An open letter to Oxford Dictionaries and Handmark software on the state of the Oxford iOS apps

[My apologies if this has reached you in error. Writing to large corporations can feel like yelling in the wind, so I’m cc’ing a number of emails in hopes that one may reach a sympathetic ear. Please consider forwarding this to someone who can do something about it.]

Dear Gents:

I’ve purchased several of your iPhone and iPad apps, including the New Oxford American Dictionary. I’m a big fan of the dictionary’s actual definitions, but not a big fan of the app itself. Most frustrating is how many taps it takes from launching the app to getting to look up a word. It’s (1) launch, (2) wait for the search command to appear, (3) tap search (a TINY button?!), (4) tap inside the search box, and (5) tap to delete the previous word looked up.

Un-reasonable, especially for a $29.99 app. If I were making suggestions to you, I’d recommend the app to automatically look up a word if one is in the device’s clipboard, and offer a blinking cursor in a search field upon launch otherwise.

Recently I was looking for a thesaurus app, and noticed your Writer’s Thesaurus. As much as I’d like to own this app ($24.99), I cannot buy it after reading some of the reviews. There’s content missing from the app that exists in the book? There are mini-essays throughout the app that can only be found by stumbling on them? And, most devastatingly, the search is no better than the dictionary app? Sorry, I’ll have to stick to the web browser for word discovery.

I hope you’ll invest some time and energy into improving these (expensive!) apps, so that the user interface is as useful and engaging as the content. And I hope you’ll write me back with your plans in this regard, so I can either begin to wait in anticipation, or put my hopes to rest.

Yours truly,
Alesh Houdek

Update: I actually received a response from Park Jacobs at Handmark (the software partner that produces Oxford University Press’ apps) almost immediately, but haven’t gotten a chance to respond to him or post it until now. Shame on me. Here it is:

Hi Alesh,

My Name is Jacob Park and I am the product manager at Handmark responsible for the Oxford dictionaries on mobile clients. I’d like to thank you for your feedback. We’re always looking to improve the user experience and your feedback is critical.

Your suggestion for automatically searching for text in the clipboard is great and a feature that has been added to the to-do list. The loading time you are seeing while waiting for the search command to appear on launch is a result of some libraries being loaded that are required for the ‘fuzzy’ search functionality. I am looking into what we can do to speed that up to reduce the time from launch to search. The search process you describe below seems to reflect the user experience of the iPad app functioning in portrait mode. Is that correct? I think there may be some relatively easy fixes we can get in that would improve the search functionality, particularly on the iPad, like assuming the user wants to execute a new search when the app is brought to the foreground – clearing out the previous text and displaying the search popover automatically with the search field active. I’ll put these in the feature list for the next point release of the application.

Again, thanks for the feedback. It really is appreciated.