Reward Kids To Encourage Reading: Q and A With Founder Of Bookboard

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


A Bookboard dashboard shows time a child spends reading.

A Bookboard dashboard shows time a child spends reading.

by Beth Bacon

Bookboard is a subscription-based children’s digital book company. This publisher was founded by User Experience experts from Macromedia and Adobe, so they have an in-depth understanding of digital publishing tools and file formats.

Bookboard performs extensive research to understand how children and parents actually interact with their titles. Based on their discoveries, Bookboard built “rewards” into the system to encourage kids to read more. They also learned co-reading is of vital importance to parents—so they crafted their service to encourage sharing. Here’s an excerpt from our recent Question And Answer session:

Q: Tell us about how and why your company started.

NIGEL PEGG: Since the rapid adoption of touch-screens, kids are being exposed to constant interaction with software before learning to read. We’re here to make sure there is software that helps motivate kids to develop literacy skills and good reading habits; everything we design and build is focused through that lens.

Q: Why did you choose a subscription model for your digital book library?

NIGEL PEGG: The biggest pain we saw in most tablet reading experiences is that for a kid to choose a new book to read, they need to beg Mom and Dad to buy it for them. A subscription model means this friction disappears – kids are empowered to drive the entire process of choosing what they want to read, which is hugely motivating.

Another important aspect that subscription models provide is that there’s a time element involved. Everyone wants novelty, for things to change and stay fresh over time, and kids are especially sensitive to this. As kids read, Bookboard starts to unlock and suggest new content. Based on choices kids make, their collection gets better—it progresses with their changing interests, pace, and reading level.

We wanted to build a product that grows and evolves with kids, that they can enjoy for years down the road. A subscription model is the best way for us to sustain that kind of relationship with customers. (For more on this subject, check out this post on our blog.

A screen from a Bookboard picture book.

A screen from a Bookboard picture book.

Q: Your titles includes picture books, books for beginning readers, and chapter books. How do you acquire them? 

NIGEL PEGG: We wanted to cover the full range of kids’ lit, and help kids make the transition from one type of book to the next. We take a balanced approach in acquiring content for our library:  (1) look for publishing partners who share in our vision of leveraging technology to encourage kids to read, and (2) work with our librarian to develop our collection, finding fun and educational stories that we think families and kids will love.

 Q: How interactive are your titles?

NIGEL PEGG: Our approach has been to limit in-book interactivity to focus on text; kids can tap on text to expand it to more easily read it, or have Mom, Dad or Bookboard read it to them. This is intentional—we fundamentally believe that books aren’t broken. There are lots of multimedia-interactive ‘narrative-experiences’ out there, which is an interesting new medium in its own right. But for us, reading is about learning to focus, lean in, and use imagination to bring text and images to life—it’s a valuable skill that kids need to learn as early as they can, especially in this era.

As parents, we’ve seen enough experiences where interactivity actually distracts from connecting to the story and one another, and kids can become overly focused on tapping around for multimedia gratification. There’s obviously plenty of room for both kinds of media, but we’re much more interested in building motivation around the skill of reading as it’s always been. We’ve got a blog post on this subject as well, citing research around ebook interactivity.

We believe the most powerful things that a digital medium helps with are distribution and discovery. Software gives us an environment where we can use deeply technical techniques like recommendation engines to suggest just the right book at the right time. It also lets us put the process of discovering new stories into a game-like context, adding incentives such as collecting rewards.

Q: Who is your main audience, parents, schools, libraries or others?

NIGEL PEGG: Initially, we’ve chosen parents as the primary audience. We wanted to start by going most directly to kids’ homes; family story-time is a tangible setting, which we thought we could really relate to and design for while we got a feel for the space. It’s caused us to really focus on the co-reading experience, and designing interaction patterns that work for both kids and parents simultaneously, helping make co-reading the bonding experience we all know it should be.

In the process of promoting Bookboard, we’ve had a lot of interest from librarians and teachers, wanting to know how this could apply to their work – we’re already starting to look at how we can help solve problems for those folks too.

Q: Your service includes “rewards”. How do they work?

NIGEL PEGG: Our reward system is simple on its surface but very carefully designed and (in the words of one parent) “shockingly effective”.

Reading is both the challenge and the reward: we start kids off with a sampler of 25 books, with a fair amount of variety. As they enter Bookboard, kids are made aware early and often that there’s a game afoot: Read a book, and they’ll unlock a new one to add to their collections.

Once they finish that challenge, we ramp up the difficulty and go again: read 2 more, and they’ll unlock yet another. This continues at individual kids’ pace, with increasing novelty, choice, and pride of ownership as they accomplish more.

This unlocking over time also gives Bookboard an opportunity to progress along with kids’ interests and reading level. So as a kid starts taking on more difficult material, this unlocking and collecting of new content helps make those transitions at a manageable pace.

Evidence of that kid’s progress is everywhere in Bookboard, from the login screen (where we display a “scoreboard” of books read and unlocked within the family), to the parental analytic screens, down to the kid’s collection itself, which continues to grow.

We don’t just “think” this mechanic motivates kids,  we’ve measured it. As I’ve said, we’re big software nerds; we love large data-science kinds of problems. One of the things we can do at Bookboard is take aggregate measurements of what the community of readers is up to, and how engaged they are as a whole.

Back in October of last year, we had a substantial beta community to whom we hadn’t introduced unlocking. We gave them access to a couple hundred books right off the bat. We could measure how much time (in aggregate) was spent looking at the catalog versus time spent reading the books. What we discovered initially was surprising: kids were spending more time seeing what was available than actually reading. It was too much choice, and not enough reward.

This seems intuitive to us now, but the problem took a leap of faith to solve. Once we switched to an unlocking mechanic, “absolute time spent reading” increased by a large rate in the same population of readers. It was right there in front of us. This was really the “a-ha” moment: we can use data-science to help design software that promotes positive behavior.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge to starting an ebook company in Silicon Valley?

NIGEL PEGG:  Most startups in Silicon Valley would tell you that their biggest challenge has been building the right team. There’s so much competition for talent and attention, especially now. We’re no exception; it took us a long time to find great people with the mix of talents we needed to jump in. Thankfully, we’ve made it over the initial hump, but we’re still looking for more great people.

Q: Where do you see digital children’s books in 3 years? 5 years?

NIGEL PEGG: A great article just came out of the Pew Research Center, and for us, it was mana. If you look at where parents are saying digital kids’ books are falling short, the two biggest pieces were co-reading and sharing.

If these are where the gaps for customers are, we think the market will need to adapt to fill them. As we’ve said, co-reading is one of our core design goals, but sharing is even more interesting. Books are essentially communication, and it’s ironic that in a “digital” medium it’s less easy to share them than in a physical one; this is a problem begging to be solved. We think cracking this “sharing problem” in a way that benefits all of customers, publishers, and authors is a challenge, but one well worth taking on. In the next five years, we see digital children’s books growing exponentially in popularity, because they’ll be easily “shared” and spread by parents, the way they were meant to be.

Images courtesy of BookBoard.


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