Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ba Ba Dum review

A new language learning website has come out, called Ba Ba Dum (build 128, version 1.1.1).  This is my review.

tl dr; don't use it for learning languages where the gender of the words matter - like in German.

I first heard about the website through some UI/UX/js/css/web people (thanks Leigh and Paul!).  Not only is this interesting to me from a web app perspective (that's what I do for my day job), but I'm also very interested in making games, as well as learning languages.  So, naturally I checked it out.

It's a great start, and very well made!  Not only did they draw all the illustrations, but made the fonts!  It's also, I think, a great example of content marketing, ie making something useful for people showing off your skills.  This project shows that these people can produce a quality product (see making of, and the credits).  Reviewing a project fairly without knowing the brief is always impossible.  So I'm reviewing it based on what I see of the product.  I'm not taking into account the timeline, the amount of resources available, demands from clients, or reviewing it based on if this is just a marketing device.

What's it like for learning?

The major problem with it, for learning German(also French...) is that it doesn't have the gender or articles for the words (der, die, das).  Whilst it should be easy for them to add the articles as text, it would not be so easy to do for the voices.  Also, it only has a man's voice.  Women's voices are different compared to men's voices, and the way you say words can matter.  More so in some languages than others (eg, Japanese!).  I have a male friend who learnt Japanese mainly from women, and then had some funny reactions from the people who he talked with.  Not to mention a lack of accents or dialects.  Scottish people sound quite a lot different to someone from the south of England, or compared to a Texan, or someone from the outback of northern Australia.  Most German language teachers recommend learning the words with articles included.  So, at the moment it would be damaging to use this for learning some languages, rather than helpful.

Not including articles may have been a conscious design decision, a lack of resources, or a failing to get the language experts in at the early design stages, or listening to them in the QA stages.  I'm not sure.  It will be interesting to see if they justify this design decision, or act on the feedback.

This app does cover nine languages, and for some of them, this doesn't matter so much.

What about the UI?  How is it?

It does responsive!  Ya!  Well, sort of.  It is responsive to screen size.  Their graphics scale very nicely, and their design changes to best make use of available space.  However, it's not responsive to a lack of internet (offline first!).  Note, that the games will keep working if you load the game whilst you have internet.  So I commend them for that.  It's just you can't load the game if you don't have it already open.  I didn't try it on a 3G/2G connection, so I can't say for certain if it works well there or not.  It's quite media rich, with all the gaphics, sounds, and fonts.  So it may be a bit big for slow mobile connections.  Using it on a train, with a spotty connection, would probably make you cry.

As a single page app, they have URLs that work.  Well done.  I can switch to game three in German language, and then share that URL with people, or bookmark it.  It's not the prettiest of URL designs, with just query strings, rather than human readable words... but they are short, and they exist!  Which can't be said for every single page web app.

The two main UI problems are a lack of keyboard support, and hiding content.  As can be seen on the stats page: http://babadum.com/stats/ most people don't discover the other games.  Hiding content seems to be the latest design trend failing.  Sure, keep your interface less cluttered, but your design flows still need to let people discover other parts of your app.  Why bother making those other games if you're not going to show them to 80% of your viewers?

The games themselves?

For learning most languages there are four games. Plus one app just for Japanese.  They try to teach you different aspects of learning words.  They are
  • selecting the correct picture for a written word, and a spoken word.
  • multiple choice selecting of the written word, after being shown the picture.
  • spelling the word, after being shown the picture and hearing the word.
  • listening to the audio, and a multiple choice selection of the correct picture.
The first of the five games shows you a word, and four illustrations, whilst a human speaks it out loud.  Some apps use a robot voice, which might be nice if you are talking to robots. So the human voices are appreciated, since most people want to talk to humans.  You have to select the right picture, and you get a point for selecting correctly.  There are nice animations, sounds and transitions between the selections.  You get a thumbs down, and lose a point if you make a mistake.

The second game shows you one picture, and presents you with four words to guess from.  Once you select the word, the voice speaks it out aloud.  Again, you get a point if correct, lose a point if wrong.

In the next one you have to spell out the words.  You're given all the letters, and you have to place them.  Like the other two games, if you get it wrong you lose a point.  By this stage, I was getting a bit bored with the scoring mechanic.  But the third game does help you spell.  But you have to spell with the mouse... which is a bit weird.

The fourth game tests your hearing and comprehension by playing the sound for the word, and asking you to chose the correct picture.  You get scored in the same way, as in the other four games.

With the fifth game we have something a little bit different. The fifth game is about learning the katakana for Japanese.  Not so useful if you're learning one of the other languages.  You can probably guess how scoring happens.

I love internet points as much as the next person... but I don't find the scoring in these games interesting.  What can I do with these internet points?  Nothing it seems.  Even if my points drop to zero, nothing happens.  Maybe other people will like these internet points, but I have no use for them.

From a social game perspective... unfortunately there's no online high scores, or other social interaction I could see.  It would be great to be able to brag if I level up, or achieve a great score.  I'd urge the game designers to read some game design literature on rewarding players.

Speaking of levels, the game design does not give the player a sense of progression through the games.  Whilst playing, a person will be asking themselves: "Am I near the end of the level, or mid way through?  Are there even levels?"  For educational games, it's good to ask yourself "If this wasn't for learning language, would I play it for very long?".  Is this game fun without the motivation to learn a language?  The presentation is pretty good, but I'm not sure how many people would play these games without a motivation to learn.

What other apps do it better?

The learn like kids apps ( http://www.learnlikekids.com/ ) are probably the best apps available for this style of learning(not using the native language with pictures).  They are not free, but costing 1.89 for approximately 3 months of lessons isn't bad.  They have male and female speakers, and also say not only words, but sentences at different speeds.  Also, they are separated into lessons, because learning a basic set of words can be used to then construct more complex sentences later on.  As well, it uses other proven teaching techniques like spaced repetition, choosing topics which are relevant to many people, and selecting phrases to learn based on frequency of usage.

Although a very similar app, the Ba Ba Dum designers could learn some more from the learn like kids apps.  People wanting to learn a language from a similar, but better app, should check it out too.

In conclusion.

It's a good start, and they do many parts of it well.  However, until they fix up the lack of articles, language learners should avoid it (but not for all languages!).  Even though it's free, until they fix that one problem, I'd still say don't use this app.  From an accessibility perspective, the lack of keyboard support is most annoying.  It's not really usable for people who are mobile, as opposed to people sitting in an office or at home using a mobile device.  The games don't really stand by themselves as fun games outside of a learning context, but with improvements would be useful for learning.  Obviously, you couldn't learn a language with just this website.  There are too many things it doesn't teach.  I look forward to following their developments though, as it has potential to be a useful learning tool when used with other learning methods.




I'm blogging various techniques I have used to learn German under the German and Deutsch labels.

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