App developer learns a few things from his seven-year-old daughter

Software that tracks how much quality time you spend with your children was itself time well spent, writes Clara Chow

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 10:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 10:39am

Of all the clients that software developer Erwan Mace has worked with, the toughest customer might just be his own daughter.

Last year, Mace and his seven-year-old, Lia, started working together on an app to help parents keep track of how much time they had spent with their children.

"One day, I was putting her to bed and, out of the blue, she said: 'I have an app you can make'," says French-born, Singapore-based Mace, 41, on how their project began. "I was quite shocked."

Lia's initial idea had been an app that would allow parents and children to give each other virtual hugs, like the real-life hugs that she and her father share (they hold each other for the count of whatever day it happens to be - one count if it's July 1, and thirty-one if it's July 31). That idea, however, evolved to the present incarnation, where parents are given points depending on what activities they've done together and for how long. More points are awarded for outdoor and cultural activities, which presumably lead to greater bonding or are more educational.

The app, named Mini Hug, was launched last month in the Apple App Store. Since then, says Mace, it has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. It has attracted only one review so far, but feedback has been good, he says.

And while some parents have expressed concern about tracking information about their kids, even though Mace says the data is private, they are few in number.

Along the way, says the proud dad, Lia called many of the shots. After they worked out a list of features they wanted in their app, Mace asked Lia to shortlist and pick a software coder to help build it. Her incredulous response - "You mean you're not going to do it yourself?" - told him that this was one project he would not be able to outsource.

Over a two-week design period, she would come home from school and eagerly look through the mock-ups sent by designers for the app interface and rank them. It was Lia who chose the eventual rainbow-theme of Mini Hug. Mace did the coding in six weeks. Lia had tried coding for one night, as her dad dictated the lines, but found it too boring.

She also insisted that the app be shrouded in secrecy - Mace was not allowed to show it to anyone or even send it out to gather feedback from users. "She was afraid that someone else might steal the idea."

Lia probably gets her shrewd instincts from her mother Sherin, a former lawyer, Mace says. "I've been doing apps and software for many years, and there are things we do automatically, but this time I was doing it with her, and it forced me to do it step by step. It was quite humbling," says Mace.

Sitting next to her parents during our interview at The Hub, the co-working space that Mace works out of a few days a week, Lia looks like any other seven-year-old - certainly no hard-nosed business prodigy in a pint-sized power suit - albeit one with an iPod touch on a pink rubber strap around her wrist. Shy with strangers, the Primary Two student at Lycée Francais de Singapour wants to be a model and a ballerina when she grows up.

Mace's aim is certainly not to turn his daughter into a technopreneur. "I don't want to force her into technology just because I like it," he says.

Mace started coding at the age of eight and later went on to work at French telecommunications company Alcatel, at music startup Soundbuzz as chief technology officer and at Google driving developer relations in Southeast Asia.

Today, he is founder and chief executive officer of Bitsmedia, which is best known for coming up with Muslim Pro, an app that helps keep track of prayer times for the Muslim community worldwide.

"For Lia, I can only hope she gets to discover something she really enjoys and finds a way to live off her passion. That being said, it's important to expose her to technology. It's everywhere," he says.

Asked if it is a sad state of affairs in today's world that parents might need an app to motivate them to spend more time with their children, Mace says: "I don't know if it's sad. Is it sad that you need an app to track how you run or the time you spend at the gym?

"It's certainly sad that today's parents do not spend more time with their children," says Mace, who mostly works from home. "But it's also the reality of life. A few generations ago, a lot of women were staying home. Today's women are not just mums taking care of the house, they have their own careers. That's fantastic, but as a result both parents work and kids get to spend less time with their parents. If we can contribute to helping parents spend more quality time with their children, that's good."

Whipping out his phone, he taps the Mini Hug icon to show a pie chart that indicates that some 80 per cent of the time he has spent with Lia in the past few days has been driving her to and from school - bolstering his point that parents may be physically with a child but not engaging them.

"We have to do better," he says. "So by having these pie charts, we're forcing people to ask themselves the good questions."

An update for the app will be released later this month, making it available in six languages besides English - Korean, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish and Italian. Other features, such as ways to convert points into virtual stickers or other rewards, are planned.

Will the app continue to be free? As Mace starts to say yes, Lia begins to shake her head vehemently. No, she asserts, displaying her feisty side. It has to make money, she says.

Father and daughter then embark on a discussion about advertising models and other ways to monetise the app.

What about a bring-your-daughter-to-work day? As parents such as Mace know, collaborating professionally with your children is infinitely more satisfying.