Product Review: Lexicum

Lexicum  is an app designed to help “the 1.5 billion learners around the world with mastering foreign language vocabulary”. It sets itself apart from repeating a word (“boring and ineffective”), personal vocabulary books (restrictive in terms of the order in which the words can be reviewed) and other flashcard apps (they don’t help you learn how to use words in a sentence) and says that lexicum offers a new way.

photo 3
The Mobile app menu

The app allows learners to search for words, either in their own language or the one they are learning, and then decide whether they want to save them. The search results show a list of possible definitions of the word, and in some cases an audio play button. Learns are able to edit the translations and save their edits. When you have saved enough words you are able to take a quiz. Here you are shown a flash card and asked how well you know the word (easy, fair, hard, didn’t know). Clicking on the flashcard reveals the list of all the possible definitions of the word, as seen when looking it up. Once you’ve been through all the words in your list you get a doughnut graph showing you the breakdown of how well you said you knew the words. You get points for adding words, and points for doing quizzes.

The press release states that you are able to add words to custom lists and as a teacher you are able to create lists and send them to your learners but these features, along with the social share functions are not ready in the app or web version I am using today.

Lexicum is free and available on web and as an iOS app.


The app looks quite nice and I can only assume that the spaced repetition algorithm works well. The idea of being able to look up words in either your own language or the language you are learning is good. If you got into the habit of doing this all the time through the app and saving the words of interest you would be able to build up a good bank of vocabulary that was useful to you. The fact that the app supports 18 languages is impressive (although trying Arabic wasn’t a success at this stage). It’s also good that definitions and translations can be edited, and therefore personalised in some way, but maybe hard for a learner to know what to do in this situation.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 12.02.32
A large selection of languages

The app is free.


A disclaimer on the site mentions that this is a beta version, so we should expect some issues and get in touch if you see anything wrong. For the purposes of this review, I’ll not mention things which appear to be bugs and focus on analysis of features.

To say that they are aiming to help learners ‘master’ foreign vocabulary (whatever that may mean) is completely incongruous with the features of the application. The only information the app tells us about a word is a list of the possible translations. There are no example sentences, no information about part of speech, nothing at all about context or collocation. Learners only engage with words they themselves look up, and even in terms of the spaced repetition algorithms, learners are able to passively click through words, only interacting by saying how well they know them (rather than demonstrating how well they know them).

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 11.24.16
Looking up a word on the web app

The user interface looks slick but the usability is confusing (unless this is just bugs). You can’t change between languages so have to set up a new account with a different email to use the app to learn more than one language. There was no onboarding process and the help section just lists a load of keyboard shortcuts. The profile section ‘Your progress in words’ tells me how many words I just added, how many I’m learning and how many I’ve learned, complete with coloured progress bars for each. But there is no information about what I need to have done to ‘learn’ a word, or what it means to be learning them. I can edit meanings, but I wasn’t sure if that was just to personalise, or if I thought the definition was wrong. No information told me how to use the product or what to expect from it.

The benefits of the product are were not immediately clear and upon closer inspection it seemed that necessary features for language learning were lacking from the product.



10 thoughts on “Product Review: Lexicum”

  1. Jo, I think the fact that you are considering creating a similar product for a similar market means you are skating on thin ice doing a review of this product. I think you guys really need to think about how producing products for “the market” invalidates you as objective observers in many cases.

    It is, I believe impossible for you not to judge this product against your own, even if it is just still a glimmer in your eye. Your product becomes the tacit anchor against which other products are judged, even if that anchor hasn’t yet been tested or thrown overboard.

    When you have, or will have, skin in the game, I believe the responsible thing is to recuse yourself from commenting on the “value” of other products.

    Sincerely, M

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. This issue didn’t occur to us when writing or reading over the post, which is maybe surprising! I’d like to think that I am able to write an honest and fair review of other products despite being involved in developing products myself, but you’re right that we should be careful.

    As we’re not only developing a vocabulary app, but also working on other product ideas too, maybe we shouldn’t publish any of our own reviews? The idea of the review criteria that we have is that there’s an element of objectivity hard wired into the system. I realise it’s impossible not to be at least a little subjective though and so an element of caution is necessary when choosing products to review.

    My hope is that a sense of professionalism, and the review system that we use, allow ELTjam to write reviews as well as work to develop products.


  3. I think Mike is right about caution but you’re taking that precaution by having the system you use have a degree of objectivity built in. You actually sound like you’re trying really hard to have something good to say but the product is letting you down. Also, building your own products makes you both more critical and more appreciative of when something is bad or good because there’s a level of detail there that perhaps an ordinary user – and certainly the makers in this case – might not have. I think the disclaimer is out there as you’re not pretending not to be developing something. Maybe you just have to mention that in every vocab review you do so people can bear that in mind.

  4. Actually it is more than caution that is needed Nicola. I see each of our creations as a kind of child. It is very hard to be objective about our own children. The ties that bind us amplify our own emotions. And emotions should, if at all possible, be keep out of critical commentary especially when such commentary can have huge implications for the success or failure of a product.

    The review system ELTJam is using is still in its infancy. This is what, the third or fourth review? I would argue at best the system is still evolving and at worst it is still in the very early stages. This time I saw commentary on the aims of the founding team and of the investors. I also saw mention of a lack of educational input into the product. This kind of commentary (about the stated goals of the product vs. its present state, and the educational experience of the developers (what experience is sufficient?) seemed absent from other critiques.

    (Oops, I know, I was asking for just such commentary.)

    And then too is the idea that this product is in the evolutionary stage. Jo and his team are going to use the Agile development process. That process suggests that you ship something out the door and make incremental changes in response to your environment. Is this company in the midst of such changes? Are we to condemn them if they are and as they are doing so they don’t charge a penny for their product? Should we in essence be holding a company that offers a free product to the same standards of a company that offers a paid product? Should we expect every product to be fully baked?

    There are just so many questions here that I think reviewing a product at this stage which could be seen as a competitor to a product you are developing is at best unwise, at worst well, I would be feeling very frustrated if I were the creator of a free product that just got this treatment at the hands of a competitor who claims to be objective.

    (disclaimer: I used this product very briefly for Chinese and I found it to be buggy. I deemed it not worthy of being used at present but worthy of keeping an eye on for the future. Overall I am not impressed with any SRS products and I have tried to use many.)

    • This is a very interesting discussion. I had similar thoughts to Mike’s on reading this and it brought to mind this eltjam post by Jo back in January

      Isn’t this company doing the ‘move fast and break things’ thang that supporters of agile development extol? It looks like an MVP to me, is out free and is openly still in Beta. Isn’t it a bit soon to be publishing a full-on points-system review rather than just sending the feedback they clearly need and want? If this company is going for the ‘fail fast fail often’ approach, isn’t it important that they do their fail on their own terms and move quickly forward? Might this review, now permanent, take their failure out of their own hands? Is that meant to be how it works?

      I don’t have any answers, but I think these are very important questions. To what extent does the moving fast and failing fast approach need to be respected and encouraged by peers rather than hoisted up the flagpole as a total fail (in the non-agile sense)? When eltjam release their MVP in Beta (can’t wait, by the way :-)), will you expect and appreciate the same sort of treatment?

      I like your reviews a lot, Jo, and would hate to see you stop. But I’m not sure about this one.

      • Hi Diane, Mike,

        Thanks for the comments, and yes, I see where the concern is coming from.

        I would like to point out though that we posted a very positive review about only a few weeks before. We were working on our own vocab app at the time and have no other connection to that company. So despite being a potential competitor in a way, we reviewed them very favourably. I realise that objectivity is a tricky area, but it’s not like we’re out to bash the competition!

        And it terms of the process that Lexicum are going through, I didn’t intend to bash an early version and the whole agile approach. I decided to go ahead with the review when reading the press release and the ‘about us’ section and seeing the mismatch between claims and functionality. It’s right to iterate, and marketing is important, but I think that a company should make sure that the V of viable is properly addressed before a release. And if there are features that are essential in order for your marketing message to ring true, they should be included. I don’t think you can put out a reduced project with a full blown marketing campaign and not expect that to be called out when people see through it.

        However, all of that said, I do really see that putting out reviews like this, given the circumstances opens myself up for criticism. Maybe Phil is right and it’s time we gave some students a voice on ELTjam, as product reviewers!


        • I somewhat disagree that students should become actual reviewers, if for no other reason than it would be difficult to maintain continuity between reviewers. However, if you could ask students to use the products and watch them as they do so and then ask for their feedback your reviews would benefit in my opinion. Lots more work but this process would instantly give you more credibility!

          Oh, one more thing. You might want to formulate some guidelines about how soon after being established a company is fair game for being reviewed. Obviously a company that has been around for 5 years is in a different ballpark than one around for just 6 months. I wonder, how much should this make a difference?

  5. Yes, you may be or be seen as being a bit biased but at least you are trying to be honest. I have read and written countless book reviews which were a bit too positive at times because of obvious or perceived pressure.

    Maybe you could ask for volunteer reviewers or review apps that are not direct competition for yours.

    We all know how fake many Amazon reviews are and Apple ones too based on some authors getting caught out. I can also attest to the offices where students are hired to just write good or bad reviews. Based on this, it is very hard to find real reviews. It is definitely needed as people like us want to find out about new apps and get suggestions about if they are worth trying but from people we trust.

    I would like to see students reviewing them actually. I have done it in class and they are quite honest.

  6. We may be stuck here. If Jo can’t review apps and students can’t without being monitored in lab conditions and we can only review companies and apps that have been around for years, it doesn’t leave much room to wiggle. As far as I see it, once they are on the Appstore and Google Play, they get reviews and stars.

    As a reader, I want something quick and honest. I don’t want the standard “this is an innovative….I look forward to…” . I admit to using these myself in reviews but I think this blog format is less constrictive and more “among friends” than published journals and publisher websites.

    How about video walkthrough reviews? I love those. Keep it basic and let the viewer see and judge for themselves. Youtube is full of them. After all, it can be a bit odd to use an app, write a review and publish it for it then to be read and someone to eventually try the app. This fits traditional books more perhaps. Just a thought.

    If you want to make it more democratic, why not add reviews or your reviews? People who don’t like them can put 0.

    Much to ponder.


Leave a comment