Phrasebook Travel App and Learning Portal

Customer

The Customer is an innovative Irish-American startup with the mission to revolutionize the way people learn foreign languages and assist avid travelers in everyday communicative situations. The company was born out of the linguistic passion and caters to the needs of over 90,000 global citizens, and now it is rapidly attracting new followers as well as investment capital.

Challenge

Aware of the market demand for intuitive and efficient language apps, the Customer wanted to create a set of tools to bridge the linguistic gap between travel tech and self-study solutions.

The problem with the former is the lack of flexibility: traditional phrasebooks and apps based on them have a limited collection of phrases, and a user has to browse through them in search for something fitting the context. And then struggle to pronounce the incomprehensible set of letters and to figure out which syllable the stress must fall on. Unconscious and often incorrect reproducing of the whole chunks of text is not only unhelpful in learning the language, but can also bring about some embarrassing situations.

At the same time, self-study software solutions tend to fall into another extreme: decomposing everything from vocabulary to grammar from the early start. Desktop and mobile language learning apps adopt traditional schoolbook methods, and before learners can embark on a meaningful conversation, they are fed numerous conjugation rules, grammar patterns and vocabulary sets like colors or names of animals.

The Customer decided to change the game by putting the language models approach at the core of their solutions. It builds upon the statistical probability of a certain word order in the given language. When learners fill in the basic patterns with words occurring in common contexts like shopping or eating out, they can quickly build up the minimum set and start talking. Memorizing such patterns in the context makes the language acquisition process similar to the way how children learn to talk and intuitively soak in the grammar rules.

Solution

The Customer needed an experienced software development company to bring their ideas to life by developing two innovative language tools: a mobile app (originally only iOS) which would serve as a handy traveler’s phrasebook and a learning web portal where users could further polish their conversational skills.

Mobile app

In the course of 3 months a dedicated ScienceSoft iOS developer designed, developed and tested a sleek mobile app which helps users to build and use phrases without worrying about grammar.

Through the intuitive interface the app users can:

  • build simple phrases from components in their language
  • immediately see them translated in the adequate components in the target language
  • listen to a native speaker saying a phrase an unlimited number of times to get the intonation and stresses right
  • see the phonetic spelling of the phrase
  • create a personalized directory from the phrases they have built for future reference

The phrases in the app are classified by topics like Hotel, Business, Transport, Emergency and so on. When users re-create different phrase from components, Lego-parts-style, ordering food, making reservations, and getting around a city, they unconsciously pick up some recurring patterns like the question word order or modal verbs. So the app not only gets people talking straight away, but also lays a base for future language learning.

Despite being quite lightweight, the app works perfectly well offline in any location. It is important for travelers who often do not have Internet access because of the high data roaming costs.

Learning portal

Once the iOS mobile app has caught up, the Customer decided to proceed with an online learning platform. The web portal has been in development by two Software Engineers and the Team Lead from ScienceSoft side for over 3 months and the launch is planned for August 2015.

The learning web portal goes further than the app in terms of topics and material covered as well as training exercises while staying true to the principle that conversational skills come first. It employs gamification and interactivity to engage users in a customizable learning experience and offers them control and, thus, responsibility over what and how they choose to study.

The functionality of the platform developed on the Pimcore, a popular content and asset management system, allows:

  • to register new users and create personal work spaces where their progress can be saved and tracked
  • to arrange multimedia (text, pictures, audio and video) learning materials according to different topics and set up methodologically optimal sequence for their presentation
  • to create training and revision exercises to build learners’ competences such as writing and speaking, reading and listening comprehension
  • to design and administer interactive tests to assess the progress and highlight knowledge gaps
  • to upload new content in a convenient format, for example, directly from Excel tables
  • to run digital asset management: an administrator can easily upload, edit and exchange video, audio and graphic files

All these features are packed in a responsive lean design which is optimized to provide the ultimate user experience across most popular desktop and mobile and tablet browsers. It means that users can enjoy the possibility to improve their language skills from anywhere and at any convenient time.

For hosting, a dedicated server has been chosen and fully configured by ScienceSoft specialists. And since the web application handles content-rich learning materials (video and audio), the CloudFlare content delivery network (CDN) is used to deliver the data smoothly to users around the world.

One of the biggest challenges was that there was no solid requirements specification and many features had to be defined and fine-tuned on the fly. However, the agile development methodology allowed for flexibility and the necessary degree of improvisation to find the most optimal way to implement the required functionality.

The learning portal will run on a subscription-based model with a free trial, which means that after a free registration new users will get access to a limited number of learning resources (e.g. only one topic) or may choose to unlock only one language. To study further they will need to buy a subscription, and to ensure secure money transactions ScienceSoft has also integrated the portal with Stripe, a set of tools to accept and manage online payments.

Results

A little more than a year since it hit the market, the iOS app has been downloaded from the App Store over 90,000 times across 175 countries. Investors expect these numbers to grow as new languages and features are added, and these expectations are backed by about $200,000 in seed funding. Now it works with Italian, Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French with Swedish, German, and some Asian languages underway.

The app has received a number of prestigious awards in such categories as Best education, Best travel, New Education Apps in Italy, Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. In the meantime, ScienceSoft, experienced in android development services, has been commissioned to work on the Android version of the app as well.

As the app is building the brand awareness, the launch of the learning portal scheduled for August 2015 is promised an easy take-off. The portal will be accessible both from desktop and mobile web browsers. ScienceSoft will continue to support the solution and develop new features.

Technologies and Tools

Mobile app: iOS SDK, Xcode, UIKit, CoreData, Internatialization, Ruby scripts + Bash shell scripts used for development environment automation, git, Jira.

Learning portal: LAMP stack, PHP, JavaScript, jQuery, CloudFlare CDN, Pimcore CMS, HTML5/CSS media queries, Stripe for subscription-based billing and in-app purchasing, backend integration with the Android app.