A mobile app to teach Mandarin tones to the tone deaf American
As a product designer, I worked with a Chinese colleague to inform and design a mobile app that is targeted towards teaching Americans Mandarin tones and emphasizing proper pronunciation. As a person who has tried a variety of methods to learn Mandarin on and off, I personally empathized with the challenge and hoped to overcome it with representatives from both sides of the language barrier.
In a short sprint, we conducted desk research and interviews and created high fidelity wireframes that we reviewed with learners and iterated upon.
Mandarin is the most spoken native language in the world and hails from the second largest economy. It is becoming increasingly relevant for people to learn to expand their social and business acumen.
However, Mandarin is an extremely difficult language for many Americans to learn.
Why is Mandarin so Difficult?
Unlike English where there are only stressed syllables, Chinese features multiple tonal variations that are critical to communicating the intended word. These tones can make the difference between a positive interaction and one that can turn accidentally insulting.
Common Journey for Learning Chinese
Because of the importance tones, effectively learning or using Chinese is shockingly difficult for many. It is a hurdle that can daunt some from learning more or stop the confident dead in their tracks.
We decided to focus on intermediate Mandarin learners who were already committed to learning Chinese and who already had a basic understanding of the language. These people might want to brush up on and refine their skills to supplement previous learning.
Currently Available Language Apps
There are numerous apps out there that can teach a language to those wanting to learn. These apps often offer multiple languages and teach them the same way regardless of the intricacies of language system. This often leads to the intricacies of Mandarin being left out or being skimmed over.
Many are expensive
Many do not go deep into Mandarin
Most do not teach tones
Most do not grade tone
None show how to correct a tone
None stress the importance of tones
Few provide local voices
None give context of dialects
Most cast a wide net and teach words that may or may not be relevant to the user
Addressing User Needs
Learners need to be able to practice the tones of their words as well as see how to correct their mistakes. Without this foundational knowledge, all other learning is useless.
Learners need to know how words string together. The tone used for a word can change based on the words next to it. They also want to know what is formal versus normal.
Learners need to be able to understand what natives are saying. Knowing vocabulary is one thing, being able to practically communicate is another. Dialects in China can vary more so than in the US.
Learners want to learn words that are applicable. Knowing how to recite local idioms is likely less relevant than knowing how to politely ask for directions.
Iteration and Flow
After sharing wireframes with users and gathering feedback on both navigation and features, we focused our scope. We acknowledged that we fell victim to feature creep and scaled back the number of elements we were trying to provide.
As this project was a design sprint, it calls for deeper user testing and validation. One of the challenges with testing and rating tone is the high barrier for realistic feedback in testing. Users need to see real-time feedback of their actual tone to be able to learn from it. Static screens and even Wizard of Oz cannot properly mimic the experience of a functioning detection feature.