How do you get children and young adults to embrace creative thinking and play? What opportunity do apps in the classroom have to help students think differently about the world around them?

Brainbean is an iPad app with eight fast-paced mini-games to help children think more creatively.

For several years I had been researching and writing on the topic of creative thinking on my blog Creative Something. When popular apps like Lumosity and Fit Brains promised players an improvement in intelligence, there were no apps to promote creative thinking and education.

After talking with teachers at local elementary and middle schools, it was clear there was a real appetite for a creativity-focused game for the iPad. At that time, iPads were becoming popular in schools. Apple was pushing to get as many iPads into the classroom as possible. I decided to build an app to encourage creative thinking in young students to meet their needs.

I knew I wanted Brainbean to function similarly to existing thinking/brain training apps, which offer players a series of mini-games or challenges they must complete in a timed environment.

Thanks to my years of experience researching creativity, I already had a few ideas for what those possible mini-games could be, such as remote association and incomplete figure challenges (commonly used in research studies involving creative thinking).

I started imagining what the interface would look like and how players might interact with each game. How many games could I offer? What would the menus look like to access each game? What about the icon that hopefully captures people's attention and vividly sticks out in their memory? For styling the design of Brainbean itself, I first looked at Apple's work. Apple had released iOS 7 a month earlier, and I knew I wanted to use a similar aesthetic. This decision is evident in the text-based buttons used in the app's final version, among other things. Because Brainbean would also be primarily designed for children, I wanted to incorporate a fun, flat design style. Something that children could quickly pickup and play with wherever they go.

For the next several months, I spent any free time outside of my regular day job designing and programming Brainbean. After five or six months into the project, I remember feeling overwhelmed with how much was left to do. I'd finish the development on one or two of the mini-games only to remember there were several more ahead. Any time I program one minor feature, I would realize that it had broken twelve others. The design never felt right. Specific details about how screens came into view were missing, and seemingly empty animations repeatedly appeared.

My greatest fear was, of course, that it would all be for not. That the hours and hours and months of work would add up to either a project that simply didn't work, or one that nobody noticed.

One of the crucial elements that would keep me going when I felt like giving up was honest feedback from potential "users." As I worked on the app, I would show it to my young nieces or take it to a nearby classroom (with permission from the teacher and student parents) for testing. One of the best parts of letting children test your work is that they're always brutally honest.

With solid feedback and a clear vision of where to go, I pressed on with building the app. And after seven full months, I shipped the final product.

On launch day, June 5th, 2014, I gathered with friends to celebrate the launch. We drank, played with the app, and watched its progress as it climbed the app store rankings. Brainbean sat at #62 out of the top 200 apps in the US iPad App Store when the celebrations began that night. That's out of all categories combined. That's a tremendous feat for any app, and I was very proud. But then, within an hour, the app reached the top 40. In another few hours, it entered the top 20. The following day, Brainbean became the #3 position in the top apps in the App Store.

Brainbean has been downloaded by more than 2,000,000 people and is used in classrooms worldwide.

There are things I would like to do with the app at this point, but other priorities have taken precedence. Still, it's been an insightful journey to create the app from scratch and watch its success. Hearing from teachers and students who have used the app has been the most rewarding part of the experience of building it.

In brief

  • iPad app consisting of eight mini-games to help children think more creatively.
  • Designed and built entirely from hand by myself.
  • Took seven months of work to design, test, and build before launch.
  • After launch, reached #3 position in all the App Store.
  • Has been downloaded by more than 2 million people to-date.