral to the story’s plot. Later, they can send on their version of the book, as an ebook, to a grandparent, for instance. The secret here is wanting the voice to be of good quality (and, of course, recognisable) while, at the same time, not squandering valuable memory on it.
Other considerations included the user interface (UI) for the app. Children have smaller fingers, and so we had to tailor buttons and commands accordingly: moreso than adults, they naturally gravitate towards blinking icons, so we deliberately used these in various places, embedding sound effects into the text. Equally, we had to ensure that the UI looked like an authentic book, but embraced the swiftness, and ease-of-use, of a tablet.
Mr Glue Stories was launched in November 2015, as an app that revolutionises the act of reading. What might otherwise be either a silent, solitary pursuit (for the child reading) or a parent reading a story book (for the 67th time) becomes an activity that engages a number of skills including reading, talking, writing, drawing and sharing. It gives children the chance to choose their own adventure and go on it with a good friend. Crucially, it is not only an interactive experience, but an inclusive experience, because the reader of the book is a character within it.
What makes the product even more special is that, at the end of the story, they can order a professionally bound paperback: they have a one-of-a-kind book that they can keep on their bedside table. Technologically, this meant integrating high-resolution images of the Mr Glue pages with the low-resolution images superimposed by the child. This was no easy feat but we achieved it, giving the finished product a glossy, shop-ready look. This allows them to re-read their experience as a finished publication and, in so doing, to engage with a traditional medium – but one they themselves have helped to create.
It’s a communal app, too. Mr Glue is designed for use not just in families, but in wider schools. A central aim when developing it was to show how successful product development is a form of outreach: working with communities and schools for the greater good.
One of the project’s co-founders, Amelia Thorne, described her vision this way: ‘Mr Glue Stories is, we like to think, the next generation in personalised storytelling.’ The success of the app has proved her right: without any marketing, following just one single review in the US, the app gained over 10,000 downloads over the course of a week.
This result led to a new project called Mission Cookpossible! This gives children the chance to have their own personalised cookbook, integrating their name into the text – along with the name of a friend – and allowing them to choose their own recipes. The aim is to ensure that children can interact with their parent or guardian in the kitchen: as such, it promises to share an equal success.
The response from parents and teachers to Mr Glue Stories has been enthusiastic. It was rated 5* by the Educational App Store: ‘A delightful customisable storybook app… Throughout the app, the graphics are of an incredibly high quality, with a consistent and appealing feel and a great attention to detail. Everything about the app is designed to appeal to children, and it fulfils its intentions fully and fantastically.’
As a result of creating it, we were invited into the primary school (Primrose Hill School) of the six-year-old who first dreamt it up. This gave us a chance to speak to the children about the app, and what we do. It also gave them an insight into app and product development – many were fascinated that it was possible to make a career out of app development. It formed a fitting conclusion to a journey started by an imaginative six-year-old.