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Miss D is a dictionary app for the linguistically curious

TechCrunch TechCrunch 20/04/2016 Natasha Lomas

If you’re seriously attempting to learn another language then at least one dictionary app will be a staple on your smartphone homescreen. And familiarity with its UX foibles will have long ago set your teeth on edge.

But when you’re grappling with a hard problem like language learning, your personal tolerance for minor irritations must necessarily be very high indeed. Or you might as well say adios to those dreams of speaking like a native right now.

Sadly there’s no app to upload another idioma directly to your brain  — ya esta! — quite yet. Indeed, it appears all we’re going to get from tech in the near future is some spammy chatbots and the chance to strap an eggbox to your face to pretend you’re somewhere else… So nothing half as useful, clearly. Ergo we’re stuck with dictionary apps for now.

My go-to dictionary app has the unlovely name of SpanishDict. Its design is better than the awkward name suggests but aesthetics wise the highest praise you’d probably bestow upon it is that it looks ‘clean and functional’. Which is fine. After all, it’s a workhorse, not a show pony — or at least it should be, assuming you’re really set on communicating afuera your comfort zone.

But some irritations do remain, mostly in the form of repetitive UX actions which would go entirely unnoticed if it was just an app that was used occasionally. But, well, if you’re looking up stuff every couple of hours of every day then any UX friction becomes magnified via accumulation and soon stacks up to a sizable frustration.

Such as, for example, the need to tap to position the cursor inside the text box before you can start typing whatever words you need to translate. Or a fiddly/glitchy implementation of cut and paste on the definitions screen (I’d have thought the need to smoothly snatch translations and relay them to messaging apps like WhatsApp is a pretty standard modus operandi for language learners nowadays, so dictionary app developers — hint, hint! — make cut and paste really, really easy!).

Ergo, there’s certainly room for improvement. Although, ultimately, I’d always pick substance/utility over design/style for an app where sustained education is the primary goal.

That said, a New Zealand based app developer duo reckons a stronger focus on design can inject new energy to shake up what it dubs the “boring” dictionary app space — even if only for rather less single-minded language learners than I.

And the result? A visually minimalist, determinedly modern and rather charming dictionary app called Miss D, which co-founder Tony Tao says is aimed at making people curious about learning other languages. Lots of other languages, given the app simultaneously translates your target word (or phrase) into not one but ten other languages: French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Korean and Polish.

And that’s not all; if you’re just searching for a word it can also serve you up a relevant emoji. And a Wikipedia definition (in English) of the term you were looking for.

But best of all, in my opinion, the app kills off the cursor, landing you right into text input mode with the visual command to ‘type’ as soon as you open it. So no need to tap once to begin typing. A small detail, sure, but in the long game of language learning it’s the little stuff that counts.

But what about the big stuff? The app’s grand design decision to simultaneously translate into so many other languages — who really needs an app that does that?

“It is all about curiosity,” is Tao’s response. “By using a typical one to one dictionary app, you may learn hello in Chinese, however you may never learn hello in Italian, Russian, Spanish or Korean. The ultimate goal is to extend your leaning circle, not only giving you what you want, but also what you need.”

“I bet if you can say hello in 10+ languages you will make more friends? Be more popular in the office? Everyone gives you “Dr.Smart” as nick name, you name the possibility,” he adds, suffixing his sentence with a smilie.

He does also point out that the app can be used for focusing on just one language if you prefer (and if you can visually tune out the other results). To further this use-case, it retains the position where you scrolled to when it displays its list of multiple definitions, and will then keep serving up your translations in the same position (assuming you don’t close the app) — so with what is presumably your target language where you last left it.

“Our target audience should be people using apps like Google Translate, and we position our app as something between a comprehensive dictionary app and traditional translation app,” he says, adding: “The UX of the app is built around both user cases not just for people after multiple languages.”

The emoji feature also has a little more purpose behind it than first meets the eye. Emoji may seem trivial but symbols are more universal than words so, in the context of a dictionary app, emoji can potentially be a useful additional to a language learner’s toolbox.

“It is the first time I see it in a dictionary app as far as I know,” says Tao, dubbing the emoji feature “fun and useful”. “The idea is to transform the words into graphics which we believe is very powerful. Let’s say you are in China, and you want to say the word “Bus”, instead of say the word in Chinese, you can just show the emoji and they will understand.”

You can’t argue with that basic logic. Or with the communicative power of emoji.

The Miss D app is free to download but there’s a pro version — via a paid upgrade ($1.49) — that offers a few more features, such as the ability to listen to audio clips of translations (you just need to tap the word once to hear it twice). So again, for users of the freemium app, the emoji feature could act as a stand-in alternative to not being able to play an audio clip if you’re not confident of correctly pronouncing a word.

Another cute piece of design means the background color of the app changes based on the sentiment of the words. So you might see a green background if you search for the word ‘grass’, for example. Or a blue background if you search for ‘sky’. It’s a subtle visual detail that could perhaps help when it comes to reinforcing the memorizing process for translated words.

The idea for striping back a dictionary app interface to the bare-bones of search plus translation came after the team talked to a handful of dictionary app users about the features they use, says Tao — such as vocabulary lists, favorites and word of the day — and were apparently told people only use one feature: search.

Now call me crazy but I also love my dictionary app’s Word of the Day feature, and have developed a near superstitious curiosity to view which new new word will kick off my morning. But there are a range of other features in SpanishDict that I barely or don’t really use. So a tight, thoughtful approach to what to include/not to include, features wise, probably always has a place in app design.

That said, Tao says they will be adding a Word of the Day feature in a future update to the app, along with the ability to reorder the languages list so you can choose which language you see first, second and so on. They are also looking at how to include verb conjugation (another workhorse feature I point out as useful to dictionary app users) in future. And are thinking about “smart” ways to display multiple definitions for words where one word can have different interpretations (at the moment the app just serves up a single option).

So, in fact, there’s quite a lot more on the roadmap of Miss D — which could result in a rather less minimalist app, down the line. Time will tell how well they balance the challenge of slotting a whole lot more in.

For now, it’s a cute app, for sure. And while it’s not going to usurp my trusty workhorse SpanishDict anytime soon, nor is my finger hovering over Miss D preparing to push-delete the app into oblivion either — the inexorable fate of so many lesser creations — so it’s earned itself a little breathing space on my homescreen. Evidently strong design, thoughtfully applied, can develop its own substance.

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