English Study App for Chinese Middle School Students

Photo Cred Micheal Prewett, Unsplash.com

I work for English First, an English language learning company operating in mainland China. Our product is a full-service English learning platform, including in-class lessons, a custom textbook, an app for completing homework assignments, and an app for communicating with parents.

I was asked to design a product prototype to add to this english language learning product suite: A fully functional language practice app.

The main objective for the app is to make students master words, motivate them to use it for quick and regular learning sessions and make parents aware of the app learning benefit.


The first step that I needed to take was to more fully understand the people who will be involved in the use of the application and the current trends in educational technology.

The students.

credit: unsplash.com

In terms of their learning abilities, 10–13 year olds have already formed the basis of deductive and synchronous reasoning, meaning that they understand problems with multiple small steps. They demonstrate abstract thinking fairly readily, and can apply abstracted concepts to new situations. They are more opinionated than their younger classmates, and are starting to specialize and take pride in their specific interests.

Tim Tu, Chinese, age 27:

I only really remember my biology and science classes, I guess that’s because those were my favorite subjects. I didn’t really know why I was studying [things] and I didn’t like that.

Liz Liu, Chinese, age 24:

I really enjoyed puzzles and reading and math, but I basically never went outside [laughs]

Teenagers at this age also begin to be capable of metacognition, the ability to think about why they need to learn and develop strategies for learning.

Socially, this age group will be incredibly self conscious, increasingly driven by social pressures imposed on them by their culture and their peers, and more skeptical of authority than they ever have been before.

In short:

Teens may tend to overthink problems and get stuck in taking decision, so we should provide opportunities for decision making but not overload them with options

Teens like to curate and produce high quality artifacts, so we should provide them with a simple but good level of customization

Teens are becoming very self-conscious about themselves, we should celebrate their individuality, and focus on situations and context

The Parents

The parents of these learners will be mostly 35–40 years old Chinese mothers and fathers. They will be highly invested in their children's success, highly involved in their child’s learning, and highly motivated by graded performance.

There is lots of research on the Chinese parenting style, and though the research is varied, one thing is fairly consistent across numerous sources — that is that Chinese parenting emphasizes hard work over innate talent.

In short:

Parents are highly involved, so they will need to know exactly when and how much their child should use the product.

Parents are performance focused, so they should be given a clear rubric on what constitutes successful use.

Parents are protective, so they need to know any risks of using the application before they use it.

Educational Technology

The landscape of educational technology has been changing rapidly as educators find new ways to apply powerful technology, but some core concepts have stayed the same.

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

Active learning occurs when a person takes control of his/her learning experience. Since understanding information is the key aspect of learning, it is important for learners to recognize what they understand and what they do not. By doing so, they can monitor their own mastery of subjects.

Gamification helps students learn by hiding the lesson within an entertaining game, increasing memory retention through emotional stimulation.

In short:

All of these concepts should be utilized in the app, to maximize word recollection and overall subject mastery

The Concept

credit: unsplash.com

I am an avid user of learning apps. I am a self-taught software engineer so I have used countless online learning tools in a number of different formats. Also in my quest to learn Chinese I have used most of the language learning applications on the market.

A couple problems that I see with modern learning apps:

Avoid over-gamification.

Peoples motivations for language proficiency are different ( some aim to make friends, others to reach professional competency), but by making the goal generic, like a trophy or points you are pointing learners away from seeing the real value of the skill they are learning.

Create engaging exercises.

There is some value in repetition (spaced repetition is known to be an effective tool for memorization, and there are plenty of great existing applications that demonstrate this) but humans fundamentally like to be challenged, and presented with problems that are at the edge of their current ability rather than squarely in the middle of it.

Breaking these patterns:

One of my favorite learning applications that I have ever used was an app called Codewars. This app is for learning how to solve word problems with code.

The app simply consists of a pool of word problems of various complexity, and an interface for solving those problems. The decision of which challenges to do is up to you.

As a user you can choose to simply have word problems given to you or to choose them yourself, and then after you solve the problems you submit them. If they pass, you are awarded points based on the complexity of the problem. The only real structure to the problems is a level hierarchy (you can only try challenges below your current user level).

This organization format breaks free from the traditional linear lesson structure of most apps and allows for more complex challenges because each one is a standalone chapter. It also addresses teenagers independence (they are able to decide which exercises and topics they want to investigate), their intelligence (the challenges are not simple but rather allowing them to test their limits as learners), and their desire for differentiation (the apps experience is largely customizeable).

The Core Concepts

Freedom and Control.

Students at this age do not want to be told what to do. They get told what to do enough during their daily lives with tests, school, and parental expectations. They want to feel independent and empowered to explore within the applications that they use.

Quality vs quantity.

Students at this age want to be challenged, not hand-held, and at this age they know how to accept failure and learn from it, rather than being discouraged. Activities should be difficult enough that users can succeed, but may spend 5–10 minutes at each one.

Mobile-first design.

Because teenagers in this age group are so proficient with smart phones and use them so frequently, this application should be designed mobile-first to accommodate their preferences. This could be double checked by looking at the current research and asking students in classrooms survey questions about their mobile vs desktop computer use.

Contemporary Ed-Tech.

The application should utilize the best currently know techniques for E-learning. Spaced repetition, active learning, story-based learning, and game-based learning.

Parents should be involved.

The group that we are building for is clearly a secondary decision maker in many cases. This means that we are really designing for two users, the student and the parent, and we should take steps to make sure that the parent is also able to be involved in the use of the application.

Initial Prototypes

Initial balsamiq mockups

The application concept focuses on independent exploration. Instead of a linear course itinerary, students are free to explore the activities that interest them, finding activities by topic, level, and activity type.

The only enforced activity structure is level, which keeps the most beginner users from being overwhelmed by advanced content.

Within this application concept the search flow is absolutely integral. Users must be able to seamlessly move through the activities, or much of the application will be hidden to them.

Once the user clicks the search bar they move into an alternative search flow that shows them a range of different ways to navigate content — never limiting them to text search.

Built for mobile, the application is designed within a specific min-width container.

To showcase diversity of content, the application opens with a suggested list that may contain activities of many different types and on different subjects.

Exploration through search is encouraged — the search bar occupies a dominant position and is always visible.

Thank you for reading, I hope that you enjoyed this UX research article and can apply it to your own projects.

Alex Zito-Wolf



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