Duck Duck Moose: The iDesign Interview

On June 1, 2010, iLounge updated our iDesign series—a look at the top industrial designers and designs in the iPod and iPhone ecosystems—with a series of six new feature articles and interviews. For the first time, iDesign expanded to look at the work of noteworthy application developers, including Duck Duck Moose, PopCap Games, and Tapbots, while probing the creative, marketing, and engineering talents of leading Apple case developers Incase, Speck Products, and SwitchEasy. Today, we’re rolling out the extended version of the second of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited only modestly for style and focus. This iDesign Interview discusses Duck Duck Moose, creator of some of the very best childrens’ applications available for iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads.


The full iDesign feature on Duck Duck Moose can be seen on pages 64-65 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 66-67. iLounge interviewed the company’s three co-developers Caroline Hu Flexer, Michael Flexer, and Nicci Gabriel, who share responsibility for designing its apps, with Caroline and Michael handling music while Nicci produces the company’s illustrations. Answers were collected from the team and provided by Caroline, as presented below. Enjoy.

(1) Tell us how Duck Duck Moose got started, and what has changed for you as a company since then.

Caroline Hu Flexer: Duck Duck Moose was started by three friends, Caroline Hu Flexer, Nicci Gabriel, and Michael Flexer. When Caroline and Michael got their iPhones in 2008, we noticed how our then-two-year-old, Caitlyn, was captivated by the iPhone and quickly learned to use it. Using the touch screen and drop-dead simple interface design, Caitlyn could find the camera, take photos, and flip through the photos she had taken. 

We liked the idea of having high quality, educational apps on our phones to entertain children when we were stuck waiting at a doctor’s office or restaurant. To create children’s apps, we knew that we would need an outstanding designer and illustrator, and Michael immediately thought of Nicci, whom he had worked with at two previous startups.



Our first app, Wheels on the Bus, was launched in January 2009. This was Caitlyn’s favorite song, and we saw how toddlers love to sing the song with the hand motions—‘the wipers go swish, swish, swish.’ We were also inspired by traditional pop-up books with movable parts and paper engineering. We wanted to combine the pop-up book with good music and touch technology on the iPhone.

When Duck Duck Moose started, there were about 12,000 apps on the App Store and only a handful of educational apps for young children. Now there are 200,000 apps overall, and most major children’s media companies have entered the market. A recent Cooney Center study noted that almost half of the Top 100 Educational apps “target preschool or elementary school aged children.” Duck Duck Moose now has four iPhone apps and an iPad app.

[Editor’s Note: The company released its second iPad application, a HD remake of Wheels on the Bus, following the interview but prior to publication.]

Not much has really changed since we started. There are still just three of us at Duck Duck Moose, and Wheels on the Bus is still at the top of the Educational rankings.

(2) Your first iPhone apps were all riffs on classic kids’ songs—Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald, and Itsy Bitsy Spider have the advantage of being instantly recognizable, but on the flip side, anyone can come along and release competing, similarly-named versions. Walk us through the process of making one of these well-known stories distinctively Duck Duck Moose in style.



Flexer: We have a very collaborative, open-ended design process in which the three of us all contribute throughout. This is our process: Observe children. Brainstorm. Prototype. Build. Test with children. Learn. Refine. Repeat all steps again. And again. And again. 

The key elements of our approach are:

Observing: Looking at the world through a child’s eyes. We observe children’s play patterns, and watch what they do and what they love. This is our source of inspiration. We notice that children like to play peek-a-boo, collect things like eggs, and blow and pop bubbles, for example.

Brainstorming: No ideas are too wild. The three of us bring very different perspectives to the table, from varied backgrounds in design, engineering, music, business and children, but we have a very open way of working together. We defer all judgment and encourage wild ideas. We don’t just brainstorm once. We are continually brainstorming for new ideas and new refinements as we start an app, do the first sketches, build it on the iPhone, add the music and sounds, and test with children. At every step of the way, there are opportunities for creativity and looking at the app from a new angle.   




Iterative development: It’s all the little things that create the magic. After brainstorming, creating wireframes and illustrations, building the app, adding music and sound effects, and testing with children, we will repeat this process several times, developing in an iterative fashion up until finally submitting an app to Apple. Because there are only three of us, we are able to continue to iterate until the end, and some of our best ideas often come at the end. We make sure that every pixel, interaction and sound effect is coordinated and resonates with children.

(3) After doing those titles, you released Fish School—the core of which is the Alphabet Song and learning letters individually, augmented by numbers, shapes, and colors. What lessons did you learn from the prior apps that made you want to do Fish School in the way you did it?



Flexer: The kernel of the Fish School concept actually came from another app. Michael was coding schools of fish in an underwater scene, and had a great idea to make the fish form different letters and shapes. At this point, we couldn’t stop talking about the opportunities with schools of fish to teach the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors, and differences.



We learned from the prior apps that parents appreciated the educational content—counting nuts, and Cloe the Fly with lessons about nature in Itsy Bitsy Spider. Fish School is our first app with more traditional educational content. 

We also learned that children like being able to control and choose what to do. In Fish School, we deliberately used a large button on all screens to allow children to navigate through the eight educational activities by themselves—without requiring them to use any complicated menus or navigate back to a home page.  

(4) Though music turns out to be critically important to all of your titles, the App Store’s screenshots are what really make your titles stand apart from similar competitors at the time of initial purchase. How did you come up with your friendly, cartoony visual style, and how do you make your music?



Flexer: The visual style is all Nicci. For more than 10 years, Nicci has been an interface designer for desktop and mobile software for adults, with a strong background in branding and design, but she has always loved to draw. She developed this style in graduate school while writing an illustrated car manual for young women. For Duck Duck Moose, she adapted the style for young children, and continues to evolve it over time with each app. The style appeals to young children because of its simplicity—the characters are friendly and colorful.



We create the music ourselves, and have done the recordings in concert halls as well as in our basement. Michael and Caroline were trained as classical musicians, and play the cello and violin. Michael performs with a piano trio that produced our music with some good friends and Caitlyn’s preschool teacher who recorded the vocals. One of the trio members has a talent for composing transcriptions and variations of songs. Fish School, for example, includes the ABC song, Mozart variations, and some original variations on the song.

(5) Unlike Wheels on the Bus and Itsy Bitsy Spider, there were a few scenes in Old MacDonald that stepped beyond the “young child exploring a farm” theme—aliens, bulldozers, and cows reading the Moo Yorker. Were these supposed to be gags for parents, hints at your outside interests, or something else?




Flexer: We noticed that young children often play with iPhone apps with their parents or older siblings at their side, so we experimented with including some humor and references for them. We have gotten mixed reactions on this: some parents laugh at the Moo Yorker magazine, while others would prefer purely preschool content. The bulldozer and dump truck were included for those toddler boys who love trucks and digging. We like to add our own creativity to the songs, and several of the non-traditional verses—fish with bubbles in Wheels on the Bus, frog and bulldozer in Old MacDonald—have been a big hit with parents and children. Although we will always add our own twist to our apps, we have decided to focus on humor for young children, rather than trying to amuse accompanying adults as well.

(6) App developers right now are wrestling with whether to create unified iPad and iPhone apps, or separate versions for each device. Your apps strike us as ideally suited to the unified approach, but you’ve already tested the waters with separate “HD” and standard versions of Fish School. What’s your current thinking on hybrid apps, given your experiences with Fish School? Art aside, are there any user interface considerations that differ enough between devices to justify releasing two apps?




Flexer: There are pros and cons to both separate apps and hybrid/universal apps. Our decision to launch separate apps was based on balancing three factors: (A) the user experience, (B) pricing flexibility, and (C) the mechanics of the App Store. We will continue to explore and evaluate the alternatives, especially since the iPad App Store is so new and still evolving.

A. User Experience: Although universal apps are more practical for customers who have both an iPhone and an iPad, they will deter some users due to their larger download and footprint with an extra set of HD graphics. We also wanted to make sure that our apps are compatible with older versions of the iPhone OS since many users who do not sync and update their OS regularly; the separate iPhone app allowed us to do that.  

B. Pricing Flexibility: Since only a small fraction of iPhone/iPod touch customers currently own an iPad, we wanted to provide customers with pricing specific to each platform, instead of just offering one universal app at a midpoint price. Arguably, in the future, more users will have both platforms in their house, so a mid-priced universal app may be optimal to having to purchase separately. 

As with all of our apps, we continually monitor pricing, and the App Store allows us to change pricing easily. Furthermore, having two separate apps affords us the flexibility to offer the best price for each platform. Our apps at $.99 and $1.99 are priced very competitively relative to other high quality children’s iPad apps, which range from $2.99 to $9.99. As a three-person indie developer, we need to create a viable business to cover our development costs so we can continue doing what we love—building high quality, educational apps for children. 



C. App Store Mechanics: Since there are over 200,000 apps on the App Store, being ranked in a Top Chart and ideally having Apple promote the app are critical to discoverability. Based on our analysis of the Top Charts and recently featured apps, our hypothesis was that the App Store would favor two separate apps over a universal app. [M]aking both a universal app as well as an iPhone-only app… is a great concept, and makes a lot of sense to us from an offerings standpoint. However, this model would compromise the App Store ranking because of the way that rankings are calculated: 1) It would split the iPhone app sales, and neither app would do well in the iPhone rankings. 2) It would not do well in the iPad rankings either, because only a fraction of the universal app sales are counted toward the iPad sales. Without a high ranking… apps would not be discovered on the App Store, and sales would be impacted.

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[Editor’s Note: Staff and other white background images are courtesy Duck Duck Moose. The original iLounge feature article on Duck Duck Moose can be found in the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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