How Toronto tech developers Sago Sago became a world leader in the booming children’s-app industry.
In an unassuming brick low-rise downtown lies the office of Sago Sago, a Toronto studio specializing in apps for toddlers and young children. The hard wood and open-concept space looks like any modern tech shop, albeit one partially decorated by a preschooler. There’s pink, green, orange, or blue paint adorning accent walls, a windowsill stacked with Magic Pony-type vinyl toys, and boxes of Lego in the boardroom.
Sago Sago is new—sorta. The company, with its young (occasionally purple-haired) 20-person team, has actually been around since 2001 under the name zinc Roe. But, this past spring, they were bought by Toca Boca, the Swedish studio behind the bar-none best kid apps around, and relaunched as their own autonomous brand. (Technically, Sago Sago and Toca Boca operate sister studios parented by 209-year-old Scandinavian publisher, Bonnier.)
“When the iPhone first arrived, we realized this would be great for preschoolers,” explains Jason Krogh—Sago’s shaggy blonde, jeans-and-T-shirted CEO—of the company’s eventual divergence from web work, which included the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics’ children’s site. “We went to a bunch of our clients and partners, and everybody thought we were nuts.”
Undeterred, they created what became their Tickle Tap apps, a series that received a positive critical response but always took a backseat to service work. That is, until Toca Boca boss Björn Jeffrey, who had studied zinc Roe’s apps before launching his own studio, brought the Toronto developers under his wing.
“We were mutual supporters before we ever met face-to-face,” says Krogh. “They would build these apps that were very much based around simple mechanics and had beautiful art direction and sound design—very solid and professional when so many kids’ apps are cheaply thrown together.”
The same high standards apply to the Sago Mini releases, which thus far have been upgraded Tickle Tap reboots, including the music app Sound Box, woodland play-space Forest Flyer, the self-explanatory Bug Builder, and the just-released Doodlecast, which records audio and video while kids are drawing so they can narrate little animated movies. (The latter app was inspired by Krogh’s daughter, who would tell stories while making art.) All are more toy than game, offering up plenty of open-ended tasks for toddlers to do without worrying about goals or achievements.
They’re also notable for their visual design, clearly inspired by the vinyl-toy explosion of recent years.
“There’s certain types of character design that can span wide age ranges, that can appeal to adults and young adults as well as young children,” Krogh says. “With the idea of the giant googly eyed cutesy-cutesy cat—I won’t name names—you start to pigeonhole the audiences a lot. A lot of Toca Boca apps and our apps have a design that goes beyond that and has a broader appeal.”
But does art designed with parents in their 30s in mind make any difference to little kids?
“Not necessarily,” Krogh admits. “You have to be careful with the really stylized stuff. Sometimes, it does a fantastic job of appealing to the parents but, when it comes to the kids, not so much. There are certain qualities that are more important than that. Kids wants to have characters they can empathize with, they want to feel like they’re helping the character in some fashion. The aesthetic choices of how the character is designed are somewhat less important.”
Speaking of aesthetics, Toca Boca apps feel very Swedish, in that they reflect the same pop quirk and stylized design that infuses Robyn songs or IKEA products. Krogh says Sago Sago is similarly influenced by its locale.
“There’s a strong confluence of art and technology in Toronto, which is absolutely essential for the work that we do. In our team, we have a lot of people who come from an arts background and taught themselves to program, or vice-versa. Toronto seems to be a good place, especially in recent years, for that interchange it happen, even though historically those communities were very disparate.”
Of course, no discussion of toddler-targeted tech can ignore the real concerns many parents have about screen time, and Krogh, who has a 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, understands that implicitly.
“We very carefully curate the apps that our daughter plays, and we do the same for TV shows and books,” he says. “People make the assumption that, because I make kids apps, my daughter plays them all the time, and that’s not true at all. It’s normally a thing in the morning, a thing when we’re travelling or in a line-up or at the dentist office. It’s five minutes here, 10 minutes there, and that’s how it works best,” he says. “There are points as a parent where you need to have a shower or get dinner ready or you’re at the end of your rope—so to have something you feel good about your kid doing for 10 minutes is important for everybody’s sanity.
Parental worries persist because technology has never skewed this young before. Sure, older kids have been playing handhelds since Nintendo launched Game Boy almost 25 years ago, but the arrival of touchscreens gave 2- to 5-year-olds similar access.
“A lot of the caution comes from the fact that people get very conservative when it comes to change and children—anything that’s new gets vetted very carefully, as it should. You don’t want to be the first generation to mess up your kids,” he says.
“But in terms of a well-designed app experience, like Toca Band or Sound Box, there’s a strong connection between the play that happens there and the play that happens in physical reality and has happened for decades and decades. A lot of people think ‘app’ and they think of Angry Birds, and that wouldn’t be appropriate. But something like Sound Box is akin to something you’d hang onto the side of a crib for extra stimulation or the classic toy piano with four notes that is still one of the best toys ever.
“A lot of people feel like technology is changing kids,” Krogh adds, “but you also have to look at it like kids are changing technology.”