App-y campers: These kids have summer fun testing new apps (and get paid for it)

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By Bob Dotson

Making something easier can be hardest thing you ever do. Just ask Hari Srinivasan: The 10-year-old has been moving a camera tripod continuously for five minutes.

"Wait. Turn it 360 degrees. No, turn it 180 degrees."

His pal, Mac Boyd, shuffles it back and then tries to hide a wireless microphone antenna. "Is this sticky-out thingie showing?"

"No," says Hari. "Help me move the camera."

It pops off the tripod. "Wow! That's bad!"

"Happens all the time," an adult says soothingly, grabbing the lens before it hits the ground. He works for, a California insurance company that has hired these fifth-graders to create Web videos that will help explain the new health care choices.

Hari glances at his storyboard, turns on the camera, and runs around in front of it. "State exchanges are basically marketplaces for health insurance," he says, looking into the lens. 

Hari's script was written by a half dozen friends who kept asking questions until they could explain the topic in a way that people actually talk. They have spent weeks pulling out verbal weeds.

"If you read the word 'coinsurance' the way it's written, it looks a lot like 'coin-insurance,' right?" says insurance executive Katie Boyd. "And a lot of people read it that way." But in Hari and Marc's Web video, the concept is so simple, even a grown-up can understand it.

Children are in great demand as product design consultants these days because they notice things designers miss. Eliot Cowan rounded up some friends when he was 9 and offered their services to businesses. "What's it like living a kid's dream, being able to tell grownups what to do?" I ask.

"Fun," Eliot says with a grin. The smile grows into a laugh. "It's fun." Who wouldn't enjoy creating something just the way you like it?

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Across the room, adults with video cameras are hovering over Eliot's buddy, Zade Lobo, watching him like a rock star. He sings passionately to his iPad, "Baby, baby, I've been praying hard...." The 10-year-old is testing a karaoke app for a company called Smule, crooning like it's closing time.

The app's designers want to know: "Was it easy to find that song or hard?"  

"There are so many," Zade points out. "I have to keep scrolling down for ages."

Children have been telling adults how to improve since Adam and Eve. Now businesses pay Eliot to do that. The money he got for headhunting bought new books for the kids in his school and new Kindles to read them.

Companies pay $300 to $400 dollars a session. The children who do the testing get free games, toys and something more: a chance to play with new computer apps before anyone else.

Digital start-up companies are big in the San Francisco Bay area. Many children have parents who work in them, most of whom don't worry about their children spending too much time on computers.

"Kids shouldn't be watching a screen all day and be passive consumers of games and media," Eliot's dad, David Cowan, says. "That's not what the kids are doing in these testing sessions. Here the kids are using technology in order to be creative."

Even preschoolers are getting into the act, animating their own cartoons as they test an app called Toontastic. It teaches them how to tell stories.

Pint-size pundits are getting even younger, more and more poking their parents' iPads, and digital companies are rushing to meet the demand. Andy Russell, cofounder of Launchpad Toys, offers kids a fun time in return for free testing space at the San Francisco Children's Creativity Museum.

"We can make a change, and the very next day go back to the museum and say, 'Hey, is this right?'" he says. "The children don't worry about our feelings: They tell it to you straight."

Russell's creative team convenes this once-a-week summer camp with kids. How nervous is Andy to have the fate of his company invested in a group of 4-year-olds?

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he says.

Great ideas come from children who are often overlooked — the quiet ones, like Remi Leiker, just 2. The cartoon he made testing a computer app captivates kids three times his age.

He may never forget that moment, the first time he got a smile for telling a story well. Wisdom doesn't always wear a suit. 

Learn about the Children's Creativity Museum here.

Learn about Launchpad Toys here.

Learn about here.

Learn about the Smule karaoke app here.

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