Part of the Smart.fm iPhone App Story
By our talented summer associate Dane Petersen
The smart.fm website offers a number of fun learning games that help you master all sorts of world knowledge, from Japanese to French to European birds. Like a sophisticated stack of flash cards, the games learn and adapt to your performance, and constantly tune themselves to providing you with the optimal learning environment. As you progress through the stack, items that you have obviously mastered will automatically appear less frequently than items that you are still trying to learn.
The flash card analogy works well for describing the functionality of the smart.fm learning games, but it provides an impoverished account of their more experiential qualities. In particular, BrainSpeed’s pulsing icons, flapping wings and exploding pufferfish all work together to create a gaming environment that feels face-paced and zany. In designing the look and feel of the learning game portion of the smart.fm iPhone app, we knew we had to create something that would be more engaging than a stack of index cards.
When working on the experience design project for smart.fm, one of our guiding design principles was that the new website would be a fun and open space that invites play. Bringing this concept to the iPhone, we wanted to make the mobile learning game lightweight and playful, easy to start and easy to put away, while still delighting users with fun interactions. People would likely find themselves playing the game during those odd dull minutes of the day, perhaps while waiting for the bus, and we wanted to make sure that these short bursts of play offered a rewarding experience.
In reflecting on these goals, we generated numerous sketches and ideas for ways we could represent the timed, multiple-choice nature of the mobile learning game in a richly experiential manner. We explored metaphors for different ways to show questions and answers, represent time running out, and communicate the user’s progress towards learning an item. We considered the materiality of the game-space, and imagined ways to introduce tangibility through unique interactions. In this video I present a brief walk through my sketchbook, and talk about these explorations:
I took the results of these exploration sessions into a bit more detail, generating a number of sketches that depict potential design directions for the learning game. “Sore” is the Japanese word for “that, that one,” and I oriented this series of sketches around a screen where the user is trying to learn this word, and select its correct response from a series of choices. I talk more about these sketches in the following video:
We thought about an “Advent Calendar” approach, where the user would swipe to open paper doors on multiple-choice items to select their desired response. We also considered a “Scratch-Off” concept, inspired by lottery tickets and scratch-and-sniff stickers, where the user would use their finger to scratch off a response.
Going further afield, we mined the Pogs fad of the 1990s, and cooked up a direction that would involve throwing a “slammer” at an anthropomorphized stack of Pogs in order to select a response. Our interest in Pogs came from a desire to give the user some sort of token as a tangible reward for a correct response. We distilled this concept down into another approach, with Pogs that represent possible responses scattered across a hardwood table. The user would grab the correct response Pog and drag it into a drawer, where they were collecting all of their correct responses.
Finally, we explored a rich metaphor with the natural world, considering a concept where people would interact with a button-based game overlaid on a landscape. As the user answered questions correctly, this world would fill up with small items representing their responses. These items might start as autumn leaves, for example, but as the user answered more questions correctly the world would progress through the seasons, switching to snowflakes, flowers or fireflies. Instead of a conventional timer, the countdown for each individual question would be represented by a rising and setting sun… you’ve run out of time when the moon and stars come out, and another day has passed in your world!
Exploring all possible design directions in these highly generative sessions is an important part of our design process. By keeping the fidelity low and at the sketch level, we are able to entertain a massive number of ideas while still producing a tangible artifact that we can share with other members of the project.