Our Partner:

Bezos Family Foundation — Established by Jackie and Mike Bezos

"Support rigorous and inspiring learning environments for young people (from birth through high school) to put their education into action."

Type of Company:

Private, independent foundation

HQ:

Seattle, WA

Key Date:

June 2014

In 2016, Jackie Bezos, co-founder and president of the Bezos Family Foundation, keynoted the Aspen Ideas Festival with a speech entitled “Putting Early Childhood Research Into Action To Build An Early Learning Nation.”

“For the past seven years we've been funding neuroscience at the world's leading institutions,” Bezos said, revealing the breadth of the Foundation’s effort for the first time.“ Quality early childhood experiences boost high school graduation rates, and boosting high school graduation rates means a lifetime of higher earnings for the individual.” The science, Bezos said, had the potential to initiate massive behavior change, but only if it reached those in a position to act.

The Bezos Family Foundation had been focused on early education (from birth through high school) for sixteen years. To ensure its research didn’t stagnate in academia, it evolved a brand to make early-childhood education part of every caregiver, educator, and parent’s toolkit. That brand is Vroom, and in launching Vroom, the Bezos Family Foundation sparked a movement to make these learning moments commonplace, and inspire the best scientific, philanthropic, and corporate partners to join its quest.

INSIGHT

The brain develops more rapidly in the first five years of life than at any other time.

This is a story about Uncorked Studios joining the Bezos Family Foundation’s quest to create a digital platform to form a cornerstone of a larger educational movement. Together with Bezos and partner agency Johannes Leonardo, Uncorked concepted and built an accessible digital tool to help caregivers foster early childhood brain development at key moments in their busy days. The app has been effective for one reason: it doesn’t ask parents to change routines, or add tasks to crowded lists. Daily Vroom helps caregivers see how routine moments like bath time, driving, grocery shopping, and normal parts of parenthood are the times they can help a child’s mind reach its potential. The end result is more than just an app. Daily Vroom has become habit, building crucial connections in a broader educational movement.

SKILLS


Research Led Design


Visual Design and Art Direction


Rewards Based Game Engine


Product Concept and Iterations


Backend Web Development in Python/Flask back by PostregSQL and Nginx


 


Multilingual Support


End-to-End Product Development


Custom CMS and Visual Content Tracking


Cross Generation iOS, Android and Fire Phone Development


SUCCESS

More than 100,000 Daily Vroom downloads in over 100 countries.

Chief Design Officer,
David Ewald

Built on science

Early on the Bezos Family Foundation worked with experts and top scientists to better understand early childhood development. The Foundation brought together a team of neuroscientists, and found out the brain develops more rapidly in the first five years of life than at any other time. Dr. Sam Wang, Professor of Molecular Biology at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, calls this development a “constant construction project,” where babies and small children create the foundation of who they are going to become.

Parents and caregivers aren’t just helping keep a child safe; they’re raising a mind. A mind expanding at an incredible rate, adding neurons as it experiences the world for the first time. 
As Bezos told the Aspen audience, “these connections or synapses are created at an astonishing rate of 700 to 1,000 per second—every second—and by the age of three a child’s brain will have formed 1,000 trillion connections.” The Bezos Family Foundation’s research also shows that small, simple efforts to stimulate neurological growth early in life can result in large long-term gains.

Powered by parents

A 2012 study on school readiness from the Urban Child Institute bolstered the Bezos Family Foundation’s findings. It found the more parents engage with their children during their first five years, the more likely children are to be prepared to enter kindergarten. Further research showed many children entering kindergarten unprepared were coming from low-income families. According to “Early Childhood Development: the Promise, the Problem, and the Path Forward,” a Brookings Institute report, “Poor and neglected children benefit disproportionately from early childhood development programs, making these interventions among the more compelling policy tools for fighting poverty and reducing inequality.”

With information like this in hand, The Bezos Family Foundation set out to create an experience built specifically for low-income families but accessible to all. While low-income communities stand to gain the most from additional resources and support networks, the foundation reasoned, they often have the least access.

In fall of 2011 the Foundation engaged IDEO for field research with parents living in poverty. IDEO’s researchers interviewed 24 low-­income families living in Oakland, CA, Bakersfield, CA, New York, NY, and Harrisburg, PA, and gathered key insights around parenting in poverty. Research has shown this segment of the population is gaining access to smartphones at a faster rate than any other demographic, but IDEO’s work suggested the population’s digital fluency is highly variable. Access to desktop internet is wildly inconsistent. IDEO found lower-cost Android phones to be the most prevalent within the cohort. A key part of IDEO’s recommendation was to keep things simple. “It is within every parent’s capacity to support their child’s development through low­-cost, everyday ‘serve & return’ engagement and activities—it doesn’t take expensive toys or fancy tools.”

With a science-backed initiative and an idea for how its effort could be most impactful, the Bezos Family Foundation and its partners needed a way to to connect to parents at scale. This is the part of the story where Uncorked comes in. The brief was simple. Bezos and Johannes Leonardo asked how Uncorked could take the facts their teams and partners had gathered about early childhood development and translate those into something actionable for parents. It was assumed there would be a technology element but what that could look like, and how exactly it could work, had yet to be defined.

Uncorked’s designers and developers began to formulate the first concepts. Initially, they looked at location. Could the experience be built around tips to help parents understand what to do while shopping at the grocery store, for instance, or driving in the car? Vroom could offer a helping hand, in typical contexts. “This initial prototype we presented wasn’t the end product,” says chief design officer David Ewald. “But it was an important step in framing everything around the parents’ perspective.”

The team held a multi-day workshop to firm up the intent, purpose, motivation, and context behind the Vroom platform, as built around the parents’ perspective. The workshop extended across numerous teams, including Uncorked, members of the scientific research team, and the creative and design teams from our agency partners Johannes Leonardo. “We took our understanding of users’ stories and priorities to explore different approaches for the flow of the application,” Ewald says. Daily Vroom, a series of science-based tips delivered via mobile app to parents at key moments, around typical child-care behaviors, was born.

Draw dance sing Pretend Count smell make look at Read Play Ask talk hold nouns way style like Cause a story environment is noun is Achievements Adjective Style Objectsoutdoors Books Letteredobject familyphotos hide &Seek chase Peekaboo song with how doyou feeL? repeat topic What doyou see? Doing action Today Noun Noun Effect adjective Vehicle everydayobject yourchild Style tv radio Person Animal
PLAY HOLD COUNT DRAW MAKE CHASE NOUNS WAY DOING ACTION TODAY NOUN ACHIEVEMENTS ADJECTIVE

SUCCESS

Vroom has been downloaded in all 50 states.

Associate Design Director,
Matthew Noe

The parent - screen paradox

Following the workshop, the next concept version considered time—mostly because parents don’t have any—and the best pathways for helping parents in the moment. Uncorked began to work around another crucial insight: delivering parenting advice via an app means helping a parent to put their phone away, so they can be fully present with their child. Vroom needed to fit into people’s lives, but also disappear. Provide small, intentional disruptions that could create new routines, but not get in the way.

Based on the ethnographic research early in the project, as well as Uncorked’s parents’ experiences, the team knew advice on parenting is a delicate subject. Everything is critical from the language used to the delivery. Framed in a pressuring way, even the key scientific insight—early childhood as a crucial learning time—has the potential to push caregivers away, or toward further anxiety, spurring them to ask themselves “Am I doing enough?,” “How can I do more?,” and “Where will I even find the time?” Avoiding feelings of guilt and judgement was a key concern.

The product had to reframe how the mobile phone used our attention: from all-consuming vortex, to redirector-to-child. Parents needed to be prepared and eager to connect with their children in new and different ways, positively impacting their brain development. That meant further designing to optimize efficiency, but not at the expense of the general tone of fun.

To solidify this idea, the team mapped interactions Daily Vroom would foster. Sets of verbs and modifiers formed how the team designated specific activities inside the app, blending an understanding of contexts, emotional states, goals and audiences.

While this was a good foundation, there was still another key piece to the puzzle: the accessibility imperative. This product had to work for everyone.

An app for all

Uncorked prides itself on holding its concepts of the people who use its products at the heart of its creativity. With Vroom, that meant support for a range of devices and operating systems, from the latest and greatest to older systems. Great care was taken to develop a compelling and delightful interface that didn’t leave users of older hardware out in the cold.

Often developing for more limited operating systems means, there’s a certain dumbing down of user interaction elements, like animations, or transitions. The UCS development team ensured the design framework and interactions were not only present, but also correct and quality on any device. “Our goal was a coherent experience that didn’t rely on having the newest tools as a user,” says associate technical director Katarina Mitchell. “The part that was probably most difficult was just making sure that everything worked on Gingerbread (older) devices.”

As the team evaluated all the necessary platforms, making sure devices didn’t inhibit experience was a primary objective. “When designing for multiple platforms, one of the toughest questions can be ‘Where do we start?’ says associate design director Matthew Noe. “Considering our demographics and launch goals, we decided to design for Android’s variety of screen dimensions and densities first.”

Coordination between design and development teams on how front-end interface elements and dialogues were conveyed was a continuous process. “We didn’t want to just make it work, we needed to make it a rich experience,” says Noe. “We had to make a lot of design considerations for really small phones, and really weird displays.”

All this heavy lifting made the later iOS adaptation much easier. “When it came time to design Daily Vroom for iOS,” Noe says, “we did it with a wide-ranging perspective. This helped us create a thoughtful, customized experience for parents on any device.”

Beyond figuring out how to build a cohesive whole around many Android versions and ultimately iOS and Fire frameworks, the copy, content and UI of the app had to strike the right chord with parents. Interactions within the app needed to balance being a useful tool,and an easy experience.

SUCCESS

Ranked 4+ on the iOS, Google Play, and Amazon store.

Associate Technical Director of Mobile,
Katarina Mitchell

Vrooming the System

A crucial part of true behavior change comes in building habit, and as the app development process continued the team began to build a stronger frame around making the product an integral part of parents’ lives, to establish new patterns of behavior for parents and caregivers, with or without the app. To accomplish this, the Uncorked team investigated motivating factors and underlying game mechanics.

In a series of prototyping and user testing cycles, Uncorked designed and built a badge-based system for parents to track family accomplishments. This framework provided an in-app celebration of accomplishments, and allowed parents to focus on the real triumph: a family sharing early brain-building moments.

“To get to behavior change, we needed to somehow incentivize people beyond the main point of improving their children’s brains,” Ewald says. “We wanted to give people some kind of small reward for doing stuff. But we didn’t want that to be the point. We wanted people to be in the real world with their kids versus buried in the app.”

On the back-end, the development team set up rules to determine, from the array of options, whether a user received a badge. Meanwhile, the front-end team did some “painting,” creating spaces within the app’s framework for badges to live as the user’s experiences grew and evolved.

“One of the things I spent the most time on, and also one of the things that I enjoy going back to is the animations on the badge hub,” Mitchell says. “I learned about custom views and painting.”

The team had to figure out a way to create the right experience for parents while building everything from scratch. That counts for web as well—the Uncorked contribution went far beyond what’s available in the Google Play or App stores.

“We did a large volume of diverse web work for Daily Vroom,” says senior developer Jenny Louthan. “We wrote the whole backend from scratch. We set up to manage the database for ourselves all on AWS. We wrote the marketing site in Drupal. We did the landing pages, so if you shared a page on Facebook it rendered properly. We managed password reset emails. All the moving pieces of the web development were very comprehensive.”

Designing a customizable experience was also a critical aspect of parent-centered design. Parents set when a reminder appears, or choose Vroom activity based on the current time or their location. If there’s a Vroom their child loves, parents can easily revisit favorite tips, and access their activity history.

SUCCESS

Custom CMS still in use and being updated.

Simple at scale

Once Uncorked delivered its final app work it was important Daily Vroom would continue to support the Vroom movement, without constant maintenance. Keeping parents engaged requires keeping the app’s content fresh. “We needed to build a product we knew was going to scale,” Noe says. “We did really well giving Bezos something they could scale from, and add more content.”

To provide an easy way for our partners to continuously introduce new Vrooms, we created a content management system and full back-end using Python and the Flask framework. The system also supports adding badges, to keep the experience fresh as users advance. “We didn’t want the CMS to look engineered,” Noe says. “We put in lots of images and descriptions, and made it easy and pretty.”

The process of creating and classifying new Vrooms makes it simple for Bezos Family Foundation employees to input content created by researchers and partners. The CMS also includes a map of Vrooms in the system, so new tips can be commissioned based on gaps. “I made a graphic that displays how many Vrooms there are for each age and activity,” says Uncorked senior developer Jenny Louthan. “You can log in and see, for example, we have a lot of bedtimes for four-year-olds, but not enough play times.” Parents can submit their own tips, to be vetted and shared with the overall community.

“There was no good built-in way to handle file upload in Angular,” Louthan says. “There were some libraries, there’s one I used initially, but it was really messy, and kind of hard to work with. So I did a whole bunch of research, and came up with a new way to do it.” Louthan’s work on simplifying file uploading via Angular.js is detailed on our blog (editor’s note: far and away the most-read blog post of all time at UCS!).

Vrooming into view.

After solidifying the Daily Vroom concept, designing and building the CMS, the app and the supporting web work, and populating the Vrooms (in English and en Español), Daily Vroom was ready to be sent out into the wild world of parenting.

But first, for it to truly be effective, the team needed to see it working on the ground. The app needed to be built for the long-haul: existing to serve numerous OS updates, years of use, and developing brains. Vroom was never meant to be a campaign. As Jackie Bezos put it, “[Campaigns] have a beginning and an end. We’re trying catalyze a movement that leads to a culture shift, one that sets the table and expands the conversation while adding knowledge, the why behind the how.”

In consultation with parents and the Bezos Family Foundation, an initial version of the application was launched as a pilot program in South King County, Seattle with a group of 50 organizations taking part. These groups ranged from social services agencies and community clinics to childcare providers and home visitors. In addition, more than 130 local businesses gave space in their storefronts to promote the effort. The foundation also held a launch event where families could come and learn more about early childhood development and Vroom.

After completing the launch, Uncorked made final changes to the app and moved it next towards a public release.

Future Vroom

With Daily Vroom as a digital cornerstone, and Johannes Leonardo’s continued advisory, the Bezos Family Foundation’s efforts have broadened awareness of early childhood brain development across a wide array of targets.

The Vroom involvement has reached as high as the White House and President Obama’s efforts to improve early childhood learning on a national scale, with King County officials invited to the White House Summit on Early Learning in December 2014.

Starting in 2016, the state of Louisiana began to include Vroom materials in all of the birth certificates it issued. In Florida, a pilot program through the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading reported parents using Vroom saw a 97 percent success rate in deepening parents’ connections with their children.

Later in the year, it was announced Johnson & Johnson baby products and Goya foods would include inserts and change packaging to include Vroom tips, broadening the movement’s reach even further. Goya’s alphabet pasta, for instance, includes a Vroom on letter recognition and language skills. Goya’s Maria cookies feature a Vroomon sizes and shapes.

“When we went to Goya, they got it right away,” Jackie Bezos told the Aspen audience. “There was no second, third, fourth, fifth meeting trying to convince them. They said: Just tell us what to do!”

Post-launch, Uncorked continued to collect user feedback as the application reached more and more communities. The core design framework has extended through several iterations of the existing app, the launch of Daily Vroom for iOS and Fire Phones, and significant additional functionality. It has also added significant functionality to each platform.

According to Bezos, “In four months, Vroom was able to move the needle on awareness and positive parenting routines. With the benefit of this learning, we scaled nationwide: Our-on-the-ground partners are activating Vroom in 25 states. The Daily Vroom app is used in all 50 states and downloaded in more than 100 countries, and hundreds of thousands are being reached through our brand partnerships.”

In the end, the team built a series of products that work together as part of a larger initiative pushing for better early-childhood development outcomes for at-risk segments of the population. But Daily Vroom is useful for any parent with a young child, to spur creativity, to bring about bonding moments, and to understand the phone is a tool that, when managed smartly, can build better connections between us.

SUCCESSES


More than 100,000 Daily Vroom downloads in over 100 countries


Vroom has been downloaded in all 50 states


Custom CMS still in use and being updated


Ranked 4+ on the iOS, Google Play, and Amazon store