Swedish digital toymakers Toca Boca are the purveyors of the finest toddler-targeted apps around. Here’s how they won over kids (and their parents) with whimsy.
Sweden has always seemed like a land of particular perfection, from its beautiful blonde natives to their impeccable pop music. That reputation for sublimity soars further with Swedish digital toymakers Toca Boca, purveyors of the finest toddler-targeted apps around.
Founded two years ago—as a branch of the 200-year-old, “culturally progressive, humanistic” Bonnier media empire—the Scandinavian studio has managed to breakthrough the overloaded App Store, moving 15 million downloads at an increasingly exponential rate.
Their latest adorable design is the just-released Toca Band, a 16-character musical group that ranges from a tiny orange and blue MC named Stikk Figga and a green teeth-chattering skeleton to a deflating balloon and an alarm clock. The app’s “interactive song” comes courtesy of acclaimed electronic artist Håkan Lidbo, with each instrumental element able to be endlessly reconfigured to remix it on the fly.
The gameplay is as simple, joyful and intuitive as previous efforts like Toca Monster Kitchen, in which you prepare food for monsters; Toca Robot Lab, in which you build and ship robots; and Toca House, in which you do, well, chores. (Honestly, kids seems to love stuff like sweeping and doing dishes right up until they’re any good at it.) They did recently up the complexity level with Toca Train, their first 3D world app, but even that virtual locomotive is easily controllable by a toddler as they cruise along the tracks, picking up people and pumpkins.
My own just-turned-three-year-old Emile loves pretty much everything they’ve built—and E’s got no patience at all for inferior apps, no matter how much he loves using the iPad. The kid even digs saying “toca boca,” which was apparently intentional. The name, which means “touch the mouth” in Spanish and is a play on their logo, was picked in large part because it’s so simple to pronounce in many languages.
So I contacted studio co-founder and CEO Björn Jeffery to find out what Toca Boca seems to be doing right that so many other app-makers aren’t.
“I think many spend too much time thinking, ‘What would I like if I was a kid?,’ as opposed to actually playing with kids and finding out,” posits Jeffery, who attributes Toca’s success to a combination of their “playful brand,” Swedish design aesthetic, and feedback from Stockholm preschools. “Many kids apps that are released have such bad usability that they can hardly have been tested with kids at all. We try to mix it up so that we get both kids that are very used to iPads as well as some [that] are using it for the first time. Our employees’ kids get to try new stuff every week and give us great feedback too, of course.”
I’m a big fan of their whimsical design, which is also reminiscent of Japanese quirky/cute character companies like San-X, home to Kogepan and Afro Ken. But the best part of their games is that they’re not games, per se.
“We try to create toys that are open-ended and that can be used in many different ways. There is no right or wrong; no winning or losing,” he says. “It is very much like physical toys. You can’t win with Play-Doh, for instance. So our challenge has been to take that creative, open-ended play into the digital sphere. To help facilitate and stimulate kids, but ultimately let them decide how they want to play with them.”
There remains, of course, concerns about kids using iPads and iPhones at all, not that that’s stopped the vast majority of parents from handing off their expensive touchscreens to their tiny tots.
“We think that play is a very important and powerful thing. And we think that the technological development is positive, and that it should be used for good. So we’re enabling children to have their first interactive media experiences with these devices, and would like to make sure that they are as fun as possible,” Jeffrey says, while adding they do take such concerns into account. In Toca House, for instance, after doing chores the sun will set and the characters will go to bed, creating a natural stop-point so you can take away the device without the kid melting down because they’re in the midst of play.
“I think there’s a time and a place for everything. We don’t see, or advocate, iPads replacing all other types of play. This is a way of playing, among many others,” says Jeffrey. “At the same time, it is important to differentiate between different types of screens. There is a big difference in passively watching TV and to create music with your fingers. They are both viewed as screens, but are fundamentally very different. And I think parents are realizing this to an increasing extent.”