Transcript of Poems by Heart App
John Morgan: The app is free and it plays on any sort of mobile IOS device. So an iPad, and iPod Touch, an iPhone. You open it up and there’s two poems for free right there, a short one by William Blake called “Eternity,” and then “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare. And when you’re first diving in, you get an overview of the poem and you can hear a female or a male speaker reading the poem. And then you’re automatically on the first of five stages, where you can see most of the line but you have to kind of guess what words are dropped out. So it would be like, “Shall I compare blank to a blank day?” And even if you get it wrong, it sort of gently corrects you and rewards you as you do well. And then as you keep going through the different stages, you sort of get more rewards. There’s 20 ranks that you can get awarded, and by the fifth stage you have to basically know the poem word for word. It’s giving you hints, but none of the words are filled in. You can just see how many syllables they are. And then if you succeed, you can recite it and send it to friends.
We didn’t want to make it so that you’re sort of constantly seeing Facebook and Twitter sort of jumping at you, but we wanted to make it possible for people to share their progress, because it’s all about rewards. You’re doing something that’s fun, but you’re also sort of accomplishing something and we wanted people to be able to share that. So there are all these ranks. You go from beginner to amateur to acolyte to eventually poetry master. And when you’ve actually recorded the poem you can share that too on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, which was a new service to me, but it’s kind of like YouTube for sounds. Now I see it everywhere. And you can even just e-mail it directly if you don’t want to go through a social network.
Elda Rotor: Well, editorially there were several stages to really think about how to make a high-quality product. And so I hired a freelance editor who used to be my intern. We talked about perennial favorite poetry looking at literature, literary anthologies, reviewing classic poems that we knew Penguin Classics readers would be familiar with and would want to return to. That was really a key for me was the emotional attachment that people have. A lot of people have told stories to me about remembering that they recited something in second grade and they wish they could remember that poem again. Or just remembering an education where poetry recitation was part of that learning experience. So we had a freelance editor collect the poems that we reviewed. We have an academic from Rutgers University who reviewed all the content and made suggestions, and we had a wonderful illustrator named Jen Wang, who used to work at Penguin, and now works for herself, who did extraordinary illustrations for the whole app.
John Morgan: And then in terms of the game play, I have a history in video game development, and one of the things that’s always talked about there is waterfall development versus iterative development, where waterfall development is kind of like, “We haven’t built a wick of the app, but we know exactly what we want it to look like.” And you usually don’t get great results there. It’s better to do something more iterative where you indicate to the developers what your end goal is and sort of engage with them and have a constant dialogue. And you go through stages. And they even did stages that we didn’t see with their own focus groups where they were working really intensely on the game play. And then we just saw build after build. I showed them to Elda, we went through them. The poem that was the sort of test case was, “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” by John Keats, which I was not familiar with before this, but I now know extremely well.