Toca Hair Salon is one of the most popular apps from Toca Boca, the kids’ app developer with offices in Stockholm, New York, and San Francisco. Set within a lively, candy-colored hair salon, it’s a game of endless and ever-morphing style options. Hair can be shaved off in one second, then grown back out the next. Bouncy curls can be made stick straight with just a few swipes of the screen. Even the gender of the clientele offers up an array of choices—there are male and female characters, but also a few whose genders are ambiguous.
That last part was especially important to Toca Boca, says Mathilda Engman, the company’s head of consumer products. “A hair salon is a theme and a play pattern that’s traditionally very targeted toward girls, glamour, looks, and beauty. Ours is the opposite—it’s about the creativity of cutting hair and styling hair,” she says. “Characters have that quirkiness so that they’re inviting for everyone.”
Toca Boca is one of a growing number of kids’ app companies that makes it a priority to appeal to kids across gender boundaries. Companies such as the Brooklyn-based Tinybop and the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Sumdog are also deliberately designing their games to be gender neutral, diverse, and inclusive. And despite the common wisdom that targeting a specific gender is a profitable marketing tactic, designing for inclusiveness actually comes with one very obvious business advantage. As Engman points out: “Not excluding half of the population is actually more profitable.”
Raul Gutierrez agrees. He’s the CEO of Tinybop, the educational app company behind beautiful science-based games such as Plants and The Human Body. For Tinybop, the importance of gender neutrality lies in creating science games that don’t exclude females and minorities, two groups that are chronically underrepresented in STEM fields.“Science is neutral, it’s not specific to gender,” Gutierrez says. “When I was ironing out the company, I wasn’t making a political statement. I just wanted to reach as many kids as possible. To me, appealing to kids broadly is just good business.”
For both Tinybop and Toca Boca, the mission to make their apps gender neutral was a priority from day one. Achieving that goal, however, is an ongoing process, and one that involves an investment in research, an iterative design strategy, and several rounds of consumer testing. Since neither company collects data on its users (collecting personal data from kids continues to be a controversial issue), the two companies rely on case studies for information on how kids use their apps, which games they find most compelling, and why.
Take Tinybop’s popular Robot Factory, for instance. The game allows kids to drag different parts onto a body to build limitless variations of wildly inventive robots, from multi-legged automatons that look like mechanical insects to bulbous, pink BB-8-esque bots. Beautifully designed and equally engaging for boys and girls (not to mention adults), the game was named one of Apple’s 2015 Best of App Store apps.
But the first iteration of Robot Factory was very different from the final product. The original design only included the parts for more traditional robots (think Doctor Who‘s Cybermen or Star Wars‘ droids), which proved to be less popular with girls. “We would give the app to lots of kids, and I found that both boys and girls were referring to the robots as ‘he,’” he says. So they went back to the drawing board—dreaming up more eccentric parts and giving the game a more vibrant color palette. Then they brought kids into the office for play testing.
“By time we finished, it was pretty even,” says Gutierrez. “Many girls were creating robots that they were referring to as ‘she,’ and boys were creating girl robots, too. One older girl was building a boyfriend. Many times, kids were building a proxy of themselves—a better, faster version. Having the ability for kids to see what they want to see with these games is important.”
Toca Boca also tests their apps through case studies, both by bringing kids into their offices and making school visits. “We don’t have any clear rules or a recipe for how to do unisex products in a uniform way,” says Engman. “There are several questions we continue to ask ourselves during development. What are the colors? What are the characters able to do in the situations we put them in? It’s also dependent on the play patterns we put [the different characters] in.” Like Toca Hair Salon, each of their games is deliberately designed to avoid gender stereotypes, so that boys will feel just as comfortable playing a game set in a hair salon as girls will making mad scientist concoctions in Toca Lab.
Despite deliberate efforts toward gender neutrality, both Gutierrez and Engman feel that their companies, as well as their industry as a whole, still have work to do. Being vocal about how they develop their apps—and how successful and profitable they’ve become doing it—is one way they encourage their fellow app makers. In June, for example, Tinybop and Toca Boca took part in a panel at Tech With Kids’ Developing Apps for Kids conference in San Francisco that focused on designing diversity in kids’ apps. Speaking with professionals across the industry—including an executive at the STEM-focused toy company Goldiblox and the director of content at PBS Kids Digital—they addressed an audience of tech industry folk about the importance of designing products that reflect the diversity of their users, starting at a young age.
So why do kids’ app developers seem to be leading the way toward gender neutrality in the toy industry? Gutierrez says that part of it could be that app stores don’t have gender-divided aisles for boys and girls like physical toy stores often do (notably, Toys R Us in the U.K. recently did away with the practice). Jess Day, who helps run Let Toys Be Toys, a U.K.-based campaign promoting gender fluidity in toy design, suggests that the “physical package” children experience apps through—such as mobile devices and tablets—are usually perceived as gender neutral, which helps as well. “Games can offer a real chance for children to play across traditional gender boundaries, not least because the tablet looks the same whatever they’re doing,” she writes in an email.
Then there’s a broader cultural shift to consider, spurred by a growing awareness of a lack of women in STEM fields. If more women are designing kids’ apps, those apps are likely to be more balanced in their appeal to all genders (over half of Tinybop’s 20-person team is made up of women). Gutierrez’s approach is simple: “If we do our jobs, we’re creating apps that all kids can use,” he says. Shouldn’t that be the objective for all toy designs?