Sometimes, those delicate questions can be embarrassingly awkward; other times, they can be a much-needed kick-start to a new career path.
The development process that led to the release of a new interactive sex ed application to help parents teach their kids about ‘the birds and the bees’ was also an educational experience for the two women who started their tech company barely a year ago.
The fact that the app deals with sometimes delicate issues of sexual education was just one of the challenges that co-founders Mary Roka and Jennifer Weidemann encountered. There was the business of starting and operating a new business, and there was the challenge of interacting with technologists and developers.
But the need for good children- and parent- friendly health information and lifestyle education apps is a strong motivator for the pair to plan even more product releases.
Roka and Weidemann launched B.C.-based GoTo Educational Technology Inc. last year, and they’re enjoying initial success with their very first product, Birdees, an interactive sexual education app for the iPad and iPad Mini.
Coming from a background in health care sales, marketing and communications, the pair were motivated by stories from friends and other moms who faced tough questions from their kids about body parts and making babies, but also those all too frequent stories about kids getting inappropriate or inaccurate sexual content from any number of possible sources, especially the media.
“Our children are constantly bombarded by sexual messages everywhere they go,” Roka says. “It’s on TV, commercials, Internet, music, it’s all around us, and I think it’s the parents’ responsibility to translate those messages for the child and add their values to it.”
Birdees makes it easy to answer kid’s tough questions on the birds and the bees, she adds, but the process required to develop the app so was not as easy.
It all started with a probing question from her five year old, Roka describes, and it led to personal research on just what information was available or accessible, then to the realization that a real scarcity of age specific material existed, and then to the idea of ‘doing it yourself’ – or more accurately, identifying a team of people with the skills needed to design and develop apps, e-books and related material.
That includes defining and determining the educational content itself, and presenting it in a way that comforts parents and engages children.
So the Go To duo identified expert collaborators, such as Vancouver-based sexual health professional Saleema Noon; she’s the creator and facilitator of the iGirl empowerment workshops for girls, and she teaches not only sexual health, but also assertiveness training, internet safety, healthy relationships, body image and self-esteem.
Noon was thrilled at the prospect that Birdees presented: “It’s a life saver for parents and a gift to children,” she described. “It’s fun, light-hearted, and provides information critical to making smart sexual health decisions that last a lifetime.”
Researcher Yasaman Madanikia was also recruited for the team, based on her work as community organizer, sex ed columnist and health care content publisher.
Of course, code writing was not part of their background, so Roka and Weidemann also needed to identify and hire programmers and designers to develop the app.
As a very early stage start-up, they could not afford to bring a lot of full timers on board, but they were able to work with what Weidemann calls “an incredible support team through our contractors” including graphic design firm Newmediagraphix, who were invaluable in creating the storyboard, providing graphic and web support, creating the logos and eBooks.
Calgary-based development firm Robots and Pencils also were brought on board to help with design and illustrations.
At first, the development process caught Roka and Weidemann off guard in predicting just how much time and money would be required to get the app to market; now, the team has come together to ensure they account for different devices as well as continued product development and new title releases.
In fact, there’s a continuing series of specific age targeted educational modules now in development; modules for children ages 2-5 and 6-8 are now available (with ages 9-12 and 13-15+ coming soon), and the app’s interface was also split into separate parts, one for parents and another for kids.
“We’ve collaborated with some of the best sex educators in the field to ensure the content is accurate, up to date and as comprehensive as possible,” Roka said. “Our goal was to give (parents) a resource that was light, fun and informative, where both the parent and child could learn in a stress free environment,” added Weidemann.
Parents have access to everything (Content, iBody and iTools) and children can only access the interactive iBody and iTools.
In addition, the app also provides direct access to sex educators for parents to ask any additional questions. Also supporting the learning is fun dynamic visuals and touch points for kids to learn.
From personal knowledge, fiend’s experiences and professional input, Roka and Weidemann know that well-informed children who have open communication with their parents are more protected from sexual abuse, as they are more comfortable in discussing and reporting such behaviour.
It’s easier to teach children when they are younger, and so their app is there to help kick-start the process.
Birdees features information on body parts, behaviour, communication and safety (available to parents and kids), as well as content available to parents only.
The developers have created kid friendly characters to interact with and provide information, and kids can create their own ‘avatar’s to interact with the app.
It has tools to track a user’s progress, and awards and achievements are noted and displayed. Push notifications can be set up to send out for key child and family events: birthdays, crucial talks, reminders, follow-ups as well as holidays and family events (mother’s day, father’s day, etc.)
The basic Birdees app is available for free download; extra modules are priced individually.