Leverage your phone addiction to improve your vocabulary

After months of research, I decided to go full-time on building @LockcardApp with @xinyifu in October 2020.

Lockcard is a unique IOS app that leverages your constant need to check your phone, to teach you stuff via notifications. Currently, it's being used to learn English vocabulary. Our goal is to plug into more intimate parts of your day and create a holistic learning experience. 

[hiring founding members, including a technical cofounder - DM me]


June 2020 - September 2020

Problem Context

Xinyi had been learning French for a while, but her initial enthusiasm was dying out. She found it increasingly difficult to take in new language data, especially memorizing vocabulary.

Project Hypothesis

We believe the journey to learning a language is long and arduous, making users feel like they are progressing very slowly after a while (aka the learning plateau). We are also aware from secondary research that young learners have an increasingly lower attention span, making it very hard to recall information. 

Project Goal

The goal is to understand vocabulary learners more holistically, their motivations and fears in life, then to investigate their experience with existing apps so that we can remove those painpoints and make the learning experience more meaningful and effective. 

User Interviews

We conducted 12 user interviews with people who had reached an intermediate level in their secondary language. You can view all our user research on Figma.

Interview Insights

From the interviews, we were able to dress three personas that would help us empathize with our future end-users beyond their experience on the app: life-long learners, casual learners and exam-oriented learner. They are distinct in motivation, cognitive activities (e.g. planning, reviewing, solving problems and measuring progress) and behaviours. You can view all personas on Figma.

Focused Persona: Casual Learner

Some of the key learnings for the focused personas are:

  • They have been learning the language for a long time, and have reached an advanced level.
  • They are busy with a job or high-level studies.
  • They are not focused on actively improving their vocabulary, but are used to searching in a dictionary when in doubt.
  • They are addicted to their smartphones.

Here's their journey map

Competitive Analysis

We have learnt a lot about our competitors' products, especially Duolingo which has an unusually high user retention rate (20%) compared to the average education app (3%).

Apps like Duolingo tend to position themselves as one-stop-shops to learning languages, for absolute beginners; we call these 'proactive'​ apps. Their teaching relies on gamification to keep users' attention high. Using a mix of pop-up notifications, rewards and social features, these apps play on our laziness and sometimes feel like they could replace the need to go outside and expose ourselves to organic learning in uncomfortable environments, like abroad or among a group of foreign friends.

Our approach to this language learning problem is more specialized and therefore complementary to existing products [Read our full story here].



Provide context

Many apps, especially Standard Language tests (e.g. IELTS/TOEFL), push a lot of information we feel disconnected from​ ​— nouns we don't need, adjectives we'll never know when to use — and in that process, they lose us because we don't create as meaningful an association as when a friend uses a word we don't know in a private conversation.

Offer a workspace

When our target users encounter new words, they lack a method for organizing them (printed notes vs note taking app vs dictionary). They end up losing track of what they have and haven’t reviewed, creating only more frustration. View our UserJourney Map in the Appendix.

Help Memorize

As a combination of the above two pain points, we lack the energy or the time needed to review new vocabulary consistently, resulting in a never-ending cycle of Googling the same words every time.


September 2020 - Ongoing

The very first sketches of the app were made by @Xinyi in summer 2020. In November, we had completed V1 design, which was made accessible via our public beta. In that process, we collected extensive feedback through user testing sessions and our public Bug / Feature Request page. Iterating on that feedback, we completed design of V2 in January 2021, and will be officially launching in the App Store sometime in February 2021.

Captivate with Onboarding

User testing has repeatedly shown us that many of our users ignore the most important feature of Lockcard: being able to interact with notifications. As a result, those users perceived Lockcard as a simple dictionary, as opposed to a workspace and memorization system that adapts based on your answers to notifications. 

For Lockcard V2, we decided to solve for that problem through better education by redesigning the onboarding experience. 

Lockcard App Onboarding
V2 - Onboarding

Enable to Search Fast

The foundation to a good user experience is delivering what the user needs as quickly as possible. That's why we focus on eliminating any friction when we search for words, and to embed Lockcard into the everyday life of our users. By reducing the amount of effort needed to learn, we hope to increase daily app sessions per user.

explainer popup on homepage - Lockcard

Reduce Cognitive Load

Traditional dictionaries tend to push a lot of visual cues and text all at once, and offer a lot of what our users label as 'unnecessary' information; types of English, origins of a word, related phrases...

We know that searching is very contextual, and that users need to approximate a word as quickly as possible to respond to a situation they are in. Searching a word always precedes a more urgent and important task. That's why Lockcard is designed to display only the information that matters the most. Any secondary information can be accessed via an additional press.

Dictionary Lockcard vs Merriam Webster
Lockcard vs Merriam Webster

Train to Recall (with Interactive Notifications)

We use notifications to flash searched words back to users’ phones, following a Spaced Repetition Schedule based on ACT-R, a modelling system introduced by Anderson & Lebiere that maximizes learning and retention. The notifications are uniquely interactive; your answers (Easy, Medium, Difficult) make the algorithm smarter which in turn optimizes your notification schedule.

Interactive Notifications - Lockcard
Lockcard's unique notification system

Organize and Measure Progress

When we encounter new words, we lack a centralized method for organizing them (printed notes vs note taking app vs dictionary). We end up losing track of what we have and have not reviewed, creating only more frustration in the learning journey. Following the CRUD principle, our Progress page serves as a workspace for tracking, measuring and updating the words we are currently learning.

'In Progress' page

Increase Trust in our Method

User testing has shown us that some of our users question the efficacy of Lockcard's teaching method. Some of the questions that pointed to that idea were: 'How do you know if I actually mastered a word?', 'Why do I need to use notifications?', 'Is it proven I’ll learn with the repetition?'... 

Lockcard's Teaching Method
Our Teaching Method

App Development

September 2020 - November 2020

The development of the IOS app was outsourced to a team in Vietnam, which I managed closely on a daily basis. The beta version of Lockcard was ready after 11 rounds of Q&A with developers. We're also partly to blame for it since we changed the scope of some features halfway through. If you're interested in the Figma hand-off file, please reach out!

Beta Launch 🎉

November 10, 2020

We decided to open our Beta to the public on November 10th 2020, and got noticed on AppAirport pretty quickly. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with the founder of @AppAirport Jordan Singer commenting over Twitter:

Now, Marketing

November 2020 - Present

In addition to our blog, which we've been keeping at pretty consistently, Lockcard uses its main Twitter account (@LockcardApp) to connect with more tech-minded people who see value in design and non-intrusive applications. 

Our sister Twitter account (@UnlockCard) mimics the use of our app using tweets to teach English words everyday, and encouraging people to comment several times to train their brain into 'active recall'. This is a temporary solution for our Android users out there who have to wait a little longer until we build it.

Cheeky brand pattern for @LockcardApp
Complimentary pattern for @UnlockCard

The plan is to continue to raise awareness over Twitter and our blog to get more users on the beta, collect feedback, iterate and finally launch public V1 (with paid features maybe), and see how it goes from there!

If you're interested in this space or working with us, DM us over Twitter. We're always looking for passionate people to help.

Preparing to go public

More beta testing

For the last month, we've been testing out app in the hands of as many people as possible. 10% friends and 90% strangers found over AppAirport and Twitter. We've gotten a lot of good feedback through user interviews, and made some of it public via Kampsite. We are now iterating designs and planning to release the public version to the official App Store in February 2021!

An early award

We won an award for best app design since @AppAiport's inception half a year ago. We were selected among a cohort of 626 other apps, which totalled 1.1 million app views. What makes me so happy is that Jordan, the founder of @AppAiport himself, uses Lockcard and commented very nice things of it. 


Updated January 18th, 2020 (but you can follow our daily adventures via Twitter)