Thursday, June 14, 2012

Learning French in a Hurry: Some iPhone Hacks to Try

My best friend and I—that is, my wife and I—are headed to Paris this Fall.  Unfortunately, no parlez fran├žais.  There's this awful rumor (okay, myriad anecdotes) going around that the French are a bit jingoistic, or, perhaps more fairly, intolerant of those who don't bother to learn any French at all before visiting the country, particularly of those Americans who simply expect everyone to speak English in pursuit of the (no-longer-almighty) American Dollar.

Think what you will of this attitude or the veracity of it's justification; it's their country.  When in Paris...

So what is the busy American with about three months to learn French for a trip to Paris to do? First, and above all else, know that only a genius with can learn a language this quickly, so suck it up, be humble when you go, and do your best. Here are some hacks that we are trying out.

Change your iPhone language
You are surely extremely familiar with navigating your iPhone. Plus, the icons make it incredibly easy to find the app your looking for, despite it's caption. Changing the language your iPhone uses exposes you to French words and phrases as often as you check your phone. Since you already know what most of their counterparts are when the phone is using English, you'll surely pick up some new vocabulary and keep it. Immersion is the key to quick language acquisition.
Enable VoiceOver on your iPhone
Reading words is one thing, but it's hardly sufficient. You need to hear and speak them to improve retention and to make practical use of them. This is where the accessibility features of the iPhone come into play. Turn on VoiceOver to have all of the menu items, titles, button, etc. spoken by a clear French accent. Adjust the slider controlling how quickly the words are spoken to a rate your comfortable with interpreting—probably a slow as possible. Finally (and this is important), make sure you set the Triple-click Home feature to toggle VoiceOver. This is the most convenient way to silence the new Frenchman in your phone, but with VoiceOver on it is nearly impossible to do any texting.
Text message to your language buddy exclusively in French
My wife and I are using Google Translate in concert with iMessage for all of our text messaging. Here's the pattern:
  • Type your English in Google Translate
  • Listen to Google's French translation
  • Important! Manually type the translation into iMessage. You could copy/paste if you are in a huge hurry, but this is where you will practice writing and recall of spelling.
  • Copy/paste your interlocutor's response into Google Translate and get the English translation. Yes, do this first; you need to know what the words mean before hearing or writing them.
  • Back in iMessage now, use Triple-click Home to enable VoiceOver. Select the response you just translated to English and listen to it a couple of times, repeating it time. Turn VoiceOver off before repeating these steps.
News in Slow French
This podcast is available for free in iTunes. As a beginner you won't understand much, but it is delivered in a way that is both entertaining and accessible with a didactic slant that sometimes makes it seem a little silly. Remember, immersion is key.
Create a French Radio Station for the Pandora app
We've had decent luck with Carla Bruni (thanks to this Yahoo! answer). The real trick is to cull all of the non-French songs that come up using the thumbs-down button. Give it some time and you should get a pretty good stream of French language music.
Put Google Translate on your Home Screen
This one almost goes without saying, but the Add to Home Screen feature of Safari is under-utilized in my opinion. Quick access to a standalone view of the Google Translate web app will save you a lot of time and frustration in employing these hacks.
Jibbigo

Don't expect miracles here, but when all else fails this app could save you. Jibbigo interprets speech and translates bi-directionally! This means you can speak in English and hear a French translation, and vice versa. The important distinction between this app and Google Translate is that it works offline.

There are two major drawbacks to this app that demand comment. First, it is really, really slow. Painfully. I'm using the iPhone 4, not the faster 4S, but I suspect it will still be awkward to use this in conversation, so don't rely on it. Second, the French speech-to-text function seems unreliable. As I don't speak French, I played Google Translate audio to the phone and got pretty bad results. Not bad for a universal translator, just imperfect enough to frustrate conversation. There is an option to type the words you want translated, so a patient interlocutor can succeed.

Besides an emergency translation, this app is useful in learning French when Google Translate is unavailable for any reason.

Pimsleur on your commute and in the gym
Get the Pimsleur French audio lessons into your iTunes and listen to them on your commute and at the gym. You really need to repeat these lessons, so I suggest doing a new lesson at the gym, or your commute home, whichever is first. Then listen to that same lesson on your morning commute. The sleep between these two periods will help things stick. If you are not sure about your commitment level, buy French, Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand French with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation). Otherwise, get French I, Comprehensive: Learn to Speak and Understand French with Pimsleur Language Programs, since there is a big overlap between the two products.

Those are the hacks we've come up with so far. Do you have a language learning hack for the iPhone?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Web Performance: Measure the Right Thing

By attempting to improve your site's page performance, you can actually make it slower. There are numerous well developed techniques to improve the performance of your web sites and applications.  Steve Souders and others have put together some best practices to improve your page performance, and companies like blaze.io have put together turn-key solutions to implement these practices. With these and other ingenious tools that help measure page performance, you'd think implementing a program to improve page performance would be straightforward, but you would be wrong.


Performance improvement is an optimization game, and optimization is the act of maximizing (or minimizing) some measurable quantity.  The conventional wisdom for page performance holds that the time from first byte until window's load event is fired (i.e. time-to-onload, or TTO) by the browser is the best quantity to optimize, as it roughly approximates the wait until the page is interactive. While this seems like the worthwhile goal, it isn't; many of the techniques used to optimize TTO have deleterious effects on the user experience, including making perceived performance much slower.

Consider the practice of deferring the loading of various JavaScript files until TTO.  This generally has a very positive effect on TTO, but can have potentially negative effects. At a former client, a major airline, developers and management became fixated on TTO (as measured internally and by a third party).  The result was that the page would fully render in under a second on average, but some customers would be unable to use the flight search widget properly for twenty seconds or more.

In a somewhat common scenario, the HTML corpus of the page would download, along with the major images assets (hero shot and sprites), and the page would render completely above the fold. The deferred load and execution of the various JavaScript assets would then commence.  Unfortunately, the assets that powered the flight search widget would sometimes take an inordinate amount of time to download, resulting in a much diminished, if not jolting, user experience.

The solution is simple; the prescriptive guidance from Souders and others is to put these assets, those that spark the interactivity of critical features of your pages, inline.  Specifically, including the JavaScript for the flight search widget in a script tag at the bottom of the HTML payload would have made the widget interactive in a timely manner. By optimizing the wrong quantity, the team made things perceptively worse.

What should have been the optimized quantity? The answer to that question could only come from user-experience thinking.  UX is a kind of optimization itself: personas are developed; their goals explored; and the interactions are designed to best help them meet those goals while balancing the personas' agendas against each other. This kind of user-centered exploration of the problem space gives us a tangible quantity to optimize in any given interaction.

In the particular case of an airline's homepage, many agendas begin with searching for a flight; it is clearly the most important interaction. Concordantly, it is the time-to-interactivity of the flight search widget on the homepage that should have been optimized. By prioritizing the interactions on a given screen, we create a ranked list of performance measures that will provide tangible benefits to users of our web sites.

These measures, like time-to-interactivity of the flight search widget, are couched in domain-specific terms. We have to instrument our JavaScript to make them measurable in ways not unlike the DOM onload event.  By segmenting traffic and sending instrumentation data back to a beacon, we can monitor and optimize the real experiences of our customers, instead of a browser event.