Skritter Beta Rogue Weekend Review


#1

These past few months, we’ve turned our whole focus 100% towards getting a new Japanese app out for iOS based on a new internal beta. What happened to the old beta? The short of it is that we ran into some technical issues and overall weren’t jazzed about it. So we took the time to move Skritter forward and make some big changes to deliver the learning experience we’ve always wanted to give you. A mobile app that teaches you how to read and write new words (not just review them!) and that looks cool.

While I’ve studied Japanese and like making a fool of myself in front of my Japanese friends, my current language focus and motivation is mainly for Chinese. So this past weekend I did what any self-respecting regular Skritter user who also happens to be a developer with access to the source code would do–I made myself a rogue build of the app for Chinese and did some studying. Here’s some of my impressions and highlights not as a developer testing the app, but as a regular user using it for daily study:

Warning! Neither Chinese nor Android builds are going to be released in the very near future. Updating Japanese on iOS is our first priority. This was pure self-indulgence. Also this review is based on an alpha build of an unreleased product, the final version may vary.

To give some context, I’d had one of my regular morning Chinese lessons on Friday, and we spent part of the time going through a textbook with some new vocabulary in it. I wanted to learn to read/write these words from one of the chapters at the end of the book using Skritter.

The first thing I did was load up the textbook and look for the right chapter. My teacher and I like to jump around non-sequentially to relevant topics, so studying the book from start to finish with Skritter and auto-adding vocabs sequentially didn’t really work with what we did. Thus I hadn’t gone through this book with Skritter a lot. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the calculated stats for vocabs and sections in the list that I hadn’t studied. Seeing my passive knowledge of vocabs I’ve learned from other lists reflected here is a confidence boost, and also helpful in figuring out where I’m at. E.g. without studying a standardized test directly, I can still see how much of the vocabulary from that test that I know.

  • Learn mode is the best. The new app features three main activities–learn, test, and review. The learn activity takes the next 5 vocabs in order from a list or section and teaches you their meaning, pronunciation, and writing. It’s like the website’s teaching mode, but if it went to the gym. We created a new “preview” prompt type to introduce you to new vocab and give it some context, and after that emphasize the writing, taking you from tracing strokes to raw squigs mode. This was perfect for me since I already knew a lot of these vocabs orally, but not their written forms. Once you finish a learning session, the items for these vocabs are added to your queue.

  • Test mode is next best. Do you have a dictation test tomorrow? Or just want to double check what you just learned? Don’t go into your review queue, do a test! You can select all sorts of options for what subset of cards to see both on an individual deck (“list”…we’re calling them decks in the app. How do you feel about that?) level and on a section level. After I learned something, I’d do a section test. It’d quiz me on everything I’d learned that day.

  • These new modes are optional. If you want to manually add some vocabs and go through your SRS queue old-school style, that’s totally still an option. Study how you want!

  • There’s no auto adding. It’s not in the app (gasp!). You know better than we do when you’re ready for new material and where you want to get it from. When I first started Skrittering, I trusted that the app knew better than me and so I’d overstudy my queue way too much in hopes it’d throw me a new vocab. I thought that using the plus button was cheating. Later, I’d flipped to the school of “manual add only,” but even still, in the normal review queue, I was never sure what list I would be getting new vocab from since I have a few active lists. I was a little apprehensive about this feature’s complete removal at first, but after living with learn mode instead, I’m not going back to it.

  • Review mode is the classic Skritter SRS queue you know and love. It’s by and large completely unchanged aside from some minor UI and layout tweaks. I haven’t used the SRS review queue much in the new app. Because the other activities targeted exactly what I wanted in manageable, predictable chunks, I didn’t care about it. Yes I need to keep up with it for long-term retention. But in terms of using the review system to learn the stuff from my lesson before my next class and double check that I do know it? The review mode has almost no use there to me anymore. I’ll keep studying it (and get my review queue down to acceptable amounts #2019Goals). It’s classic Skritter, but it’s not the only way to Skritter anymore, and rightfully so. SRS works to help you remember things you’ve already learned. It’s great for efficiently retaining lots of information long-term, not for first time encountering information or testing oneself on a certain subset of recent vocabs. It’s an equal part in the memorization process, but it’s not the only part anymore that Skritter offers (if you don’t want it to be).

  • Little things like the themeability and stroke highlights kept things feeling cool. Skritter cyberpunk mode, anyone?

  • It still needs a bit of polish. Things like banned items don’t always get factored into calculations yet, some things weren’t optimized yet and were annoying to load. There are lots of Chinese-specific bugs to fix up, but in half a day on the weekend I was able to get a well-used account with lots of vocabs and trickiness (studying traditional, lots of banned items) to work, so I would not say that a Chinese release will be a super long way away once the Japanese apps are stable.

We’re targeting a Japanese iOS App Store release in mid-December (Android to follow after once the dust has settled a little), so if you want to get an early preview of what’s to come, stay tuned and start studying some Japanese (or continue studying Japanese)!

Let me know if you have any questions or comments about the new app, I’ll do my best to answer them!


#2

Desperately waited for this information and glad to see you have been working on the Chinese version in the background meanwhile. Your description reads very promising and I really can’t wait to see this all finally getting realised (I really really really cannot wait anymore :laughing: ). As you already know, the last couple of months have not been a great pleasure to the users, but I am definitely willing to look over this. Just hope we can see the beta still this year.

PS. One thing I would discuss though is regarding the Taptic Engine on the iPhones. I briefly talked to Jake about this a while ago. I suggested/asked whether it is possible to implement the Taptic Engine into Skritter. What is your thought on this? Obviously you are using Android, but still you might have any ideas? e.g. I am thinking of haptic feedback on wrong strokes which might also unintentionally help to avoid potential wrong strokes in the future. I know this is a fairly minor feature I am addressing now as you are still in “alpha” mode, but I would like to have your thoughts on this. Would that be technically feasible at all?

PPS. can you tell us a bit more about the “learn mode”, especially the “preview” prompt? How does it work? Is there simply a teaching mode at the beginning (showing the stroke order) and afterwards it will ask pinyin, meaning and writing as in the review mode? Or anything different?


#3

Hey, glad to hear you’re looking forward to it, we’re excited about the changes and want to get these apps into users’ hands as quickly as we can too! The Taptic Engine is cool, but not on our initial release radar. I do like the idea of some sort of haptic feedback in the app. Anything that can help give the user feedback (while not being too distracting of course) is good in my opinion.

Here’s a screenshot of the preview card in action in the Japanese app.


Basically the reading, writing, and definition are all there, along with an example sentence (when available). After that, there’s a guided strokes writing prompt similar to teaching mode, then a classic snapping strokes writing prompt with an overlay of the full character that fades out over time, and the final test–a normal raw squigs writing card. None of these are graded or affect the item’s intervals–this activity is so you can freely get introduced to the vocabs and how to write them. If it’s a vocab you don’t want to go through writing the writing prompts for but still want to add to your queue, the “skip” button just goes ahead to the next vocab.


#4

Wait, that December announced release is only for Japanese iOS? Is Chinese Android ever going to come out, is it going to take months?


#5

Out of curiosity do you know what apple changed in iOS 12 that caused Skritter to need this huge push to get the new version out? And if so what was it?


#6

@nbrr Yes, it is initially only for Japanese on iOS. The other clients will follow, but we want to be strategic about tackling feedback and issues, both language and platform-wise, so they’ll be coming out one at a time.

@ddapore99 unfortunately it was due to internal Apple black magic. We updated the config and bumped up the supported versions, changed nothing else, and it kept getting rejected (while the Chinese version of the app with the same changes had gotten approved). After weeks of tweaking things, talking to Apple support, and trying again, we eventually succeeded. One of the minor issues we eventually figured out was that we had some files with Japanese characters in the filenames, which hadn’t been an issue in the past but suddenly was a cause for automatic rejection. And Apple couldn’t/wouldn’t directly tell us this or how to fix it. In the end we had to change a few minor things through trial and error and eventually it was accepted.


#7

Michael, thank you so much for sharing this inside info. The learning mode looks great - I will absolutely be using that. Looking forward to the Chinese beta release.

I’m curious, what kind of technical issues did you decide to overhaul, if you don’t mind sharing? Is the overall architecture of the app the same? Is it anything that we will see as different on the user end from how the currently released beta performs?


#8

Hey, from a visual standpoint, the overall UI and data heirarchy is much more in line with current mobile design trends and probably has more in common with Instagram than the old iOS app. Broadly speaking, we’re following material design (mostly). We’ve taken cues from Google apps like GMail on how to adapt it to ensure the app feels welcome on iOS devices.

Aside from that and the new study modes, there are lots of under the hood decisions we made to enable functionality that was hard to get right or impossible to do before. Here are two big ones that excite us the most. First, the app is designed to work offline-first. By that I mean after you login and have your initial sync online (which is way faster than iOS users are currently used to I might add), you’re able to review without any connection (and of course it will sync when you’re back online). We’re still working on getting all areas of the app to work that way (currently in other areas of the app, like vocab lists, it tries to fetch info from the server every time, even if it has a copy already–a task I’m working on improving right now!), so something like true full-app offline support might not make it into the launch release, but overall the app is architected to to support offline usage much better.

Secondly, we’ve switched a lot of the code to work more on the vocab-level first rather the item-level (i.e. the using the vocab and generating items on the fly vs. looking up whether you have an item like 好-reading added from a list somewhere and back-extrapolating other info). This is a subtle change, but it allows us to show you prompts in ways not possible on any other client so far, web or mobile. This is how things like learn and test mode came to be. The operations involved were previously too costly to do, network or performance wise, or were very complex to get right and not have a bunch of items rejected by the server.


#9

You mentioned how the new version of Skritter will have two new ways to study. I was wondering if those two ways would allow users studying “Remember The Kanji” to study definitions as the current Skritter does not.


#10

I just loaded one of the Remembering the Kanji textbook decklists and definition cards are showing up!


#11

Yeeees, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. I can’t wait until I can get to try it.


#12

Glad to hear it!

I’m happy to report that we’ve submitted 3.1 to Apple for review and once approved we will roll out the free version of the app in the store. Logged in user access, review mode, etc., are getting one more round of polish before we push an updated beta to all of you for early access and some final fixes. At that point you’ll be able to review these definition cards at will!

More details about the app, and the timeline for all the extra stuff on Monday or Tuesday when the team is all back to work.

Cheers!

-Jake


#13

Unfortunately I don’t have a newer iPhone that uses a version of iOS12. I have an old iPad 2 a very old ipod touch and a new Android phone. Actually I got the iPod touch for the very first version of the mobile Skritter app due to me owning a flip phone back then. Then Skritter made an Android version and I got an Android phone because I thought it would be cool to Skritter on an HTML5 version of Skritter. I guess I’ll be waiting another month or so for the Android version to come out; although… I am tempted to get a new iPod touch just to use the new version.


#14

Resist the temptation. It’s coming!