This is a story about My Underwear.
Not my underwear — but “My Underwear” — the mobile game for children from my old game studio. More importantly, it’s about the hard work of building accessible products, about finding and fuelling previously unreachable audiences (niche markets on the internet), and ultimately about creating joy for people using our products and for ourselves personally.
How do you go about selling a paid game to hundreds of thousands of children, who don’t have app store accounts, don’t have money, many of whom cannot read, and usually don’t even own the device they’ll be playing on?
It began by accident
Let me rewind to the beginning. My co-founder Ron and I were building mobile games during what I call “the trough”. The trough is the period after the app store “gold rush”, but before the lucrative “free to play” model existed. It was rough going, and highlighted all the issues with the mobile market. I wrote about it here.
We ended up connecting with a children’s author and artist who was looking to break into the digital space. That alone should have raised enough red flags for us to walk away, however this was the NY Times best-selling author Todd Parr. Our own young children were reading and loving his books, so we had to find a way to make this work.
Tip: one market success does not ensure another market’s success
After some pretty agreeable licensing negotiations, it was time to build an awesome game. But as we would later find out, since our players would be kids it would be ridiculously hard to please them.
It didn’t take long for us to agree on what would be included in the game — it was four mini-games — and we even had some pieces working pretty quickly. And being a good product manager I started testing the working components with real people. Real, little people.
The wonderful thing about children is that they have no filter. Product testing with them results in direct, humbling, and sometime hysterical feedback. In our case it did all of these, but specifically they called out our glaring misstep regarding text. Every interstitial screen, the in-between screens for success, failure, next, replay, and so on, was basically all text. And most of our testers couldn’t read.
Not only could our little players not read, we were also reminded of Todd’s huge international fan base. If there was a way to avoid having to interpret and localize our game into foreign language kid-speak, we wanted it.
Thankfully we were still pretty early into the project. Perhaps we should have got out then, but no, we tackled this head on.
There was a huge amount of work to figure out, design, test, and fix each of these screens. In the end, we shipped with about 10% of the original text. And most, though admittedly not all, was additive if you could read and was not crucial to playing the game. Here are some zero-text and almost-no-text examples that tested really well.
In the end, this extra effort cost us nearly a month. For a start-up, that was a heavy toll. But at this point we were still delusionally confident in Todd’s brand and our expertise.
Our product launch
The big day arrived and we shipped our game to the world. We were elated, relieved, and anxious. Thanks to some pre-seeded app codes, some well-timed game reviews, and combined social marketing efforts our game took off in the charts. Within a couple of days (remember, it moved slower back then) we were in the top 100 games. There was no doubt we’d keep skyrocketing upwards.
But just as fast as we were shooting up, we began plummeting downward. It was devastating.
Tip: one does not simply overtake the charts
We panicked. How would we meet our guarantees for the licensing? How would we earn back the money we spent building this game?
Before we had lost all hope, a post came in on our Facebook feed. It was a mother writing to us about the game. But she was not the one we were expecting. (That’s key.) She was the mother of a child on the Autism spectrum. And she had posted a video of her child playing our game.
At first read/watch, it didn’t completely register. But then we watched again, and this time really listened to what she was whispering…“Hi Player 02*[Ron], my name’s [Mom] and this is my son. He’s 10. He is Autistic and really struggles to stay focused on anything. This is hour three of him playing My Underwear… I haven’t had this long of a break in years. Thank you!”
Charts vs Joy. Why not both?
Ron and I pulled ourselves together and got to work. We had just experienced our first taste of everything Seth Godin refers to when he says ship your best art. Show up. Build trust and relationships. We had just uncovered an accidental niche market.
And so we did the exact opposite of every conventional marketing tome. We spent nothing and simply jumped in with both feet…as learners, as people who wanted to know other people and what motivated them and what pained them.
It took a lot of time. I met with local teachers, professionals, and parents with or involved with children who had special needs. Ron did the same. We read, joined online groups, asked a million questions, and absorbed.
For a while I all but forgot about the charts. I was busy giving away app codes to mommy bloggers, and to organizations focused on children on the autism or Aspergers spectrum. Days were spent interacting with parents on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and then tweaking the game to make it even more approachable.
It felt sudden, even though it wasn’t, but before we realized it the game had grown and spread. Our ferociously passionate and uber-networked “little” niche had propelled the game to success. We went from not much more than friends and family owning the game to hundreds of thousands of paid installs. These fans had spread the word for us, and their purchases pushed us up the charts creating even more organic lift.
The best part of it all was that we were satisfied. Not rich, not resigned to some lesser fate, but satisfied. Filled with joy you can’t buy, steal, or lose. And that tops any chart there is.
The story of My Underwear is not unusual – except for the fact that it’s about underwear. In our get-rich-quick society it’s tough to listen to advice that says “just keep at it”. But it would behove us all to pay attention to My Underwear.
Build for accessibility
I’ve never once seen a spreadsheet, chart, or business teaching that shows how to measure ROI on accessibility. I do know that it gets swept under the rug all too often for shinier, simpler calculations like user acquisition cost or lifetime value. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done it, too. And I ought to remember since I’ve lived this. (Even more on why here.)
For My Underwear, though, the initial focus on picky and outspoken children made taking the leap to even broader accessibility that much easier. I had no way of defining the revenue impact — other than the negative cost it had initially. So I listened to my heart. One of the scariest, and most worthwhile, “business” decisions I’ve made in the last 20 years.
Accessibility is broad, but easier than you think
Making sure that everyone can use and enjoy a product sounds like a daunting task. But in my experience it is never as difficult as I make it out to be in my mind. Like any good style guide or template, once I can define the interaction elements then part of shipping the product includes passing the acceptance criteria.
On touch screens, ensuring that screen readers have tags to read (instead of “button”, the label should be “submit”) is crucial. Strong visual contrast of text, action areas, and buttons can be applied universally. Stay cautious around rapid animations — allow a user to slow them down or turn them off to avoid headaches or seizures.
For my game example, once we had the core elements defined it was just a matter of implementation. Of course we figured it out later than I would have liked, and so had to go back and retrofit some of the changes. Hopefully you can avoid that one.
Don’t build for everyone, focus
Along the way to releasing My Underwear I was pressured from many people to make it appeal to the infamous “everyone”. But this was always supposed to be a kid’s game.
When adults would tell me the pacing of the “monster eating underwear” mini-game was much too slow, I nodded and then ignored them. Why? Because the true test audience (2 to 8 year olds) could barely keep up with the seemingly painfully slow interactions. And the same held true for our audience of people with special needs.
To focus, we are required to make choices, sometimes hard or scary choices. But that’s what makes a product stand out, makes it matter. For My Underwear we chose to focus on accessibility and delighting young kids. And what I got in return was pure joy.