Alumni Launch Mobile App for Chinese Language Program Skritter

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

by EJ Dickson

For non-Chinese speakers, the free tutorial for the language instruction program Skritter is almost shockingly simple. The demo, which is available for free on Skritter’s website, teaches you how to write Chinese characters by prompting you to trace the strokes for each figure, one-by-one:  a horizontal line for (“one,” or “once”), a short, swift stroke above another, longer horizontal stroke for èr (“two), and two short lines above a longer one for sān (“three”). Scored by a soothing audio clip instructing you how to pronounce each character, the act of dragging your mouse over the screen to trace the figures has a relaxing, almost therapeutic quality, and the five-minute demo leaves you with the impression that learning how to write Chinese requires fairly little effort.  

As anyone who has ever studied the language will tell you, however, learning how to write Chinese characters is anything but effortless: to become literate, students must learn and memorize different combinations of thousands of strokes, as well as rules for stroke order. It’s a credit to the vision of Skritter founders Nick Winter ’08, George Saines ’08, and Scott Erickson ’08 that the demo makes learning how to write Chinese seem as simple as yī, èr, sān.

Founded in 2008 as the product of a Creativity and Leadership (C&L) fellowship grant, Skritter is a language learning program that helps students master the art of writing Chinese and Japanese. Since it launched in April 2009, the service has received rave reviews from language students all over the blogosphere, with CNET Asia blogger Ryan McLaughin writing that Skritter has “the potential to boost any student’s Chinese character reading and writing ability quickly and efficiently.” Now, the program will reach an even wider audience as a free mobile app, which was released on iOS on June 12.

As one of only a handful of electronic language learning tools available for writing Chinese, Skritter relies on a combination of a spaced repetition system and active recall, prompting users to write characters as they show up on screen. The program then provides feedback for each character, resulting in what the website claims is a 95 percent memory retention rate. “More traditional study methods, like flash cards, are far less effective for learning Chinese, because you’re learning characters instead of strokes and you’re not getting feedback on how well you write them,” Winter says. “Skritter gives you feedback for each individual stroke, which helps you learn much faster.”  

Winter should know what works and what doesn’t when learning how to write Chinese— the idea for Skritter was, in part, based on his own difficulties with becoming literate in the language. He initially came up with the idea for Skritter while studying Chinese in Beijing, where he was spending winter term his junior year. “I had three semesters of Chinese under my belt, but like everyone else I was falling behind on characters,” he says. “It was just easy to forget them when I didn’t practice writing each stroke all the time.”

The inspiration for Skritter came from an unlikely source: a Nintendo DS game called “Trauma Center: Under the Knife,” that Winter often watched his roommate play. “Basically, it was a game where you’re a surgeon and you operate on these ninjas while these other ninjas try to attack you, and you have to do surgery by making incisions into the patient’s body with a stylus,” he explains. “And I just thought, wow, it’d be awesome if I could learn Chinese characters like that.”

A few months later, Winter started working on Skritter as part of his honors project in computer science. He enlisted housemates Scott Erickson ’08 and George Saines ’08 to help him develop the program. The three put together a proposal for a $30,000 Creativity and Leadership grant to help fund the project and form a start-up, Inkren (“ink people” in Chinese) LLC.

After graduating in May 2008, Saines, Winter, and Erickson stayed in Oberlin, continuing to develop Skritter (a portmanteau of “Sanskrit” and “critter”) and seeking out investors for Inkren. The three spent months working out programming kinks, at one point paying both Chinese-speaking and non-Chinese speaking students $15 each to try out the demo. “Watching people fail at using the software was actually the best way for us to learn how to make it better,” Erickson says.

In the summer of 2009, Inkren began consulting with Charles Stack, a Cleveland-based Internet entrepreneur who they met through the Creativity and Leadership fund. Seeing the company’s potential, Stack put up $50,000 to help launch the program, advising the burgeoning entrepreneurs on everything from the program interface to the software’s pricing model.

Stack’s assistance, along with a $25,000 grant from the Lorain County Community College Innovation Fund, was a turning point for the company, whose product was starting to attract a steady stream of subscribers, consisting of mostly American ex-pats living and working in China. In the fall of 2010, Inkren started developing a mobile version of Skritter, a plan that had been in the works since the company’s inception.

“People were asking us daily, ‘When are you guys gonna develop an iPhone app?,’ and the market for mobile services was much more fertile than it had been when we started out,’” Erickson says. “It just seemed like the next logical step for our business model.”

So far, the mobile version of Skritter has been met with accolades from most users and tech bloggers, with the app garnering an impressive four-and-a-half star rating on the app store. Although a bug in the app made new users unable to view the demo, Inkren responded promptly to all customer complaints, contributing to what Saines says is the company’s reputation as offering quality customer service. “Our rating wouldn’t be that high if we hadn’t responded to every single one of those e-mails,” he says. “Skritter has grown mainly by treating its customers well.”

Skritter also seeks feedback from its growing user base, integrating suggestions from commenters and tech bloggers into the program. “We wouldn’t be able to build an awesome product if we didn’t constantly hear from users what they thought about it,” Winter says. “They sometimes have much better ideas than what we could’ve designed on our own.”  

In the weeks after the app’s launch, tens of thousands of users have downloaded the program. Although it’s too soon to determine just how much the number of subscriptions to Skritter has increased, Saines says the app has already attracted “more new users than we have customers.” Encouraged by the positive feedback, the company has already discussed adding new, user-suggested features — such as example sentences for Chinese characters — to the program, as well as expanding to other mobile operating systems. “The iOS app has made Android users quite jealous,” Erickson laughs.

As of now, however, Inkren has no plans to make drastic changes to the Skritter model; for instance, they have no interest in expanding their product to other languages, in a bid to compete with other Internet-based language-instruction programs. In most respects, Inkren’s vision for Skritter still closely hews to the model that was conceived in a Beijing dorm room more than five years ago: it’s an efficient, effective, and, above all else, simple way to learn Chinese characters.

“We’ve never been interested in competing with a company like Rosetta Stone as much as we’ve wanted to focus on a tiny little niche that we could do extremely well in,” Saines says. “So far, that’s been working very well for us. I challenge anyone to make an app as good as ours, for the purpose that we’ve built it for.”

For more information on Skritter and Inkren, visit their website at The Skritter app, which requires iOS 5.0 or later, can be purchased on the website or at the iTunes app store at A monthlong subscription is available for purchase at $9.99, while six-month and 12-month subscriptions cost $39.99 and $69.99, respectively.