On my first day at ELTjam, I was pitched at. Tim, Laurie and Nick (the ELTjam founders) sat me down in the meeting room at the Hackney Wick co-working space where myself, Nick and Hristina are based, and they tried to sell me their product ideas. This week, we take the first step towards testing whether one of these ideas can become a viable ELT product. Today sees the launch of the flovo.co landing page, our own MVP, a little litmus test.

But how did we get to this point, what have we, specifically I, been up to since the 12th May and why have we made a webpage before the app is ready? This post explains the process that we’ve been through and some of the decisions we’ve made. We wanted to share some of the things that we are learning in the hope that it can help others involved in both ELT and in EdTech, and we also wanted to get thoughts and ideas on how we can improve the process we’re going through as we create digital ELT products here at ELTjam.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 16.58.53Lean Canvas and Brainstorming

A business model canvas encourages business owners to properly think through the various aspects of a product or idea before investing more time and money in making it a reality. In 2009, Ash Maurya created an updated version, the Lean Canvas, reflecting the move towards leaner working processes. The principles are the same; put simply, you think about who might use or buy your product, what problems they have and how you could solve them. From this you write a value proposition (what benefit you provide, to who and why those people would choose your product over any others available). You then look into how those people would be able to find out about your product or service and how you’d make enough money to make a viable and sustainable business out of it. It can be a confusing and time consuming process and very often leads to a realisation that the great idea you had has very little chance of working or significant obstacles in its way.

In my first week I worked on, or looked at, initial lean canvases for around seven different products and services. The idea is that the ones that seem viable get added to and built up over time, the ones that are problematic need a change of course, a pivot, in order to get them back on track, or they can be scrapped. By the end of the first week there were four product ideas that ELTjam decided to pursue (three of which are still being actively worked on), this blogpost tells the story of just one, now known as flovo.co.

The product idea

The product is based on three main assumptions: The first was that learners need vocab, and lots of it. If learners can get a foundation of the top 3000 words under their belt, the rest of the language screen3.1learning process will be smoother and more productive. The second was that learners needed to know more than just meaning, they needed collocation, pronunciation, understanding of word families, synonyms, range etc. too. The third was that if we harness the power of ‘flow’ (the feeling you get when you’re totally focused on what you’re doing, you’re ‘in the zone’), more learners would be able to get through that volume of content and more quickly.

Value proposition: flovo.co is a series of games that help users learn the words that matter (high frequency), learn the things about these words which matter (appropriate depth), and learn in a way that maximises chances of reaching a state of flow (highly motivating).

We figured that enough learners knew that there was a need for vocab, and enough teachers too, and that the market was therefore there. In terms of business model, we felt that there were two possible routes, either direct to consumer (B2C) or a business to business model (B2B). These two routes vary greatly in terms of channels through which people hear about the product and the ways that they generate revenue. We looked at both of these options and decided that there was enough potential to take the next step with the product.

Testing assumptions

The next step was to work out what assumptions we were making with this product idea, and which ones were the most risky; it’s best to start by testing them first! We therefore had to research in more detail the different things that we looked at in the canvas and think about what our most risky assumptions were and go about testing them. The book Lean Analytics by Croll and Yoskovitz says that it’s useful to think about knowledge, or information as falling into one of four categories:

Clearly the biggest risks, but also the biggest opportunities, are in the unknown unknowns. Data can be gathered about the known unknowns, but early stages of product development should be about finding out as much as possible and in doing so you may stumble across something, an opportunity or an obstacle that that you hadn’t even been looking for in the first place. This will generally result in a pivot to a new product direction, revenue stream, channel or proposition. The problem with coming up with an idea and then just building it is that there may well be, in fact almost definitely are, things you don’t know and have no idea about and they could and should have a big impact on how the product progresses.

So we had to decide what to test and how to go about it. We figured that our first main assumption is that people would be interested in a product as described above. Do learners care about vocab or is grammar more important, do teachers and parents want learners to sit there and learn a few thousand words in isolation? Would people be willing to pay for such a product even if it existed?

The way we decided to test these assumptions is with a technique, now not at all uncommon, whereby a web page is built that highlights the value proposition and asks people to give some information to register their interest. By building just a single page site we’re hoping to be able to test some of the assumptions that we’re making, measure people’s responses and gauge interest. The things that we learn from this stage will help us to further define how the product should look, which markets it should be aimed at and the types of people that are interested.

Building the page

It was tricky, at this early stage to decide how much time and money we should put into different aspects of the page. Do we pay a web developer or just build it ourselves in WordPress? Do we pay a designer or mock something up as best we can? Is it worth getting someone to do copy, or is that a place we can save money? The problem is that there is a certain standard of website that consumers have come to expect, and no matter how good the value proposition, if the design is poor, the site clunky or the copy unappealing then people will be less likely to engage. But at the same time we had to keep costs as low as possible so it was a tough decision to make. I spoke to designers and developers from different countries and in the end decided to work with Mark Bain for this stage of the product. He had experience in working with other ELT products, could do both the development and the design, we liked his work, and he quoted a price we could afford to pay!

Then started a process of back and forth between Mark and myself as we iterated on design, logo, layout, copy, functionality etc. We wanted some images of app screens to give the impression of what the app could do, so we spent some time discussing functionality and how best to show the features of the product, despite not being 100% sure of what they would be! We started with overall themes and impressions that we wanted to give and then designed screens and wrote copy to match the ideas. It was also really important that the website was responsive so that it would look good on a mobile, a tablet and various sizes of computer screen, and in order to store the email addresses and create the signup forms we integrated our mailchimp account. But most importantly, we also had to decide on a name. The working title was Flowjam3000, which still has a special place in our hearts, but once a member of the ELTjam pointed out that it sounds like a different product altogether, we realised it needed to change! We created a spreadsheet, and all wrote down a load of terrible and a few good names, and after a lot of domain name searching we settled on the achingly cool flovo.co!

SEO / SEM

As a general rule, in order to get people to your site you can optimise the page to rank higher for certain searched terms (SEO) and you can pay to have your page appear when people search a certain term (SEM). Basically, it’s a market that Google have got all sewn up! You can advertise in other channels such as facebook and twitter too, but at some point you’ll have to put some cash google’s way!

In order to optimise a page, you need to include high quality and relevant content for the people searching the phrases you are interested in. This is therefore much more of a long game, and one that doesn’t really fit with a single page website. You need a blog, info pages and various parts of the site to populate with relevant content. For this reason, we felt there was little we could do in terms of optimisation with the single page we had, and we didn’t have enough time and money to get quality content before we’d validated whether the idea had potential.

So we turned our attention to SEM. How many people would view our site for £10? And how many for £20? It all depended on which words we bid on. So do we bid for big terms like ‘learn English’ or go niche with phrases like ‘English vocabulary appscreen2.1’? What would we learn from paying this cash? How would it influence our decisions? Do we do it in English or Spanish? So many questions, and the answers to each just threw up another few things that we didn’t have enough information or knowledge about. So we decided on a slightly alternative approach; first we’d release the page in English and get feedback from our peers and a few focus groups of learners. From what we learn we can decide whether the idea has enough potential to translate everything to another language and then spend some money on advertising in that language and see if there is genuine consumer interest. Hence the first version of the page, the one you can see at flovo.co is all English and not graded for language learners.

Building the app

Whilst the page was being built, we started looking into other areas that were risky for us. Firstly was the question of whether or not we could afford to build the app, even if people did want it. We had contact with a company called Zzish, who provide back end modules for developers of educational apps. Their idea is to reduce development costs by making available the modules that are common to a large percentage of educational apps and tools. So instead of every company spending money on a gamification module, a learning analytics module, adaptive algorithms etc. Zzish can provide you access to these modules through their API. After approaching Zzish it seemed that there was a big overlap between the functionality they offered and what we were aiming for. They also seemed really interested in the project and so quoted to build the whole app as well as integrate their own modules through their APIs. Zzish have a great team in place and do some really exciting work, plus the price was affordable. So assuming that we validate the idea, things are in place to build the app, hopefully within a month from getting the green light.

screen1.1In order to develop the games and exercises in the app, we need a database of words to build upon. We need definitions, example sentences, derived forms of headwords, links between words of the same word family, words that share a sense, words that have opposite meanings etc. Doing this ourselves through a process of natural language processing would be theoretically possible, but very time consuming. We expect that data that the app would generate would hopefully be of some value in terms of finding out more about how people learn different aspects of words and any regional and age variations etc. So we approached a publishing company and we’re in talks about how we might be able to use the dictionary data that they have available and what implications there may be for the data that we collect. Things are still in early stages but the hope is that this dictionary data will form the main content layer for the app.

Games, progression and scoring

We’ve also been putting effort into what the games will look like, how the adaptive algorithms will work and exactly how we’ll manage to achieve a mental state of flow for our users. Again, it’s not something we want to spend a huge amount of time working on, until we know that there is interest on the product. But as it’s the exciting bit, we haven’t been able to help ourselves. We’ve got some exciting ideas, watch this space!

Next steps

A lot has happened since that first pitch day here in Hackney Wick, but this really is only step 1. Over the next few weeks we’ll be refining the copy and the offering before translating the site into another language, probably Spanish. We’ll then make decisions about how much to spend on advertising and which search terms would be most useful for us. Hopefully, by early August we’ll know if there’s enough interest to get the app built and then we’ll start testing with a small number of users.

So if you, or some learners you know, are interested in being part of the initial group of people testing the app, sign up though the flovo.co page we’ll keep you updated on the progress.

44 Comments

  1. @ Benjamin,
    I referenced a post-test because I felt that it isn’t enough just to show that someone learns after a specific learning event. The goal IMHO, is to show that what is learned is retained. The exact form the test would take would be in the form of first test after the learning event.

    It is too bad that some people make extraordinary claims about their learning interventions. As a teacher I do appreciate such claims if they are backed up by research. It takes a lot of work to do so and strict memory work is one area where such tests are possible.

    Again, I was speaking as a teacher where such documentation can often lead me to recommend a product to my students.

  2. I welcome a statement from a company that says under such and such conditions the average student learns X number of words and remembers X number of words on a post test one month later. This is the gold standard of word learning assessment and I see no reason why we should not be working in this direction.

    As you say Benjamin word learning does not in itself imply a certain quality (ability level) of language learning. However most of the people who consume English language training that I meet understand this distinction. Learning words is certainly necessary for learning a language but, in and of itself, word learning is not sufficient. There is no reason however that this should prevent us from trying to quantify the speed of word acquistion for the average learner under a number of different scenarios.

    1. @Mike, I’m curious what “post test” would service as “the gold standard of word learning assessment”.

      I see your point and I do agree that summative assessments play a role in language development (although not as much as formative assessments), but my only gripe is when this becomes a marketing tagline (which Jo above claims they are not considering). I understand that this type of tag works for some, but it really says very little about true language acquisition. If I were trying to sell this product, I’d feel silly selling such a product if the tagline, “learn x amount of words in x weeks” was the main selling point. There are so many other sociocultural, phonetic, etc. aspects to language that this tag excludes, to the point where we might ask, “What’s it mean to know the meaning of a word?”

      If there’s a race, create the race with what language users can do with the vocabulary in different situations and not simply with how many words they can learn in a given time period. Sure, individuals may fall for the latter, but that doesn’t make it right. With any form of technology, it’s not the technology itself, but how it’s being used and for what purpose. Product designs ask themselves, “How do I want users to use this product?” and “Why would users want to use my product?”

      In Mexico, it’s common to see many different private English schools have taglines that claim how fast one can learn English. I would argue that this kind of tag might get learners in the door, but it’s the method, teachers, etc. that keep the learners coming back.

  3. “The answer is that once they are a part of a child’s vocab. every child uses these words differently. It varies greatly across children”

    Exactly, that’s why I would try to sell the product on this fact (which applies to adults as well) and less on how many words a learner acquires in a given period of time.

    The tag, “learn 3,000 words in one week” for example, is an instant turn off for me (as a client, learner, etc.) – as I’ve said before. Show me (as a client, learner, etc.) all of the different things I can do with these 3,000 words, or how my understanding of these 3,000 words can vary depending on the individual and context. Also, show me how I can become a more autonomous learner and the benefits of being such a learner (aka cognitive and metacognitive learning). As a marketing plan, I believe a company can get more “bang for their buck” with this approach.

    Anyone who has attempted to learn a language (as you know),knows that it’s what you put into it that matters. Somehow, the tag, “learn 3,000 words in just one week!), for example, automatically compares my own learning to some arbitrary measurement. If it takes me three weeks, I feel smart; if it takes five weeks, I feel dumb (as if I were in school). Either way, it says little about what I am able to do with my vocabulary. I (as a language learner) would rather be able to compare what I can do with these 3,000 words with others with a similar vocabulary range.

    People frequently ask me, “How long did it take for you to learn Spanish” (which I learned as an additional language, both in the United States and while living in Mexico). I always give them some arbitrary answer, and for the sake of time, have never really been truthful. The true answer is, “it depends on what the purpose was when I was speaking Spanish”. To pass a level III Spanish course (taken at the university in the United States) is quite different than a typical informal conversation I might have had with a colleague at a Mexican manufacturing company I used to work for. I was speaking Spanish in both scenarios (probably using a similar vocabulary range of 3,000 – 5,000 words), but in very different ways and for different purposes. Also, the amount of time I spent with the target language while I was living in the States was quite different than the time spent while living in Mexico.

    Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it’s always been my view that learning a language is like anything else…it takes time, persistence, and patience. Using tags that quantifies learning (a language) seems a bit disingenuous since to say one “knows” a language mainly just depends on the situation (i.e., relationships between the speakers, speech acts involved, context, etc.). I believe language learners like to envision some quantifiable learning gauge, but intuitively realize when it gets down to it, acquisition is an effect of one’s effort.

    I know I still have not convinced everyone (if anyone) of my argument, but if quantifying learning is already baked into the marketing plan, at least leave it as anecdotal evidence through testimonials that demonstrate the amount of effort that went into the learning process. 🙂

    1. Hi Benjamin,

      A bold and quantifiable claim may well put of those, such as yourself, who are aware of the inherent complexities of language and what it takes to learn one. The fact is though that the target audience for language learning products is not always this demographic and lots of the new EdTech kids on the block don’t have the same hangups about such claims as those with a longer history within language education might do.

      I too am very skeptical of the “learn x in x amount of time” claim, and that’s not something we’re planning on doing with flovo.co. I think that the trick is to help learners to see the complexity and embrace it and if possible, enjoy the experience. You mentioned that ‘knowing’ a language depends on the situation that you are using it in. It’s interesting to think of the ‘L2 self’ here. Would it be possible to say to learners, ‘if you have a 1000 words you might be able to feel comfortable in x or y situation’, ‘if you have 2000, then you may be able to…’. By building this into a product you draw attention to the different uses of language and the different constraints that there are and how they are alleviated as you progress through your journey as a learner. This could have quite a positive motivational effect. In fact Jill Hadfield gave a talk on it at IATEFL LIverpool in 2013 – http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013/sessions/2013-04-09/motivating-our-learners-actualising-vision

      1. Joe, you say, “The fact is though that the target audience for language learning products is not always this demographic and lots of the new EdTech kids on the block don’t have the same hangups about such claims as those with a longer history within language education might do.”

        Granted, I don’t know the target audience for this particular product, as I was assuming that it could be used by any language user. But since you say that you are not planning on using the tag, “learn x in x amount of time”, that was my only point. Glad your company is not considering this.

        I think saying things like, “if you have a 1000 words you might be able to feel comfortable in x or y situation”, etc. is a good idea if it also conjoins with methods, strategies, etc. on how to best use the product.

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