September 14, 2009

iPhone StoryKit app - kids write stories on phones

Children writing books on mobile phones? That certainly seems unlikely - so how did we get to the point where actually built an app to support it?

A long time ago, my colleagues and I started building the International Children's Digital Library to make a safe and high quality place where kids could go to read books and learn about cultures from around the world.

Then, last year we decided to try and support children reading on mobile devices - we made an iPhone app to let kids read picture books from the ICDL.

Now we went further and decided to build an app that lets kids write books on their iPhones (or iPod Touches). Search for "storykit" in the appstore or get it from iTunes. You can take pictures, create drawings, record sounds, and yes of course - write actual words. Then automatically post it to a website and share with your friends.

Give it a try - especially with your kids - and let me know how it works.


Bijan Parsia said...

Hi Ben,

I'm visiting my nephews (4 and 6) in Brooklyn and have made a few stories with them using StoryKit. The experience has been really good overall. They love it; I found it fun and reasonably easy.

As I write this, I can hear them upstairs reading one of the stories we've written :)

A few thoughts:

1) The web viewer would be more kid friendly if it had a "Page at a time" mode. My nephews *can* scroll, but it doesn't seem that great (I had to move where the MacOS doc was, for example, and even then it seems awkward compared to the iPhone experience.)

2) Being able to manipulate the text a bit better, esp. font size, would be welcome.

3) I wanted to have undo on the paint page. It was a little awkward to go back to the layout page and the undo undid too much.

4) I'd love to have a full screen mode for reading. They much prefer the swipe navigation.

5) It'd be nice to have a library page for my books. I'm going to make a web page myself for that, but I can imagine that for a lot of people (and kids) that's not really feasible.

I can think of a lot of features I wouldn't mind having, both in creation and in reading, but there's something appealing about the simplicity, even the poverty, of the feature set. In the end, my nephews are loving it to the point of distraction. So thanks!

Alex said...

Thanks for the nice comments, Bijan. I've been working with Dr. Bederson on StoryKit and wrote much of the code for this release. When we launched StoryKit we really didn't know if people would be interested in making stories on an iPhone. The feedback so far has been encouraging.
The improvements you suggest are interesting. It shows you've used the app a fair amount and given it some thought. That's great! The first three have been on our to do list for a while, but we just didn't have time to fit them in before the last release. Those 3 things would definitely make it better.

Full screen reading (#4) sounds nice, but the design is challenging due to details with image aspect ratios (i.e. tall and skinny versus more square). In the edit screen, there are two button bars, one on top and one at the bottom. Thus, when you create new books, the pages are more square (320x372, specifically). Hiding the toolbars on the Read screen would give you more vertical room, but unless you stretched the page vertically (making everything look taller), it wouldn't actually make the page bigger.

A library page (#5) makes perfect sense. We just haven't been able to decide on the right way to do it without sacrificing simplicity. With most apps, you'd create an account and then log in to see all of your stories. However, we didn't want to force people to create an account, remember a password, send us their email address, etc. We could put a link to other stories from the same device at the bottom, but some people might not want to share *all* of their stories a the same time. I'm not sure. If you have ideas, we'd be most interested.

Again, thanks for the nice feedback and design suggestions!

Bijan Parsia said...

Hi Alex, thanks for your reply.

I agree that changing the aspect ratio is an issue, but in other draw programs like sketchbookx, even the edit mode doesn't have a tool bar all the time. I think I'd prefer that, or to have the whole screen zoom in or out.

However, the simplest thing would also work for me, letterboxing. The problem isn't the overall size, it's that the controls detract. Putting a black strip at the top and bottom when in read mode (or just at the top), would be great.

I agree that some people might want to be more selective about their stories...but is that the common case? I mean, which users should we burden with coding HTML by hand...the people who want to share all their stories easily, or those who want to maybe share some stories, maybe not others? (People who want a story by story control are no worse off in either case.) It seems to me that sharing all is better supported by default. (Which happens to be my preference ;))

A simple flag in the details pane could also be sufficient. This could extend to arbitrary categories if one really wanted too, each with a corresponding library page.

None of this requires sign in, I don't think.

Oh, one feature I forgot that would be really nice is being able to share stories phone to phone. I live in England, all my nephews and my niece live in New York. We were able to collaborate on the current stories because I'm visiting, but I'd like them to be able to add sounds via their mother's phone. Clearly that *does* require some sort of authentication/authorization. (But surely an email from storykit should do the job?)

I can even imagine creating story templates, i.e., multimedia madlibs that kids (or others) could customize.

Anyway, I'm really enjoying the software, so thanks! The house is resounding with cries of "Zebra CREEEEAAAAAAM"! :)

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

Hi Bijan,

Toolbars that drop in and out are a trade-off of screen space versus usability. We worked regularly in the lab with a group of kids and elder adults on the design of StoryKit. They were our design partners and contributed greatly to what you see. Especially when creating stories together (pairs side-by-side), they really wanted the tools right out there and available all the time. The letterbox idea sounds like a possible solution to eliminating visual clutter. Since people once to play a sound, we'd have to be careful about using the same gesture to show/hide the controls. But I think that or something like it could do the trick.

As for privacy with story sharing, we had to be conservative. Different people have different thresholds, so we had to either cater to the most privacy-conscious users or give people lots of control, which would add complexity. Now that we've seen that people like the app and are sharing multiple stories, we may well revisit this. We'd also like to give people a way to share their stories publicly if they so desire. Currently, stories are not public unless the creator chooses to spread the link around.

Phone-to-phone sharing was part of our original plan that we just didn't get time for. Doing that and making the experience smooth and reliable like people expect would take a lot of development time.

Multimedia mad-libs sound fun. The idea with including the four public domain books was to let people change the story text and/or add new photos/sounds. Indeed, even more guided activities would be great.

Thanks again for the great suggestions and your overall enthusiasm. We always have multiple projects going and more on the plate than we can do completely, but from the feedback we've been receiving, I can see that some more updates would be well received.

gregor said...

Hey, just to let you know I did a story yesterday for my 2 kids (4 and 2) about our trip to the zoo that day. It was really quick and fun to put together, and the kids loved it-- we read it back together several times, and they were repeating the text with me. I think we'll use this a lot -- thanks for the inspired app!

Bijan Parsia said...

A follow up.

My mother had a storytime session at my nephew's school which she finish off with a reading/display of Zebra Cream (on of the stories I did). It was a big hit. The other kids were all saying that they wished THEIR uncle wrote stories with them.

Win win win.

OTOH, I've a bunch of stories started but not completed. Since I'm living so far away, I thought having sharing stories would be a good way to interact with the boyos. But there seem to be some barriers to my using it again. Part of it, I think, is that I want to do some slightly more sophisticated stories and the text handling just doesn't seem right for that.

gatewayesl said...

Just wanted to let you know I've been loving using this with my ESL students (ages 6 to 8). They got the hang of it really quickly, are very critical of their recordings (re-recording without me prompting them to!), and can't wait to share their stories once we've published them!

Heather Bitka said...

I love using StoryKit in the classroom. My students write and record stories often. I agree with a past post that sharing between devices would be a wonderful feature also it would be helpful if when recording your voice you could still see the words that were written.

Ben Bederson said...

Thanks Heather. Those very two features are the next on our queue. We are working on this slowly, but are making progress.

- Ben

Sample Teacher Blog said...

Thanks fo rthis engaging software. I use it in multiple schools for various grade levels. ALl other users have listed the 'wish list'-font changes, sharing between devices, but especially difficult is not being able to save the story any other way than the website. We want to put some of these into student portfolios, but can't because there is no way to download them from the website or save them as a movie file.

Ben Bederson said...

"Sample Teacher",

We have a student that is going to try to add support for exporting stories in EPUB format (which will be readable in any ebook reader). We'll consider other formats as well - but supporting the scrollable textboxes and audio would be impossible in PDF, so not sure we want to export into a format that doesn't support all the content...

- Ben