Duck Duck Moose

Meet the parents behind the best kid apps

Nov. 23, 2011 at 8:20 AM ET

Duck Duck Moose /

First came the iPhone, then (for me) came parenthood. And then came the day that my kid discovered the iPhone and I was like, "Uh oh, there goes my phone."

But while I cringed at the idea of smartphones smeared with kid germs and fingerprints, I did like the way my daughter interacted with the touchscreen device: She wanted to push things, to see what would happen. It wasn't rocket science, but it wasn't staring at the TV either.

Duck Duck Moose /
A screenshot from "Wheels on the Bus"

Enter Duck Duck Moose. I first discovered this boutique developer like most iPhone-owning parents with kids a certain age do: in the Apple App Store. The app was "Wheels on the Bus." Every screen represented a verse of the classic song, and every part of the famed bus was touchable. There was a playful goofiness — cupcake-eating monkeys, escaped goldfish, and a giant pigeon who gazed out at you when the bus' doors swung open. Best of all, there was no sign of Elmo, Winnie the Pooh or Dora.

But wait a minute, not only was the song sung in English, but you could download it in French, Spanish, Italian, German, even gibberish! And you could choose different instrumentations, such as a piano trio, duet — or kazoo. Yes, there was something more going on here than just some fly-by-night developers trying to make a buck at the cost of desperate parents. I mean, it was a 99-cent app!

So what was going on? The developers were parents. And they were just as desperate as I was to entertain the kids without making them stupid in the process.

Duck Duck Moose /
A screenshot from "Old MacDonald"

These were the early days of iPhone apps, so it wasn't clear whether anything would follow "Wheels." But soon after, "Old MacDonald" turned up, complete with cow-abducting aliens and artistic pigs. I mentioned it in an article, and soon heard from Caroline Hu Flexer who, along with her husband Michael Flexer and her friend Nicci Gabriel, made up the entire workforce of the company. (It has since contracted with some developers, but essentially Duck Duck Moose remains a trio to this day.)

The Flexers had two daughters, a.k.a. "product managers," who tested every app through its stages. As the kids grew, so did the apps, with each new title addressing a slightly older demographic, piling grammar, math and logic atop the playful, musical discovery. Both Flexers worked in software for years before embarking on their educational app startup, but decided to trade in the cubicle life for a chance to work out of their lovely home in Palo Alto, Calif.

Duck Duck Moose /
A screenshot from "Peek-a-Zoo"

Caroline keeps the projects on the rails, contributing to design and handling business matters and marketing. Michael, a software whiz with a track record of successful startups, deals with programming, animation and music. It is his cello that is heard throughout the apps, and it is in the family's basement where that musical magic happens.

Nicci — the designer who creates all of the imaginative, puckish characters that populate the world of Duck Duck Moose — added her own product manager to the team last spring, and lo and behold, there's a new toddler app.

Yes, "Wheels on the Bus" was the first of what has become a veritable empire of kids' apps. There are now 10 titles, nine which have made it to the iPad. The original app has finally made it to Android.

We recently dropped in on Duck Duck Moose, to find out more about the trio's creative process, their impact on kids, and what the future has in store:

More stories on kids and iPhones from TODAY.com:

More on Duck Duck Moose, LeapFrog the future of kids' play from msnbc.com's Future of Tech series:

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or on Google+. And join our conversation on Facebook.

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