Rebel Girls is an “edutainment” company on a mission to empower girls through stories of awe-inspiring women. Among its New York Times bestselling books, acclaimed podcasts and other content is its audio app — designed and built by STRV.
A little background: After STRV provided a UX/UI review for Rebel Girls’ website, the team asked us to “create an audio app that would give life to inspiring stories for young girls.” More on the entire product journey in our Rebel Girls Case Study (coming soon).
Today, the app has a 4.8 rating on the App Store and includes more than 600 original stories — which makes it significantly content-heavy. The topic we’d like to cover is:
How did our designer make the app simple, accessible and as on-brand as it gets?
STRV Product Designer Ria Arante lets us in on her Rebel Girls process, including how caring about users (kids and parents) influenced her designs, the magic of stepping outside of the grid and what she believes makes the app award-worthy.
Perfecting the Playful Imperfections
Rebel Girls has a very specific look. How did you play on the strengths of the brand when translating it into a new product?
The Rebel Girls illustrations are the heart of the app. Given that, I played around with the interface and overall visual style to heavily match those illustrations and make them pop.
I always say that our designs were like a sidekick, an extension of the illustration style — making one whole and creating a seamless experience. The illustration is what you see, and the interface doesn’t bother you because you can access the visuals so easily. You get to the heart of the app without any issues.
It took me a while to perfect the imperfection — the “imperfect” icons and visuals that stand out. Of course, I had to adhere to iOS development patterns, but I didn’t want to be constrained by them. It’s about following the grid but, at the same time, not being afraid to go outside of it.
These are the tiny details that made an impact on the overall visuals. If we’d done too much, it would be overwhelming. But if we’d done too little, it would look like any other audio app.
Three Pillars: UX, Visual Style & Extra Fun
During your talk at the Eastern Design Conference, you spoke about three pillars on which the app stands: Experience, Visual Style and Extra Fun. Can you expand on the Experience (UX) aspect?
Rather than overdoing the features, we realized that kids just really enjoy listening to the stories. That’s the core of the app. So we went with simpler navigation, which made sense for the Rebel Girls brand. It made it so easy for the kids to discover the value of the app.
Because it’s an app for kids, everyone also first thought it should be gamified. But this changed once we realized that the fun comes from the audio stories themselves. Once again, it was about not overdoing what the value of the app is — which is for kids to listen to stories.
In terms of the Visual Style, how did you approach designing an app for children that would also be appreciated by the parents?
Usually, an app for kids has a place for parents, and another place for kids. The parents buy the app and hand it over to the kids to play with. But for Rebel Girls, we envisioned it differently. We wanted it to be enjoyed equally by parents and kids. So, while a child might enjoy a busy screen, an adult would find it hard to understand. We kept that in mind.
For design, that meant making visuals playful but not overly cutesy. The way I’d describe the app’s design is creative, but not too messy — “sketchy,” but so it doesn’t feel scribbled. That’s the overall brand of Rebel Girls, and I emulated that in the visual style of the app.
Where does the Extra Fun part come in and how do you think the app gets it right?
The biggest fun part came once we had time to build on more features on top of the audio stories, after the MVP’s been released. Rebel Girls is still in that stage and there’s a list of cool ideas we think might be appreciated. But will users enjoy them all? We don’t know the answer. You always have to keep doing research.
I’ve designed many prototypes that kids and parents tried out, and it helped us understand what they really want. For example, kids loved having drawing and coloring as part of the app, but parents didn’t because it meant more screen time. On the flip side, things like trivia questions are an all-around hit — it’s great for developing the kids’ learning abilities and kids love quizzes.
You should always experiment with fun ideas, but never assume you know what users want.
Accessibility for Children & Beyond
You’ve described “caring about Rebel Girls users” by focusing on accessibility. How is this visible within the app?
I always say that this might be seen as the boring part of design, but you have to look at all the standards out there. It’s not about redoing something but about fixing and improving things.
Even though we made the app pretty with all those illustrations and visuals, we still had to think about the accessibility and how it would work for children. That meant looking into the sizes and fonts… for example, how big should the icons be for kids’ stubby little finger sizes?
We also involved our accessibility team at STRV to perfect all accessibility standards, like the ideal contrast when there’s a background image behind copy or the spacing between the line height of text. A lot of details can slip through the cracks without being given proper attention.
The Main Ingredient Behind the Success?
You’re one of the most humble people at STRV — but let’s place that humbleness aside for a sec. What do you think is the “secret sauce” that led to all the design awards?
I’d say the app wouldn't be this successful if the content wasn’t delivered well. The illustrations are a big part of it, but it's the powerful audio stories and how they’re presented that really made the app stand out. I think the app managed to deliver all of these stories in a delightful, simple way — it's easy to navigate despite the volume.
But I really can’t take all the credit. The Creative Lead at Rebel Girls did a great job of establishing the brand for the app. While I was working on the app style directly, he was the one managing it and the illustrations themselves.
We actually met every single day. I wasn’t told what to do; I was told what we want to accomplish, but there were no requirements. It was left to me to explore. Then, together, we asked ourselves, “Does it work for us? Does it accomplish what we’re trying to do?” The entire design process was a time of exploration, and I’m so proud of what we created together.