Adding Things Up: Behind the Success of Motion Math’s Suite of Apps

Building a brand, especially in a Wild West world like the App Store, is no small feat.  But there are a number of companies that have managed to rise to the top of the charts in the app stores without established brand power behind them. Motion Math, born from a couple of guys who met at Stanford and had a passion for math and the power of new devices to help educate, is one of these success stories.


Math in action

Motion Math apps have raked up more than 3 million downloads and many awards.

Motion Math apps have raked up more than 3 million downloads and many awards.

On a recent visit to my son’s kindergarten class I was excited to see a group of students playing Motion Math: Hungry Fish on the classroom iPads.  They, of course, turned the individual play into an immediate competition to see who was on the highest level. But they were obviously engaged with the game play, and found the action of putting the two numbers together really fun.

They were excited about practicing addition.

That’s the kind of reaction the game brings from many teachers as well.

“Instead of being an electronic worksheet in which students parrot back memorized facts, this app develops students’ ability to manipulate numbers flexibly,” one reviewer of Hungry Fish wrote. “It’s so refreshing to see an app that uses number bonds instead of linear number sentences. With every finger swipe, the gameplay reinforces the concepts of joining numbers. Beautifully designed.” 

The eight Motion Math apps have racked up over 3 million downloads and a slew of awards, including 5 Editor’s Choice Awards from Children’s Technology Review, an ON for Learning Award from Common Sense Media, and 4 Parent’s Choice awards.

So how did they create a whole company built around making math fun? I asked those two Stanford alums — Gabriel Adauto and Jacob Klein.


Gamesandlearning.org: How did Motion Math get started?

Jacob Klein: We started working together in 2010 in a class at the Learning, Design and Technology program called Casual Learning on the iPhone taught by Shelley Goldman, and during that class the iPad came out, so the timing was very fortuitous.

We both love math and for our first project we talked to a lot of math teachers about what problems were most frustrating for their students and for them, and we also looked at what the iPhone technology could do that wasn’t possible before, and we also looked at what games kids really liked playing and are if there were parts of that we could bring in, and that became our first fractions game, which was our Master’s project and also the game that launched the company.

In some ways our whole production process was started in that class – talk to a lot of teachers, look at what kids need to know, look at the kinds of games kids love, and also innovate on what is technically possible now that wasn’t before. These are all elements we look to in our eight products since then.

Gabriel Adauto: We had a lot of help along the way, admittedly. We went to app camp that year (Dust or Magic) and it felt like we were finding our tribe. We met Ann Thai who used to be at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center who said we should make something educational and apply to the Cooney Center Prizes, so we did that and got into the finals there. And then we participated in StartX, which is Stanford’s incubator. We were in StartX’s first cohort of startups and the experience really helped us as first-time entrepreneurs. We got connected to our lawyer Joseph Perkins at Orrick, learned about incorporation, met other startups, and met our advisor Jay Borenstein, who teaches CS at Stanford. The road to this company is paved with help from a lot of people.

Gamesandlearning.org: So your first product, Motion Math: Fractions, was released for iPhone and iPad – what was next?

Jacob Klein: From there we raised two rounds of seed funding and put out five more games.

We entered co.lab with six games released. During the co.lab experience we launched two more games, Motion Math: Match and Motion Math: Pizza Motion Math: Pizza is our first simulation game, simulating a small piece of the real world. In addition to math practice, the game includes challenges of systems thinking; to really succeed you need to balance ingredients, pizza costs, upgrades, and customer preferences that change over time.  Questimate, which came out last year, also represented a new genre as our first social game; two players create and answer estimation questions. Teachers tell us they appreciate the challenging and exploratory design of our games, and that’s exactly what we’re aiming for, not just pleasant practice. We want kids to discover important math concepts through play. 

It’s been really fun to experiment with different game genres.


In the Accelerator

Gamesandlearning.org: What was the co.lab experience like? How did the process change your point of view on your products?

The co.lab accelerator, based at Zynga, focuses on supporting learning games.

The co.lab accelerator, based at Zynga, focuses on supporting learning games.

Jacob Klein: It was great. It’s NewSchools  Venture Fund that really knows the edtech market, and there are really smart passionate people there. Zynga had some really smart engineers that we learned from, and then the other cohort companies are all working in this space of learning games, so it was great to hear what other companies are working on, and what they’re struggling with, so it was a great place to be for five months.

A lot of the development on Match and Pizza was already done when we entered, but a lot of the finishing process and release process and marketing was done there.

Gabriel Adauto: And that’s what Zynga is really good at. The game isn’t finished when it’s released into the market, you just have to work on different things.

Gamesandlearning.org: Right, so how did you get the word out and cut through the clutter with your products?

Gabriel Adauto: Cutting through the clutter is certainly a known problem and all of us were interested in it.

What we observed at Zynga is that they have everyone working towards this. You have the marketers, who are most involved, you have the product managers who are designing features that will move the needle and give the marketers something to talk about, and then you have the creative people who are thinking about how you really appeal to the user. If you don’t appeal to the user, the marketing is just lipstick on a pig. It takes everyone to really make it happen.

Jacob Klein: Pushing ourselves to be innovative on each product has been helpful. There have been connections between each product, but each one is a different game design and that’s helped grow our audience. We also commissioned the first efficacy study on a tablet app, and that’s been helpful, especially in conversations with schools and districts and educators, and also researchers looking to study this new medium.

Gabriel Adauto: It’s a big problem that you chip at in different ways.

Gamesandlearning.org: Did the co.lab experience change your point of view on your products or affect your process at all?

Gabriel Adauto: I think we’re pretty darn good at our process at this point. It’s definitely evolved. The way we tackle user tests is extremely focused now to when we started. One interesting thing I took away from Zynga was A/B testing. We have a really beautiful A/B testing structure inside our games, and one thing we learned from Zynga was that they do really large A/B tests on certain features in their products, and that made me think about how we could find even more specific results by focusing on large features sets within one game.

Gamesandlearning.org: What’s an example of an A/B test you’ve run?

Jacob Klein: There’s an element in the Motion Math Pizza game where you serve customers, and customers have impatience and if you don’t serve them in enough time they leave and you don’t get that sale. We wanted that experience to be adaptively frustrating, so that everyone is pushed to the edge of getting between 70-90% of the answers correct. And it would push you faster and faster if you are doing well, and slow you if you need more time. We tested a few different algorithms through A/B testing to see what is going to impact the speed and were able to improve that in an update because of the testing we did.


The Motion Math Process and Team

Gamesandlearning.org: What’s your development process like – from concept to delivery? Do you do your development in house?

Jacob Klein: It starts with curriculum area. We talk to teachers and look at data on what common core concepts kids most struggle with – what are the biggest pain points we can turn into something delightful. Then we talk to teachers more and look at resources already out there, we look at learning literature on what experts know about how kids learn that concept, to get a sense of what’s already known. And then we start brainstorming what kind of game mechanics might teach it.

Sometimes that’s thinking more and more about the concept, or getting inspired by a non-learning game that has a fun dynamic, and that’s a very open, chaotic part of the process.

Gabriel Adauto: We often split into groups and try different ideas. We like to pass it off – I’ll start with a couple ideas with one group working on a problem for a few hours or a day, then pass it to Jacob and his team who will work on it, and then afterwards we’ll synthesize on that.

Jacob Klein: And we build rough prototypes, sometimes paper, sometimes rough digital, sometimes digital/paper hybrids. Gabriel is very creative at this stage – he prototyped our first game with cardboard, a quarter and dental floss to simulate a bouncing ball. We just creatively look at what we can learn in a day about what a kid’s going to learn about the interaction.

Gabriel Adauto: Don’t start with coding – never start with coding!

Jacob Klein: Then we start to get into fun. Is there an element of creativity here, or excitement, or puzzlement, that might generate a good game.

I think of that next moment as a game of Pong. We create the game to work on some learning, and by fixing the learning we break the fun, and then we fix the fun which usually creates holes in the learning, and then it’s a ping pong back and forth until we get to something that has woven both into it very deeply.

Gabriel Adauto

Jacob Klein: And we really try to avoid elements that don’t satisfy both of those criteria – delightful and also rigorous on the learning side. We’ve found that different types of user tests work better for just comprehension – is the UI comprehensible? Ideally there can’t be any instruction, we need things that kids can just sit down and start. The learning part takes a lot more questioning of a kid. Are they getting the concept or are they playing the game without actually thinking about the math? Also talking to teachers who can watch it and get their opinions to learn if it’s something they can use in their classroom, and repeated cycles of trying to answer all those questions.

We work with rough art for a long time until we’re pretty sure about the game and then we work with diverse, very talented artists to really make it sing. And sound effects and music are the last step, and then we release it.

Gamesandlearning.org: What does your team look like?

Jacob Klein: We have a core team of five and then we have great contractors we work with for new technologies we’re trying out, for art, for sound effects, and then we bring on a bunch of interns every summer.


Climbing Mount Distribution

Gamesandlearning.org: What are your greatest challenges?

Jacob Klein: Jessica Lindl of GlassLab had it right when she said distribution is the greatest challenge for this whole space. When people say distribution there are a few parts to that; it’s discovery, it’s structuring the right conversation around discovery and what quality products are, it’s about what the buying model is, and it’s about who shares in that revenue.

The App Store is amazing for being able to upload a file and then millions of people a few hours later across the whole globe can download it. But it’s not ideal for some of those other components.

Gamesandlearning.org: What’s your approach to getting the word out on your apps when you launch them?

Jacob Klein: So far notice comes from mostly from three sources. We’ve had great support from Apple and promotion on the App Store when we have a new product. The second is through PR and a lot of website reviews, some of which come organically and some of which come from a lot of outreach and existing relationships. And then word of mouth has been very strong, from among parents, parents to teachers, and teachers to parents, and sometimes from kids, which is the most gratifying.

Almost all our growth so far has been organic, and we’re excited to experiment with other marketing efforts going forward but so far it’s been organic growth.

Gamesandlearning.org: How do you distribute your apps to educators?

Jacob Klein: We go to conferences, which has been great for meeting a lot of teachers in person and get their feedback and to show our products off to teachers who might not be aware of them yet. We also have a mailing list of our super-fan educators, and then locally we know a lot of teachers in the Bay Area from our user tests.

Gamesandlearning.org: What else are you thinking about and working on?

Gabriel Adauto: We’ve been thinking a lot about teachers and their feedback. When I show one of my apps to parents a lot of times they say ‘what makes your app different from other educational apps?’ When I give it to teachers, they tell me what makes it different from other educational apps. They really are star evangelists and they really get what we’re going for. A lot of our games have potential for us to go back and revise based on their feedback.

Jacob Klein: This is also the first year that Common Core is being tested. There is controversy around it, there are rollout bumps for a lot of the states and districts, but it’s also going to be helpful to have more data on where kids are really struggling and really need help, and that’s where we want to continue to focus – what are those key concepts that a lot of kids never master that become impediments later to math achievement, science achievement, career achievement, and often build in this negative feeling towards math that is detrimental. We want kids to have a delightful, challenging experience in our games. 

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Anna Jordan-Douglass

Anna Jordan-Douglass Anna Jordan-Douglass is Vice President, Digital Development & Interactive Media at The Jim Henson Company. There she oversees all strategy and production of online and mobile products for a variety of brands, with a focus on kids and education. She works closely with the production, marketing and outreach teams, as well as curriculum advisors and developers, to deliver projects that meet a variety of goals while providing fun, educational experiences for kids and families.