Developer Alexander Watt Builds Apps to Engage Users in Education

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iOS developer Alexander Watt

Even with a full-time job as a college lecturer, Alexander Watt has built more than half a dozen educational apps.

Today's interview is with independent developer Alexander Watt. In this interview, he answers our questions giving an inside look into what it's like being a part-time iOS developer with a full-time passion. Read on to find out about his apps and how he's using technology to try and get kids engaged in math and learning.

AC: Tell us a little about your company and your background in app development.

Alexander Watt: I work part time, away from my full time job as a college lecturer, developing Apps. My wife says it is a hobby but I am quite serious about it.

I began in May 2011, developing Apps for iOS – based on Maths and Education. The original intention was to fill a gap in the market by using Flash Professional to give the same functionality in a Browser (for use in schools for free) supported by iOS and mobile devices for download. 

AC: What are some of the apps you've created? How many have you released to the App Store?

Alexander Watt: Mainly Maths – and some form of "trainer" Fraction Trainer, Logarithm Trainer, Factorisation Trainer. But also some more general apps (of a similar format): Capital Cities Trainer, British Battle Dates, French Verbs trainer … and of course, MathsTrainers.

AC: How do you get your ideas for new apps?

Alexander Watt: As I don’t have a serious amount of time to develop Apps (working full time with a young family) they tend to follow the same multiple choice structure.

So anything that requires a question in a certain format and multiple choice answers that the user will have to think about is open for target: there are many ideas, but as I am a qualified Maths Teacher, I understand the difficulties students have with Maths and hope to provide something that will help them develop their Maths or Numeracy skills.

The options can be limitless – on top of this I get ideas from friends and family.

AC: What does it take to make a great app?

Alexander Watt: A very subjective question – I do consider that MathsTrainers is far better than my previous offerings: why?

As it was developed using Xcode and Objective-C the user interface matches far more closely with other Apps users are familiar with. It is important to get the user quickly on your side, so the interface needs to be quite slick and intuitive.

The App needs to provide some incentive to use it. MathsTrainers has many such incentives:

  1. Maths practice helps students
  2. Different modes allow the student to work the App in a way that suits them
  3. Different levels cater for different abilities and provide progression
  4. Recording of results shows progression
  5. Use of Bluetooth for head-to-head gaming intensifies the experience
  6. Downloadable upgrades provides increased functionality

A great app may be one that sells well – but, this may be down to marketing.

AC: How do you balance design and function during app development? Do you think one is more important than the other for an app to be successful?

Alexander Watt: Function is the backbone of the App – the thing that will keep users coming back to it – if function is flaky or limited then users will soon get fed up.

Design is crucial to how the user feels about using the App – a slick interface encourages use and promotes others to use it (user says to friend: look at this: wow).

Function and Design are equally important in my view. Without either users will soon get turned off.

AC: How long does it typically take to get an app from idea to App Store?

Alexander Watt: Typically using Flash Professional it took about a week (working in the evenings to create a new App).

For MathsTrainers, it required learning XCode, Objective-C, and then the different functionality I desired to put into the App: in all about 4 months of effort in the evenings and weekends…

AC: What excites you about the current development atmosphere for iOS devices? Where do you see the platform a year from now?

Alexander Watt: The latest gaming and cloud storage featrues, along with inherent hardware functions stimulates a lot of opportunity in App development.

However, I am more interested in the cheaper end of App development and the mass market – to make the Apps interesting, but not to go with the very latest features of iOS and hardware. I want my Apps to appeal to those who want to develop skills (training) but may have limited hardware available (I see the cost of 3G iPod touch and iPhone 3GS devices coming down): but I can still take advantage of important user experience features like:

  1. recording results to file
  2. using timing functionality to improve user pace
  3. use Bluetooth for head-to-head
  4. (a particular advantage of Bluetooth is that no WiFi connection is required and that is particularly important in some schools)
  5. use Bluetooth for teacher monitoring – uploading results and trending pupil performance

AC: What are the biggest challenges in iOS developemnt? Is there anything you'd like to see added to the platform in future updates?

Alexander Watt: The biggest challenge is integration with third party hardware (e.g. Android and iOS head-to-head via Bluetooth).

I don’t see this happening in the near future.

From my perspective I want teachers to start using iPod, iPhone, iPad devices on a bigger scale; therefore they need to be provided by developers with Apps that will support their heavy workloads. Apps need to be suitable for students’ learning needs; be scaleable; easy to use and monitor; and above all engaging.

I don’t see engaging as necessarily providing fancy graphics, or childish gameplay, but more a style of competitiveness and immersion in the functionality.

AC: How do you get the word out about your apps? Do you have any marketing tips you can share?

Alexander Watt: With so many Apps on the go I am trying a lot of different angles in order to promotes my Apps – not very successfully I might add.

  • I have two dedicated websites (www.trapps.co.uk and www.mathstrainers.co.uk),
  • I try to incorporate links to the websites from within the Apps (even through a simple piece of text);
  • I use Google Adwords and Analytics to try to promote interest in the websites;
  • I try to engage friends without trying to bore them too much (people can turn off quickly to anything Maths);
  • I am keen to engage others on the internet with similar interests (especially on webpages that promote similar Apps);
  • I am responding to this interview;
  • I am always on the lookout for entities that are looking for new Apps to use/ promote/ advertise;
  • I have started to use In-App purchase within my MathsTrainers App, with a basic download presented for FREE;
  • I have avoided using the iAd network as yet: I don’t consider it appropriate for children’s use.

AC: Besides your own of course, what is your favorite app right now?

Alexander Watt: I like a few: Sudoku Joy, Amazon, Emoji Free, Words with Friends, BBC News, SoundPrism, PoolBreakLite.

AC: What apps do you use on a daily basis?

Alexander Watt: MathsTrainers, Words with Friends, and PoolBreakLite. I used to use Soduko Joy on a daily basis

AC: Do you have any new apps in development? What can we expect to see from your company in the near future?

Alexander Watt: I would like to develop a teacher monitoring App to accompany MathsTrainers, for classroom use – so that the teacher and others in the class (through video connection) can see in real-time the game play and head-to-head challenges going on between individuals in the class. This would also allow the teacher to send individualised homework targets to students (e.g. practice integers at level 2 and score 10 out of 10 in under 23 seconds for tomorrow) along with ease of upload of how they did.

Another App in the concept stage is one for sizing pipes for plumbers and welders.

I have many ideas – some Maths related; some relating to college; all with a positive focus on education. I don’t want to be lured into making a game that is there just for the idea of making money…well not yet.

AC: Any last words? What else would you like our readers to know about your company?

Alexander Watt: I am the company. So from that viewpoint, my intentions are to see some ground-breaking development towards engaging youngsters with education by the use of technology.

I would like to hear from others who have similar interests and focus on learning and give critical feedback on my Apps. Continuous improvement is the key here – not to give up through lack of demand – to keep pushing without being pushy.

Alexander Watt has offered some interesting insight into his development process and goals. Please take a moment to thank him by sending a message on Twitter or share this article with a friend to spread the word about his educational apps. If you have additional questions, ask them in the comments and we'll get you the answers!

Contact Alexander Watt

Website: www.mathstrainers.co.uk
Twitter: @trapps1

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