R.I.P. iSimplifiedChinese

It’s been a great experience and experiment, but it’s time to close this chapter. You can still play with the app, but you won’t get any feedback from teachers. Perhaps I will pivot the idea in the future, sell the underlying technology, we’ll see.
Back in March, I read Running Lean by Ash Maurya and I found it very actionable. In particular I focussed on figuring out why the download -> install -> first use -> second use conversions were so terribly low.
In the previous post I wrote that of every 100 people who download the app, about 50 actually run it. Only 10 submit a pronunciation and only 1 listenes to the feedback given by the teachers.
I wanted to talk to my users to find out what was going on, but how do I reach them? Apple won’t tell me who downloads my application. The good news is, as soon as they run the app, I can do whatever I want, including talking to the user. So I modified the application so that I could send it a push message and the user would see a popup message asking for their feedback (picture right). If they accepted it, they would be taken to their email client with a prefab email addressed to me (picture bottom).

Fast forward about a month: code, submit to Apple, get rejected due to an unrelated but bad crash, code, submit again, wait for approval, wait for users to update and new users to install the app, explore China in the mean time. I could now ask any question to any user, with a command like this:

   :include => :pronunciations,
   :conditions =>
      ["version = '1.1.1' and
       language = 'en' and
       pronunciations.id is null and
       push_token is not null and
       users.created_at > ? and
       pushed is null", 7.days.ago]).each do |u|
  APNS.send_notification(u.push_token, :aps => {
    :alert => "You didn't submit your first pronunciation yet;
                    can I take a minute of your time to find out why?"},
    :message => "I didn't submit a pronunciation yet because ...",
    :subject => "Submit first pronunciation");
  u.update_attribute(:pushed, Time.now)


I contacted about 100 users with this and similar messages at various times. No response. It turns out there are still a few bugs in that code and not everyone who received the message was able to send me an email. Perhaps it was too intrusive or confusing.
One of my teachers observed something really interesting. She could hear that about 70% of all students were native speakers, usually with Chinese roommates and TV in the background. Is it because they expected the application to work the other way around (learn English)? Or do they just like free stuff? I decided to ask, but I didn’t get a response. Unlike Twitter, iPhone push messages in Chinese need to be very short: {:alert => “您的中文非常棒,请您和我们分享下载本应用的原因”, :message => “下载本应用的原因”}.
Two weeks ago something went wrong with the server and because I was traveling I didn’t get around to fixing it. Total number of complaints: 0. That’s usually not a good sign and it’s not the first time.
A very important other factor is my own motivation to use the app, which is pretty low. I don’t find myself learning Chinese with any other tool either, so the underlying problem is most likely that I’m not as keen on learning Chinese as I thought I would be. I spoke to a few expats who told me they don’t really have to learn Chinese for their work.
Motivation might be much stronger the other way around; Chinese people learning English. I might still try that in the future. However, even though I know this market is much smaller, the fact that there are 0 true fans of the system is a strong warning that the idea won’t appeal to this bigger market either.
From a more practical point of view: if I’m not motivated to use the app (and I’m not paid to be motivated either), I’m not motivated to continue working on it.


  1. Ik denk dat wij nog iets achter lopen en ons pas over een paar gaan realiseren dat we met z’n allen al lang Chinees hadden moeten leren. Maar ik sprak toevallig laatst iemand die ook al zei dat de markt van Chinezen die Engels willen leren ontzettend groot is, en maar blijft groeien. Dat geldt vooral voor het oefenen van goede uitspraak, want het overgrote deel van de docenten Engels in China zijn Chinezen die het ook allemaal maar van horen zeggen hebben, en weliswaar perfect alle regels uit boekjes kunnen aanleren, maar de uitspraak laat daarbij wat te wensen over. Goede kans voor jouw nieuwe app dus! Heel veel succes!

  2. I should have said this when you first talked about it.
    But for me,
    my concern in learning chinese is not being pitch perfect.
    My tones are always wrong.
    But there’s so much vocabulary
    I just want to be almost right.
    Most chinese people will be understanding
    (its much easier for them to understand my bad tone, than for me to remember and reproduce the correct tone every time)
    In fact I envy the guys I see who can speak perfect mandarin,
    but do it in an obvious english accent.
    It’s quite fun.

  3. Ik denk nog steeds dat de app heel waardevol is als aanvulling op een taalcurus. Eventueel te ontwikkelen en herlanceren in samenwerking met een groot taalbureau / universiteit die Chinese Taal en cultuurstudies aanbiedt. Dan is een dergelijke app een enorm interessante pré.

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