As part of our ongoing series of interviews with people making a difference in the education and technology fields, we spoke to Marcel Widarto, creator of the Sight Words Hangman and Sight Words & Spelling with Pixopop apps. He told us about how he moved from programming to developing, how his daughter inspired his apps, and the marketing issues indie developers face.
SMATOOS: You’re not a full-time app developer, is that right? What’s your day job?
Marcel Widarto (MW): I am currently working as a web/database programmer for a wealth management company. I mainly work with their website and their customer relationship management software. I’ve been doing web/database development for the past 12 years and in mid-2011, I decided that I wanted to expand my horizon a little and get my feet wet in the app development business. I actually started by doing the Android version of Sight Words Hangman first before I jumped onto the iOS bandwagon. Ironically, the iOS version of Sight Words Hangman was completed and published before the Android version was finished. I currently do my app development at night during the week and on the weekend.
SMATOOS: How did you get into the educational app development business in the first place?
MW: I got in the educational app development by accident. When my daughter was in kindergarten, every week she would come home with a new set of sight words she had to learn. I spend a lot of time with her working on practicing sight words. She loved practicing her sight words so much that she would always ask me if she can practice them while we’re at the grocery store, doctor’s office, etc., but I never had her sight words with me, so we would practice only the words I remembered in my head. I thought to myself that maybe I should create an app for her sight words so I can have it on me all the time…and the idea of Sight Words Hangman was born.
SMATOOS: Do you have any help making the apps, or any participation from people with an education background?
MW: The app development has been a fun family project. I do all of the coding for my apps while my wife and my sister-in-law have been the voices for my apps. My brother, who is a very talented graphic designer and musician, has been helping me out with music/audio and some graphics also. Both of my kids have been excellent beta testers. They love doing it and they also love to be able to take part with the app development process and spending time with mom/dad while doing it. My sister-in-law is a teacher and she’s been great in giving me advice and feedback in designing my app to make the app more appropriate for children and classroom use.
SMATOOS: Both of the apps you’ve created have been designed to help kids learn sight words and practice spelling. Is this something that particularly interests you? Do you have plans to branch out into other kinds of educational apps?
MW: When I decided that I was going to write an app, I didn’t really know what kind of app I wanted to write. At first, I really wanted to create a simple game but I couldn’t really come up with an idea, however I knew that I tend to do a good job on a project if I am personally interested in the project’s topic.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, she loved practicing her sight words so I spent a lot of one-on-one time with her practicing her sight words. The idea for Sight Words Hangman came up when one day my daughter wanted to practice her sight words while we were in the car waiting for my wife to finish her grocery shopping and I didn’t have the words list.
I created Sight Words & Spelling with Pixopop because I want to give an opportunity for parents/teachers who did not like the hangman concept to experience the app and so far the response has been great.
I am currently working on another app and it will not be another sight words app. I am not ready to say anything about the app yet but I will definitely let you know more when it’s ready.
SMATOOS: What inspired the collaboration with Pixopop?
MW: Ali Sabet who is the creator of Pixopop is a good friend of mine who I’ve known since high school. When I learned that some people do not like the concept of a hangman in a kids app, I knew right away that I needed to replace the hangman concept with a more positive thing. Building the character concept was perfect for this and right away I knew that Pixopop’s characters would be a perfect fit because kids love them already.
SMATOOS: Your first app, Sight Words Hangman, had a funny, if slightly sinister theme, and this new app is all bright colors and cartoons. How important is it to create a theme for a learning app? Is it impossible to engage kids without one?
MW: I really believe that a theme for a learning app is very important. A good theme in a good educational app can make a child want to work with the app. A reviewer of Sight Words & Spelling with Pixopop said that “When a child wants to work with a particular app, half the battle is won”.
SMATOOS: What’s your marketing strategy? Is this the most difficult part of the process?
MW: So far my marketing strategy has been word of mouth and social media. I try to show my apps to as many people as I can and try to really listen to their feedback. I still don’t know what is the best strategy to market my app, but I think a lot of the indie developers are facing the same issue.
SMATOOS: Have you found that people are willing to pay for useful apps, or that almost everyone will gravitate towards the free apps whenever possible?
MW: More people are definitely gravitating toward free apps but who doesn’t like free apps?
The problem with many of the free apps out there are ads. As a parent, I don’t like it when my kids are exposed to ads. If there is a free ad-supported version and a paid version without ads, I usually prefer to purchase the app. I find that many parents do not like ads in apps either, and they’ve been willing to spend their money on a good app.
Interested in other insightful interviews with app developers? Check out our archive!
All images from Marcel Widarto