GUEST POST: An Interview with an App Designer
Joe LeBlanc is a musician, photographer and app producer based in Washington DC. His latest app SmartCards+ helps people memorize more effectively by tracking study history and suggesting reviews at the optimal time to place them into long term memory.
1) Tell us a bit more about your work
Since 2011 I've been developing apps around various interest areas of mine. I started out with a few music based apps and since have expanded to other areas. My apps have been downloaded over 3 million times, which I still almost can't believe!
2) What got you interested in developing a learning app?
SmartCards+ was created out of a personal interest to learn more effectively. My wife is a native Korean speaker and we decided after having kids to raise them speaking both English and Korean. I'm not Korean but I really wanted to stay in the loop with this process so I began studying. I quickly realized vocabulary acquisition was one of the toughest aspects of language learning and I discovered the concept of spaced repetition via the app store. There were a lot of great resources on the app store but nothing worked exactly the way I would have liked it to. Because I had experience making apps and had some pretty specific ideas on what type of app I would like to use myself, I thought this would be a great space to make an app in.
3) What's the process of developing an app like this?
Creating an app like this was certainly the most complex app we have worked on so far. I have a small team that I regularly work with, but for this project we had to bring in a few more talented people to make it all happen. There was a lot of thought that went into the design and actual use of the app, making sure every little detail and action would be obvious to the user. The process from start to app launch was about 9 months, but we are continually updating and improving the app as we get user feedback.
4) Can you tell us a bit more about how you have incorporated research on learning into SmartCards+?
I didn't conduct my own unique research into spaced repetition, but the app is based heavily on the research of others, in particular Piotr Woźniak, who is the creator of one of the first popular software based spaced repetition systems SuperMemo. SmartCards+ is built around his SM-2 algorithm(with some customizations to suit our purposes of course!). The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus did a lot of important research on memory, most important of which was his concept of the 'forgetting curve' which describes the expected rate that memory decays. He found that over time, memory decays at a regular exponential rate, but that each time an item is actively recalled, the forgetting curve is reset, the rate of decay is reduced and thus the information doesn't need to be reviewed as soon as the last time. Most if not all spaced repetition systems are built around this concept. Before it was possible to use software to manage spaced repetition, Sebastian Leitner developed his own simple system that could be used with physical flashcards. Now with computers and modern software it's much easier to manage this in more complex ways to make spaced repetition even more effective.
5a) Who do you see as the potential user of this app?
Language learners, law students and medical students tend to be huge fans of spaced repetition, but it really can and should be used by anyone learning a lot of material that needs to be retained for a long time. The goal when creating SmartCards+ was to be a lot more intuitive and have a short learning curve than other similar apps out there, so people can simply jump in and start learning.
5b) And how do you hope people use information on spaced repetition to help their learning?
The key to spaced repetition is consistency and to trust the algorithm. Spaced repetition is a process that will absolutely save you time, but it can't be rushed! Looking over my own personal learning stats for 2017, I learned 2188 new words and studied an average of 27 minutes per day. That is only about 4.4 minutes spent on each word which is pretty incredible, but those repetitions a spaced out at increasing intervals over time so the entire process does take time!