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Why replace old-fashioned phrasebooks?

Notes by John Boykin

Collection of excerpts from various old-fashioned phrasebooks, showing their categories and subcategoriesOld-fashioned phrasebooks — both digital and print — are uniformly mediocre. All for the same reason: All are miniature textbooks.

As such, their purpose is not really to teach a language as well as their big brothers do. Their purpose is more to supplement a bigger textbook or to prep tomorrow’s traveler for their upcoming trip.

This makes them only marginally useful once the trip begins. Why?

Because all old-fashioned phrasebooks, whether digital or print, are structured into complicated topical categories, like transportation, sleeping, eating, shopping, sightseeing, and so on. Each of these is then divided into various subcategories.

Collection of topical categories in old-fashioned phrasebook apps

This structure may be fine for studying at leisure in advance. But when you need a word or phrase right now on the street corner in Europe, this structure forces you to

  1. guess which category the needed word/phrase might be buried in
  2. find that category, usually by random poking around
  3. check out the various subcategories until you stumble across the right one
  4. hunt for the right spot
  5. all too often, give up and try either a different category or the glossary

Since even the phrasebook apps are not primarily meant for quick reference, their search is often clumsy and thus not much faster.

This slow trial-and-error process serves travelers poorly in the heat of the moment when they need to make quick decisions of what to say or how to proceed. They look and feel foolish fumbling through an old-fashioned phrasebook while the clerk waits impatiently or their train pulls away.

Picture of loading icon, for illustration purposes onlySure, there are apps that promise to translate anything for you on the fly. Some of them are sometimes very helpful. But they have a bad habit of falling far short of their promise:

  • misunderstanding spoken input
  • serving up embarrassingly inaccurate robo-translations
  • being painfully slow
  • crashing
  • relying on wi-fi that’s surprisingly scarce in Europe beyond one’s hotel
  • having a confusing user interface
  • chances are, tracking and selling your info

Translation apps are a fine tool for occasional use when appropriate. I sometimes use one. But I wouldn’t want to depend on one 12 hours a day in France.

Over my ten trips to Europe, I have struggled with too many old-fashioned print phrasebooks and mobile apps that let me down just when I needed them.

So I decided that, if no one else would make something practical, I would.

To make it practical, I applied the same principles that guide my day job designing websites for Fortune 500 companies. Principles like

  • starting with a deep understanding of what users actually need (and do not need)
  • tailoring the product to the context in which people actually use it
  • making it simpler and easier to use by capitalizing on Gestalt perception
  • knowing that the least user interface is the best user interface
  • respecting that nobody intuits anybody else’s organization scheme
  • watching real users test-drive your product and reworking it based on what they experience

The most useful part of any phrasebook for me had always been the glossary. So I thought, Suppose you covered all of the same material, but in glossary form? Finding anything on a simple A-Z list would be a lot faster and easier than hunting through a bunch of confusing categories.

Photo of ticket machine in French

I started gathering material on the ground in France. While everybody else was taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower, I was taking pictures of ticket machines and “Do not enter” signs.

Hearing about the project, someone offered to be my agent for the series. Only one condition: that I not try “a whole new revolutionary concept.”

Mustering all the self-control I could fake, I replied, “As a designer, I’m afraid a whole new revolutionary concept is precisely what I have to offer. I don’t think the world needs yet another samey-same phrasebook like the 9 on my shelf or the 99 in the app stores.”

Table of contents for an old-fashioned phrasebook in mobile app formTraveler’s French Cheat Sheet is not a phrasebook, though both serve similar purposes.

Phrasebooks are long overdue for serious innovation. The phrasebooks on the market today represent some of the best thinking of the 1970s.

In recent decades, publishers have certainly gussied them up aesthetically. In practice, that has amounted to little more than gratuitous photos and lavishly color-coded categories. The concept, substance, and structure have remained stuck in the 1970s.

Some publishers have dumped their old-fashioned print phrasebooks into e-book or mobile app form. They remain miniature textbooks, but now with links and maybe audio. The addition of audio is nice, but only if you can find your term in the first place.

In short, old-fashioned phrasebooks (whether in print or mobile app form) have remained only marginally useful on the street corner in Europe. Their value, if any, remains mostly for people at home preparing for an upcoming trip.

My audience would be people on their trips now who would arrive in France without ever having learned a bit of French.

That meant entirely scrapping the old-fashioned phrasebooks’ tired old formula. No lessons. No categories or other rabbit holes to get lost in. No figuring anything out. No sexy but unreliable technology. No need for an Internet connection.

That in turn meant the mobile app version of my Cheat Sheet would have to be low-tech and sublimely simple. 

Collection of photos of standard glossaries with separate French-first and English-first sectionsEven glossaries have always set up the same problem of sections.

Standard practice is to have an English-to-French glossary in one section, separate from a French-to-English glossary in another section. But there is no logic to putting either one first. So when you need to look up, say, a French term, do you turn to the first section or the second? You’re back to trial and error. 

So I combined the two glossaries into a single A-Z list. That eliminates the time-wasting need to guess which section to look in.

Closeup of French headwords and English headwords alternatingCombining them does, however, raise the question of how to keep the two distinct. My solution was to run French headwords in black type all the way to the left, and English headwords in colored type slightly indented. This takes most people a minute or two to get used to.

Nope, you’ve never seen this approach before. It’s patent pending. 

The first orthodoxy I scrapped was the pretense of prepping people to have conversations in French. I’m sorry, but to have conversations, what you need is a class and a lot of prior practice. Not a translation app, old-fashioned phrasebook, or even this Cheat Sheet. Why?

  1. The other person will probably speak too fast.
  2. You probably would not be able to tell which of their many words was the key one to look up.
  3. French is usually not spelled the way it is pronounced. So, even if you did pick out the key word, you might have a hard time finding it.
  4. By now you would have forgotten those spoken French words. Not much of a conversation. 
  5. Translation apps tend to misunderstand spoken input, especially anything longer than 2 words. So their “translations” tend to be riddled with nonsense. Translation apps are fine for limited purposes, but they might just complicate any attempt at conversation.

Close-up photo of instructions in FrenchSo the French headwords in Traveler’s French Cheat Sheet are mostly things you might see written — on signs, maps, ticket machines, paperwork, and so on. The English headwords are things you might need to say, typically in some brief transaction.

If my French-English crutch just helps you get by with the practicalities of travel on the ground, mission accomplished.

Photo of a usability testTo find out how well this “whole new revolutionary concept” really worked, I had a few people take a prototype for a test drive (a usability test). The testers spotlighted my bad assumptions and screwups. I reworked things and ran the revised prototype by a few more people.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. In all, 18 people tried out the evolving drafts.

For comparison, they also looked for terms in a popular old-fashioned phrasebook. Bottom line: They found the words and phrases they were looking for much faster in my later prototypes than in the old-fashioned phrasebook.

Screenshot of Most mobile apps turn out to be disappointing and quickly get deleted. Why?

Pricing. Making a really good high-tech mobile app is very expensive. But you must give your app away for free — while hoping that a few people will pay you a pittance for it.

So you either

  • lose a lot of money on a good high-tech app
  • break even on a mediocrity
  • run obnoxious ads, or
  • make your money through the back door by tracking and selling your users’ data.

I chose a fourth way: to make a really good low-tech app.

SCreenshot of typical eBook phrasebookE-book technology is great for prose: novels, biographies — any mass of paragraphs and chapters that you might work your way through.

But e-book technology is woefully unsuited to quick reference tools. You can’t have an A-Z index or search widget present all the time. And it can’t scroll vertically like webpages and mobile apps do. So you must either navigate to things (clumsy) or swipe left from this pageful to that pageful to the next pageful (impossibly slow). 

I’d rather have no e-book version than let the technology give you a bad experience.

Photo of John Boykin sitting beside the river Seine in ParisNow that the Cheat Sheet is out as both a paperback and a mobile app, I welcome your suggestions. Please try it out on your trip and let me know what works, what doesn’t, what words and phrases I should add, and generally how to make it even better.


–John Boykin

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Traveler’s French Cheat Sheet

This French/English product is the first in Applegate LLC’s series of Cheat Sheets in both paperback and mobile app form

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Designed & edited by John Boykin, Applegate LLC

© Copyright 2024 John Boykin, Applegate LLC. All rights reserved.

Product design is patent pending   

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