No one wants to be an outsider. From big corporations to small businesses, and in our day-to-day lives, being inclusive is now part of how we live and work. This article explains the approach to inclusivity taken at Drops and explores how we brought lesser-known indigenous languages to our learners.
Drops: the language game
Drops is a powerful language learning tool disguised as a game. It offers engaging word puzzles, which use visual association and proven tricks of memory champions. It’s like Candy Crush as a learning game. What differentiates Drops is that it’s not just a thin layer of gamification sprinkled on top of a language course: it’s a proper game.
Unlike most other language learning apps, Drops focuses on building a foundation of vocabulary. Vocabulary provides the building blocks of all languages: you can start using these building blocks without the glue, which is grammar, but you cannot do it the other way round.
Vocabulary acquisition is a well researched methodology for learning a second language. No matter what level you’re on in your language learning journey, you need vocabulary. If you’re a beginner, you need the basics. If you’re intermediate, you want more than just the basics. As your approaching fluency, you want to sound like it. That means more advanced grammar. Even when you’re fluent, there’s always new vocabulary to learn.
Drops’ vocabulary focus is insanely scalable. If we had built an app that provided a full-fledged language course — included teaching grammar and conversation — we wouldn’t be able to scale so quickly. We launched Drops just 5 years ago and we already offer 42 languages. That means we averaged the addition of 8+ languages per year.
We started with the usual suspects: the most in-demand languages such as French, English, German, Italian, and Spanish. Then we experimented with languages not found commonly in language learning apps, including Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Cantonese Chinese.
Then we ventured into more esoteric languages and these proved to be a hit. It turns out less mainstream languages are often really well received, because no one else is offering them. And let me tell you, as entrepreneurs who like solving problems, it feels great to address an unmet need. We sort of got hooked on it and began down a path of more and more obscure languages until we launched a severely endangered language that only a handful of people still speak. But more on that later.
Expanding beyond Drops
Most language apps, when they broaden their offering to address different elements of the language learning journey, they go forward in the journey and attempt to address the conversational needs of the intermediate and advanced learners. We actually believe that conversational fluency requires … wait for it … real conversations. We believe this is better accomplished via live instruction.
Therefore, when we decided to broaden the Drops offering , we went “backward” in the language learning journey to alphabets. We created Scripts, to teach alphabets and character-based language systems. If you’re learning a language that’s not in your alphabet, that’s where you need to start. Drops and Scripts were designed for adults, but many children often learn multiple languages, so we created Droplets for kids and families.
Our first real non-mainstream language was Icelandic. It wasn’t the next obvious language to launch but I have a deep affinity for the Icelandic people and culture (so much so we had an offsite in Reykjavik soon after our Icelandic launch). Because no other multilingual language app offered Icelandic, it was an instant hit. Both emotionally (our users loved it) and commercially (they also paid for it). Both were a surprise and both felt really good.
So we then launched Hawaiian — another culture that lives large in my imagination. Like many I associate Hawaii with surfing, but my fascination with Hawaiian culture goes deeper. It’s almost spiritual. Launching Hawaiian was an incredible journey for us. First, in our initial research we learned that it almost went extinct in the 1940s. We discovered and reached out to organizations that had and were still working hard to revive the language. To help these passionate organizations in this effort was truly an honor.
In our research, we also found out that the UN had named 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019). That sent us further down the road less traveled and we launched Māori and Samoan in early 2019. IYIL2019 caught wind of these launches and contacted us, asking if we would co-launch an indigenous language with them. We immediately said yes and then began to brainstorm what language we would launch. We both wanted to find a language that could ignite global attention to the endangered plight of many indigenous languages around the world.
We searched for a character-based language, because of the visual nature of Drops makes it particularly effective for these languages.
We did some research and found this extremely endangered language: Ainu, an indigenous language with only a small number of native speakers from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō. Only around 15 people know Ainu well enough to teach it, and only a handful of people speak, so we knew finding a translator would be difficult. We discovered that Hokkaidō university was deeply involved in the preservation of the Hokkaidō language, and as we had learned with Hawaiian, we knew that collaborating with a local revival effort was the real way to make a difference. The UN organization was thrilled by the choice.
We hire expert translators for all of our languages, but with indigenous languages, the translator selection is even more critical because of their intimate knowledge of the cultural context of the language. For Ainu, we contacted the world’s only professor of Ainu at the University of Hokkaidō, and we were exceedingly fortunate to get him on board.
We don’t usually travel to record a language because of the expense. However, we did for Ainu because — with any indigenous language — there’s a vital cultural element that’s important to capture in the content. As far as we know, Drops is the only digital learning platform that teaches Ainu, so the importance of this process was greatly magnified. So we flew one of our employees halfway around the world to represent Drops in the highly ceremonial process of recording the Ainu voice overs.
One interesting question is, who uses a learning app for such an uncommon language? Is it people that are from that culture, visitors, or scholars?
One of our users’ top three motivations is learning for intellectual curiosity: they aren’t learning for practical reasons; they just love languages. If we were teaching a comprehensive language course, very few people would be looking to learn a language such as Ainu. The cost wouldn’t have made sense. But there are many people who want to know about the language and learn a few words in the language. So as a vocabulary app that can add a new language quickly and with relatively few resources, it’s not so cost-prohibitive.
The Korean pop star
We’ve also explored other ways to broaden our audience. For example, because Korean is Drops’ most popular language, we added a K-pop topic into the Korean language learners instantly loved.
Realizing that K-pop was a draw we went a step further and hired K-Pop star, Amber Liu, to do a limited voiceover of select Korean words. Surprisingly Amber did not grow up speaking Korean so she had to learn it as a second language herself. She immediately liked the voice-over idea and has since said it’s been a great way to connect with her fans.
It’s been very successful, creating a lot of interest in Drops, so this might not be the last language where we use a celebrity voice over.
Building inclusive products
As a company, we’re generally very open-minded, not afraid of experimenting with serving various people’s needs. Our company culture and philosophy are all about this open approach. We’re also a remote company, with team members all over Europe and a couple in the US. We consider ourselves global citizens.
This is the basis of our worldview — that our market is the whole world — and we want to cover as many languages as possible. When we were launching Hawaiian, we learned very quickly that for the indigenous people of Hawaii, this language and the culture is sacred. It was enlightening how sensitive the topic is for them and how important it is. We realized we needed to be open and stay humble throughout the process. This humbleness is how we are building this product and company. Listening, really listening, and understanding these nuances is key to providing a good experience that we are proud of, and the local people are proud of.
Next year, we’re going to venture into a new continent that is undeserved by most language learning apps, but that’s a future story.
But to be completely honest, we are able to be inclusive because we keep Drops simple and focused. It’s fairly cost-effective to add a new language or alphabet to Drops or Scripts. It would be difficult to offer Ainu — or any of our indigenous languages — if we were a comprehensive language app. Still, because we are narrowly focused on vocabulary and alphabets, we can expand in ways that other language apps can’t. We can follow our hearts and values.
For users from 5 to 100 years old, the Drops UI is intuitive and designed to be ridiculously accessible. You don’t need digital literacy to start using Drops: anyone can start using it instantly. No instructions required. That’s supported by what we hear back from our users — that they are playing together with their kids and even with their grandparents. This feedback is actually why we launched Droplets — Drops for families and kids — the most recent addition to the Drops platform.
Accessibility also means fun and efficient. People are trying to spend less time on their devices, not more. And they want that time to be well spent. The design of Drops means learners can get a lot out of just five minutes a day. Language learning is a significant endeavor. When you’re starting a new language, especially if the writing system is different from your native language, it can be intimidating. One of the goals of Drops is to make the first few steps of that journey fun and easy, providing the 3Cs foundation of Core vocabulary learned in Consistently day after day, and until the learner builds a habit and the Confidence to tackle the more difficult challenges of grammar and conversation.
Also, a freemium business model is inherently accessible. Anyone can jump in and use Drops for five minutes a day free. That economic inclusivity is huge.
On this economic front, Android is key. The demographic and economic diversity of Android users is very different from iOS. For example, in many lower GDP countries, few can afford iOS devices. Therefore having an Android version of your app more than doubles your accessibility. Far more.
Testing for inclusivity
Before we launch a language or alphabet we rely primarily on feedback from the experts we work with: translators, proofreaders, and voice talents. These experts are critical in guiding us, and as indicated above, the less mainstream the language, the more we lean on them.
For example, when we developed Māori, it was not just about the language but also the illustrations. This is because some Māori words don’t have an exact synonym in other languages. So the illustration becomes more important. One example is “Hongi”, a greeting between Māori people where they lean forward and touch their heads. The way that their heads touch is crucial to the meaning of the word, so we needed to get that illustration right. So, our experts had to provide us with far more detailed feedback on that illustration than they would have if we were translating the word “banana.”
After launch launching a language our attention switches immediately from inward to outward. We are relentless A/B testers. But we don’t rely just on data. We listen.
Users will tell you if something is missing and not being inclusive enough, so our key resource is their feedback. Our support team reports directly into the product team to eliminate any friction between user feedback and product development. Our product team considers every user comment, especially when there are repeated requests.
For example, in our company meetings, we review the top three user feedback themes from the week. We look at the positives and negatives but focus on what things are missing for users.
The evolution of our product due to user feedback is exemplified by our gender illustrations. Most romantic languages are gendered. Therefore, you need to display both male and female genders to help people understand which vocabulary to use. A couple of years users were telling us that our depiction of females was unnecessarily hyper-feminine. So, we got a new graphic design firm and spent a lot of time getting the right balance between presenting a gender but not over-gendering.
American Sign Language
As far as I know, we are the only multilingual language app that I know of that has a sign language. Our Chief Customer Officer, Drew had just started with Drops and was visiting a cousin who had graduated from Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing. He was telling her about Drops and Scripts, and she suggested putting American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet in Scripts.
This project, while straightforward in many ways, taught us one of our biggest lessons in inclusivity. One that is not so intuitive.
Like the Drops app, Scripts uses voice overs to sound out each letter of the alphabet. But should you incorporate sound when teaching a sign language?
Interestingly, there’s a long-standing debate in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community on whether sound is useful (for ASL learners who are not deaf), inconsequential, or a crutch to learning a sign language. After much discussion with our deaf and hard-of-hearing experts, we decided to change our audio default to off for ASL. While it’s an extremely simple technical solution, we would have never even considered it had we not taken the time to ask our experts about it.
The lesson here is that if you’re going to be inclusive, you have to include the people you’re excluding. If you think you know how they feel by being excluded or why they’re not using your app, you’re wrong. You need to ask them directly.
We measure success in various ways. For example, we’re one of the top-rated language apps in Google Play and the App Store and are nearing the 30 million download mark. We are particularly pleased that almost all of these downloads are driven organically, which means that people tell their friends about Drops and the product is selling itself. Of course we also pay a lot of attention to ASO, SEO, revenue and profitability KPIs, and efficiency KPIs like how many words an average user learns per session.
However, retention is the number one KPI for a teaching app. If people are not using it daily, it doesn’t matter how effective the tool is. Drops had a predecessor app, called Learning Visible. My co-founder, Mark, and I spent two years and all of our seed money building it. It was effective — it used the “right” teaching tactics and tricks — but it flopped because the retention was low. Therefore, we started over with no cash, but a crystal-clear goal — to make Drops so appealing that users can’t wait to come back the next day, and the next … until they’ve covered all of Drops’ 2000+ words and phrases in whatever language they’re learning. And then many Drops users start in another language. That’s how much they love the app.
Three tips for inclusive apps
Tip 1: Inclusivity is good for business.. As a product we began being broadly inclusive by making an insanely accessible and fun freemium app, which we offer on both iOS and Android platforms. But I would say our first truly “inclusive”, non-commercially driven language was Icelandic, which was developed more out of personal interest than business rationale. And yet it proved a commercial success. Icelandic as a language has the highest ARPU of all our languages. Then it was Hawaiian, which besides being a commercial success was a huge PR success. It’s been a similar story with the other indigenous languages. So, inclusivity can be a good business, not just about goodwill.
Tip 2: Be practical and start small. Start with a small project and see what the feedback is like. If it works, then scale it up. This is particularly important if you’re a bootstrap company, as we are, and don’t have money to burn.
Tip 3: Be inclusive in terms of team building. We believe that only an inclusive, diverse team can build inclusive products. That doesn’t just go for your employees, but for your contractors and advisors as well. Be open, listen to the different voices. Also, difference is just a lot more fun and interesting than sameness.
Find out more
Hear Daniel Farkas and Drew Banks talk to Google about fostering equality and inclusivity in their app on episode 12 of the Apps, Games, & Insights podcast. Look out for upcoming articles from other episodes in our podcast series.
What do you think?
Do you have thoughts on building inclusive apps? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.