Narrowing down the feature set


After several hours of “negotiation” with the students, they finally agreed that getting the app into the app store sooner rather than later is worth giving up some features that they came up with. Our goal was to submit the app to iTunes just before Christmas, 2012.

Ideally, coming out for the Christmas season, and doing a big PR push would have been great, but we started in mid-October. It’s just not possible to build an app, stabilize and get it through the iTunes approval process in such a tight timeframe.

Of course, prior to even meeting with the students, I had built all of the “plumbing” of the app. I had a picture in mind of how it should operate, and what the cloud-based server should do. I assumed (rather incorrectly) that there idea of the app would simply be a revision of what I had engineered over the prior two months.

This “raw” product was an iPhone/iPad/iPod app that maintained a list of gifts kids would want (stored on the mobile device), and would allow the kid to search the web for adding new gifts. Since our engineers had already built a “safe search” product (McGruff SafeGuard Child Safe Browser), we were starting with safe search technology. I also added the ability to take a photo of a toy and add it to the wishlist, or scan a barcode and add it to the wishlist.

The only reason I included some cloud-based storage was to enable sending the wishlist to the parent. The app would send the wishlist to the cloud server, and the cloud server would email the parent a link to the website specific for their child. When the parent clicked on the link, they would see the child’s most recent wishlist.

In the end, this was about 20% of what we actually needed on the cloud server.

Anyway, here’s what the kids settled on:

– A screen to show their list of gifts
– A way to invite their friends (via skype, email using their contacts)
– Post the gift to instagram
– A good help system
– Ability to include photos and scan barcodes
– Be able to search the web for toys
– Have a list of friends
– Send their wishlist to friends
– Share their wishlist with friends
– Have an inbox with a NEW MAIL icon
– Have a settings screen
– Have an ablity to specify the parent’s, grandparent’s, etc. email
– Ability to send the list to yourself

With that list more-or-less reasonable, we were ready to plan out the user interface.

This blog describes how 5th-8th grade students helped build the free iPhone/iPad/iPod app WishToList; info at


This could be a great video

class2By the fourth or fifth app club meeting, the students were so excited about their app becoming a reality, that I could picture how this would make a great video.

They were learning how to think like engineers or designers, and really understand the tradeoffs of each decision. One student would come up with an idea, other students would expand on it, others would critique it, and eventually turn it into a screen or series of screens.

I purchased video camera and tripod, and let students volunteer to video record each app club meeting. By the time we were done, we had about 45 hours of video (not counting interviews or screenshots), and with some editing, this could make an interesting Discover Channel or Nova special. But that’s for future blog.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if you want to see what Channel 7 Miami did with the videos we made, watch this news report.

This blog describes how 5th-8th grade students helped build the free iPhone/iPad/iPod app WishToList; info at

What kids wanted in their “Wish List” app

In our first real brainstorming session, the students told me what they thought the app should include. About 20 students came to class. We discussed how its important to write down every idea, and then select which ideas should go into the initial version.

I explained how “Version One” of an app should have the minimal set of features to make the app viable. It’s easy to add new features to an app; its not easy to determine what’s important for Version One, and what’s not.

Remember – the purpose of the app is for children to be able to create a “Wish List” for their birthday or holiday. They would add items to their wish list, change the order of items until the list is perfect, and then send the list to their parents.

So here’s what they thought of:

– little characters next to a help button
– password profiles
– game like Tiny Farm with goals, levels and lists
– interactive game
– voice control for iPhone 4S & up
– design their own shoe (like Nike)
– toy of the day
– “similar toy” search
– interact with friends
– avatar of themself
– categories of toys
– search, get a picture and download
– most popular toy of the week
– link of the toy to send to parents
– online registry of links
– instagram connection
– hairstyle of the day
– social network featuers
– tickets to stuff (concerts, etc.)
– digital giftcards
– download music
– scan barcode of toys
– parental control password
– block bad users
– draw your own picture of something
– scan yourself
– free trial of games
– online gift registry
– friends & their pictures
– friend can buy toy for you, as a gift, with a button push
– see what your friends want
– my top 4 toys
– priceline for toys
– angry-bird like interaction
– take picture of what you want, and see all stores where that toy is sold
– rate toys 1-10
– have the seach include price or price range

They also started their initial naming of the app. They came up with these on the same day:

We clearly have a lot of work ahead of us.

This blog describes how 5th-8th grade students helped build the free iPhone/iPad/iPod app WishToList; info at

The First Class Meeting – Building the WishToList App

class1We had about 25 students attend the first after school club, ranging from 4th to 8th graders.

The Cushman School had never offered anything like this before, and the students never met a real “insider” to the computer/software industry, so I spent the entire class just fielding questions….

“How does SIRI work?” – I went on to explain how it was built on the same technology that I studied back at Carnegie-Mellon University in the AI lab when we were researching voice recognition.

“Can we build a game?” – We could, but that wasn’t the purpose of the class.  Games are a different beast, and a game really has to be unique to be worthwhile building it.  The App Store doesn’t need another Angry Birds.

“What’s in the phone?” – I drew analogies between the phone and a computer, and explained how the iPhone is more powerful than the computers that we used to send a man to the moon.  They were amazed that computer (when I was in high school) took up an entire room, and was less powerful and stored less than their mobile device.

“What can we put in the app?” – Anything, as long as we all think it will improve the app.  I explained the development process – we’ll write down every idea, determine if it belongs in the app, and then start to build it.

“How much will we sell it for?”.  We’ll make it free, so every kids can play with it.

“Can it work on Samsung?” – Not just yet.  We’ll do it for the iPhone, iPad and iPod, and if it becomes popular, we’ll build it for the other phones.

“Can I try it out yet?” – No, we have not built it yet.

“How long will it take to build?” – A couple of months.

“Can it have icons or avatars?” – Yes.  Let’s add that to the list of ideas.

And on it went.  I got to know the kids, and they got to know my style of conducting a class.  Each time, one of the teachers would stop by to watch what we were doing, and ask some questions as well.

This blog describes how 5th-8th grade students helped build the free iPhone/iPad/iPod app WishToList; info at