Monday, July 17, 2017

Parenting? Roll a Dice

The Problem

I have five children between the ages of 13 and 3.  Everywhere we go, there's a scarce resource that all the kids want.  Maybe it's an elevator button that everyone wants to push.  Maybe it's a favorite spot in the car where everyone wants to sit.  On the flip side, there are chores that nobody wants to do: take out the trash, load the dishwasher, etc.  I used to make assignments round-robin, trying to give each kid a turn at fun and chores.  I've tried other scheduling algorithms too, but I inevitably forget whose turn it is and then everyone tries to straighten me out: "But it was Gideon's turn last time. No, that was Haven not me. ..."

I've tried for years to convince them that these things don't matter and that life is not fair.  I'm apparently poor at communicating that message.  So I decided to take my own sermon to heart:

My Solution

If it really doesn't matter, why not pick kids at random?  I installed Random Name Picker on my phone.  I created a list named Children and added each child's name to that list.  In the list settings, I chose "With replacement" and set "# of names chosen" to 5.  When I click Choose, the app shuffles all the children into a random order.  Now that little Choose button resolves all trivial, family disputes.  We've been doing this for months and it works great.

Only space for one kid to help Dad at the store? Click Choose and the top name wins.  Choosing 2 ice cream flavors at the store? Click Choose and the top two names win.  On vacation? Click Choose in the morning and read everyone the full list to assign priority for pushing elevator buttons that day.  Assigning all children a random priority has proven especially helpful.  Each kid remembers their place in line.  No matter which subset of children happens to travel in the elevator at any given time, they instantly know whose turn it is to push the buttons.

One extra rule proved useful: Dad always clicks Choose.  Otherwise, things get meta really fast: "I get to click Choose to see who gets to click Choose to see who gets to pick the ice cream"

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Goodbye Duolingo

Today I'm giving up a 665 day streak in Duolingo.  I've removed the app from my phone.  Duolingo is still a helpful tool for many and they have potential to become great again.  Unfortunately, the trend in their recent changes has encouraged me to leave.  I'm mostly writing this to warn myself about practices that can drive customers away.

I didn't mind when Duolingo started showing ads.  I knew they had to do it eventually.  They even did a good job of showing ads in predictable locations and using ads of relatively high quality.  I anticipated a subscription model allowing me to pay $1 per month to remove the ads and expected no other functionality for my subscription.  Unfortunately, the subscription costs 10x more than I was willing to pay.  For reference, Duolingo charges $9 per month.  Netflix charges $7 per month and provides much greater value.

No big deal.  I'll skip the subscription and just look at the ad after each lesson.  I'm sure that 90% of users do the same thing.  Duolingo doesn't seem content with that, so they randomly move the location of the "close this ad" button on each page.  Sometimes it's in the top left corner.  Sometimes it's in the lower right corner.  This inconsistency is disrespectful.  It's playing games with my time in an apparent attempt to manipulate me into clicking their ads or subscription button.  If most users are going to skip the ads, the "close this ad" button should be predictable and convenient (on the bottom where a thumb can quickly reach it).

It was annoying, but I was willing to live with it.  Duolingo has to make money.  They're being a little pushy about it, but I can overlook that.  Then they changed the "strengthen my skills" button so that it only performs a timed practice.  I thought, "maybe they've seen that this produces better results, so I'll try it".  After using it for 2-3 weeks, I found myself skipping any question which took longer than 1-2 seconds to answer (listening comprehension, free text response).  The new rules of the game were encouraging me to learn a language less effectively.  For people whose focus is conversational speech, it might make sense to practice under time pressure.  My goal has always been reading comprehension.  In that context, time is not an issue.  I can spend as much time as I want on a German Wikipedia page and nobody will care.

Android has always been a second-class citizen for Duolingo.  Useful features come to iPhone first and often don't make it to Android for months or years.  It's no big deal since the core functionality is available on Android.  Duolingo makes it very clear that they're trying to hire an Android developer.  They've been trying for as long as I can remember.  A couple days ago, I installed an update to the Android app.  Even though I only use the app for 10 minutes each morning, it now consumes 9% of my battery each day.

In a market for user attention that's so competitive, you really have to play at the top of your game.  Anything pushy or disrespectful can have large costs.  Repeated minor issues like this can push a user away.  I hope I can remember that as I work on software.

Duolingo.  Thanks for 665 days of fun.  Sorry that things didn't work out between us.