Written by David Ortinau
At Rendr we create many wonderful things we aren’t at liberty to discuss publicly. We can’t just tell the world, “we do great things” and expect you’ll take our word for it. And so, when we have an internal experiment that shows promise, we’ve decided to jump at the opportunity to polish it up into a product we can both enjoy using and share with others.
How You Say is one such project that was born out of my personal need for a language learning app that could support not just Albanian, but the very localized flavor where I would be visiting, Gjakova, Kosovo.
I’ve written more about that trip to Kosovo (and then Italy) on the How You Say website. Here I want to write a bit more about the process of app making as it relates to building this language app.
Language Learning Apps
Ben and I both have worked with and for creative agencies in the past and as vendors. Though not true of all agencies, most will perfect knowledge within vertically within a single or handful of industries such as agriculture, medical services, or finance. Technology and user experience vendors like ourselves work more horizontally across a broader variety of industries.
A rewarding advantage we’ve found from doing this for nearly 20 years is not only how to quickly become subject matter experts in a field, but how to see innovative solutions when applying learning from one industry to another. And then we can take all of those learnings about usability, behavioral psychology, user research, and so much more to deliver better and better apps.
While I’m not exactly a globe trotter, I have had the opportunity to visit a few non-English speaking countries. Each time I’ve traveled, there was always a period of language preparation using the most readily available tools: audio lessons, phrase books, and now mobile apps and websites.
Language learning is popular. Learning a new language is typically among the top 10 resolutions people make every year. It’s also among the main goals people have when traveling internationally. Is it any wonder Rosetta Stone has kiosks in nearly every airport?
I use these all the time, especially Memrise and Google Translate. Where things break down is when you go to have a conversation in another language, it’s just not the same kind of recall. It’s like you’ve been working out your core muscles, and now you need to sprint. Sure, you need that core strength, but something more is needed in that moment.
In 2015 Microsoft released their own Translator app and supporting services that provide translation through voice dictation. When you search to learn about Translator, you find that this is mostly a machine translation API Microsoft is developing. There are a lot of things to like here to support in-the-moment translation.
“Use your phone alone, or pair with your smart watch to engage in conversation without the challenges of a language barrier. Translator allows each participant to speak in their own language and be easily understood by everyone in the conversation.”
Unsurprisingly, Albanian is not supported.
At the recent CES 2016, Logbar Inc. announced a wearable translator named “ili” that you wear around your neck. The website features a deep philosophical conversation. “I think he’s really hot!” says the American girl, to which a Japanese girl replies, “Yeah, he is cool!”
I’ll be interested to find out how this performs out in the wild. Microsoft Translator has the advantage of a screen to fall back on when ambient noise intrudes.
If your goal is to communicate on a surface level, those translators sound like great tools. Language learning is about so much more.
Some learning strategies emphasize vocabulary and memorization, some language rules, and others learning through methods like chunking when you learn a phrase and the context in which it should be used, but don’t really grasp the grammar or vocabulary used. Regardless of the learning method, emersion seems to be the universally accepted way to most quickly master a second language.
Introducing How You Say
While all of these apps and strategies do great things for language learners, rarely does a single approach meet everyone’s need. We feel we’ve identified a facet of language learning that has yet to be addressed in an app, and one that satisfies at a much deeper and rewarding level.
With How You Say, we approach language learning with the opinion that:
* people in a locale rarely use the phrases you’ve learned in an app or book
* it’s more important to understand than to be understood; you are in their world
* communication is more than language syntax, it’s cultural context
* relationships are essential to learning a language
* learning a language is learning a culture, how a people views and interacts with the world we share
We describe How You Say as your personal language learning journal. As you learn a phrase, or identify a word that you want to remember, you add it to the app. We’ve been using the word “journaling” to describe this, though it’s not meant as the “dear diary” sort. Log it, capture it….perhaps some day we’ll come up with a catchier way to say it like Instagram has done with visuals.
Then, if you’re like me, as soon as you’ve heard the pronunciation, you’ve just as quickly forgotten it. How You Say enables you to capture a native speaker (or yourself) repeating it just as it should be said. Audio recording and playback also conveniently work from Apple WatchⓇ. I used the watch throughout our trip to Kosovo and Italy, and other than navigation, I found How You Say to be really the only other useful app for me. It’s great for quick, in the moment access to small bits of information like words and phrases.
Because we know that some phrases are only appropriate in certain company or in particular situations, you can add notes to each translation. While you’re at it, you can write notes about who you were talking to and where you were.
“Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You may be wondering why How You Say makes you do so much work. Shouldn’t apps make you do less? Automate all the things?!
The process of doing the work naturally stimulates your brain to learn and lock in that learning. Typing the phrases in How You Say, associating it with a conversation that becomes memory, and adding the audio and notes all help it to really sink in and take root.
“But what if I embarrass myself?” you may be asking. I feel that way every time I conduct a user interview. But people appreciate your interest in them, in their language and culture. I was asking my friend Alejandro how he learned English coming from Mexico, and he described how he initially wasn’t very confident in using his English and it was difficult to learn quickly. It was when he finally decided to not worry about being embarrassed that he really became proficient. Side note: Alejandro graciously contributed the Spanish phrases and audio included in How You Say’s starter set.
Great experiences, meeting interesting people, learning local culture, and making a few friends are all bonus byproducts of the process. I dare say these are byproducts you are less likely to get from a computer or phone or device generated translation alone.
It is now my absolute pleasure to introduce to you Salvatore. This kind, generous man made our 29 story climb to the cemetery in Amalfi totally worth it. He shared story after crazy story which I hope to bring to you once I fix audio on the GoPro footage. He’s a riot! Even the harbor workers know him (and may not believe a word he says).
Walking the streets of #Gjakova I captured a brief conversation with this man that spanned English, German and Albanian. We basically understood each other. Barely. Ha! I observed from the English speaking Kosovars that the most proficient in language are those willing to make mistakes. That’s good advice for many areas of life I think. #gopro
A photo posted by David Ortinau (@davidortinau) on
We believe apps are at their best when they focus us on what truly matters, improving relationships and lives. Although that can easily sound cliche, we prefer to hear it as a challenge!
Field Testing: Lessons Learned
My trip to Kosovo and Italy was a perfect opportunity to field test the app. At Rendr we encourage all kinds of field trips, whether it’s interviewing target audiences, learning about how our apps will be used in their context, or testing our apps where they matter most. We very often will buy that latest wearables, mobile devices and other gadgets so we can live with them day in and day out to truly understand the experiences.
The first friction point I discovered in Gjakova was the speed with which I could enter and record phrases. It had to be fast! When it wasn’t, I’d have an awkward pause in an already difficult conversation while I’m messed around with the app, waiting for screens to appear, and typing in content unnecessarily.
When I would ask someone to record a phrase, and hand them my phone, I found they wouldn’t always recall what phrase I was asking them to say…even if I’d just said it. How could they, it wasn’t on the screen?!
As I got beyond a simple list, I discovered I wanted to review what I had captured throughout the day. This led to making a bookmark tab for quick access to phrases just learned or most commonly referenced.
Somewhat unrelated to the app, I thought it interesting that when people wouldn’t understand my spoken Albanian, it wasn’t necessarily because I was butchering the phrase. Because I was a blonde hair blue eyed American among dark hair and brown eyed Kosovars, they didn’t expect Albanian to come out of my mouth. Not only that, but people there prefer to speak English with us.
Prototyping and Workflow
We have adopted a few tools and a design workflow to take what we’ve learned through user research and in this case actual field testing, and then quickly iterate over designs, activity flows, and usability concerns. We first wireframe our UI based on user stories and/or activity flows we’ve scripted. Our designers will produce some beautiful screens building upon those. The design assets are then imported from Photoshop or Illustrator into Sketch where we can quickly layout each screen and activity flow. When we are ready to distribute those ideas to others for feedback, we publish to InVision. InVision enables us to quickly link each screen and mimic some pretty realistic transitions and flows that can be reviewed and commented on via mobile device as well as desktop.
Those familiar with these tools will point out we can easily take designs from Photoshop or Illustrator directly to InVision. We find Sketch so easy and quick to use, that we want to get designs into that environment as quickly as possible. Lately we do the majority of our design work directly in Sketch. Everyone on our team, both designer and developer alike, can easily use Sketch. While it is less powerful than Photoshop, we find those constraints help us focus on elements that matter most: usability, content and flow.
Once development is ready for assets, we use Zeplin to distribute assets, styles, and fonts to iOS and Android alike. Zeplin makes it easy for everyone to get what they need in the format they need. Images can be downloaded as vector or png, which in Sketch we setup with export profiles for both iOS and Android at each pixel density.
This workflow has been extremely beneficial to How You Say and the client projects we’ve done over the past year.
While we have a growing list of updates we think could make How You Say really sing, and we are entertaining some interesting platform integrations, it’s time to hear from other language learners. We hope you’ll give it a try and let us know how it works for you.
In the meantime, we’ll be working on leveling up our PR and marketing chops as we launch our own product into the app-verse.
I like to say “code isn’t what we do, it’s how we do”. As a result, my emphasis is on people and real world outcomes. But that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t important; after all, Ben and I are by trade developers and that craft is near and dear to our hearts.
At Rendr, our opinion has always been that technology decisions that benefit developers should never trump delivering exceptional user value. We favor and advocate heavily for using the Xamarin platform to deliver an uncompromising user experience while sharing the maximum technology across vendor platforms, maximizing client budget effectiveness, and reducing friction for growing and ensuring the quality of an application.
After building the alpha version of How You Say with Apple’s new Swift language, we re-wrote a multi-language iOS version of the app using Xamarin. Unfortunately, Apple’s architectural changes from watchOS 1 to watchOS 2 were substantial and have been problematic. As of this writing, Xamarin iOS doesn’t support watchOS 2 on device. Not having Apple WatchⓇ support would have been robbing people of something useful. We decided to move forward with vendor native.
We began working with Swift very early on (December 2014) for a startup client in San Jose, The Happy Home Co. Having previously worked with Obj-C, and loving the C# syntax, Swift was easy to adopt and has been a pleasure with which to work. JetBrains has done a fantastic job with all their IDEs and for the most part AppCode has been a useful tool for coding Swift. The language is still young and changing rapidly, and we’ve seen that create a bit of unreliability in AppCode. Every build seems to improve much to our great appreciation.
We have developed the Android version using Java and have been extremely pleased with Android Studio, again another IDE by JetBrains. As with Swift, we find it’s beneficial to work within the vendor community and not become isolated within a single niche. In this way we maintain a deeper understanding of the underlying frameworks and the patterns and solutions prevalent in those communities.