Only hours ago the 1.0 release of Names hit the App Store. Names is an iPhone app that helps teachers quickly learn student names. I wrote this app because I'm great at remembering faces, but terrible at remembering names.
For the last 7 semesters I taught a non-accredited iPhone dev class at BYU Idaho. We never had more than 25 students, which made it even worse when I would forget a name. I remember one semester a student walked in, named Brandon, but for some reason, to my brain he was named Joe. I would constantly call him Joe, and he eventually stopped coming. I felt terrible. I knew I needed to find a better way. That was the genesis of Names.
How It Works
On the first day of class, as the students leave the classroom, you stand by the door and using your iPhone or iPod touch snap a picture of each smiling face. Add the pictures to Names and practice until you've got them all down. It's that simple.
Here are my favorite parts of this app:
I know this is biased, but I really like the look and feel of the app. I'm not doing anything visually stunning, but with basic controls and simple views I think I've distilled this application down to its essence. This is hard work! Maybe some day I'll show all the iterations and ideas that lead to this, but even though the visual flair could be improved, this app doesn't get in the way and I'm very happy with that.
The review screen comes from talking to and watching teachers trying to learn student names. Frequently they would simply arrange student photos with names on the table. Others would use computer printouts and quickly scan the photos with names right before class. This screen allows for quick review and editing of photos. You'd be surprised how different students look from the student record photo taken years before. The subtle edges of each photo before and after hint when there's more to see.
When you enter the practice portion of the app, you have a stack of faces and need to select the correct name from three nameplates. While this might seem obvious, it's really a rare solution. First, it's fast. Tapping is all that is needed and you can move through a huge class super quick. Flip transitions that simulate actual pictures or flashcards are slow and lose the connection between the two sides of the card. Second, it mimics real life. In the classroom, a teacher is looking at a face, and then trying to recall a name. That's the scenario and this arrangement helps you perform in the scenario in which you will need the recall. And third, the smooth animations reinforce correct and incorrect guesses without taking too much time. The animations draw the eye to the connection between the name and the face and reinforce the learning.
One could say that this is simply a flashcard app and in a way, that's right. On the other hand, I'd recommend that any college professor try to use any other flashcard app out there, on the iPhone, iPad, Mac or Windows and see how the experience compares. You see, it's the focus that makes this app great. Sure, you could use Names to memorize anything that has a picture and a name, and I don't go out of my way to make that hard. However, this app is about learning people's names fast. Making a general purpose flashcard app makes it hard to nail that core scenario because you have to add other clutter to support the general use. With a focus on the core scenario, the UI that doesn't matter just disappears. Simple focused solutions. That's what I love about building iPhone applications and Names is no exception.
I'll write more about Names later, but for now check it out for yourself!