Magical Skills and Where to Find Them 

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elevate-2People like to assume that writers have language and literacy all figured out. They think we are 100% sure of our punctuation and grammar, and that we can read faster than anyone else, and that we naturally all know big words like mellifluous and memorabilia.

But just like everyone else, writers have to develop their skills. Here at Mash Stories, we spoke to Michael Levy, the Director of Content for Elevate, a skills-learning mobile app that develops users’ skills through a variety of (very fun, very addictive) games. From reading to writing to basic life skills like figuring out tips and being able to retain spoken content, Elevate can actually be an amazing tool for writers. We talked to Michael to understand the thinking behind Elevate, how it came to be, and what it can do for its users.

Ilana Masad: What made you decide to create an app like this?

Michael Levy: Prior to Elevate, we were producing apps under the name of MindSnacks, which are primarily language learning apps with various foreign languages as well as SAT [a school grade assessment system] vocabulary and kids’ vocabulary. We were always interested in education particularly, and we started looking at where there were gaps in the landscape for educational content, particularly in the mobile area. There are a lot of companies that do things on the web, but there are very few that are mobile-first.

“There are a lot of skills that people lack and that hold back their careers, and that it holds back their social environment as well.”

Say you’re listening to a podcast or you’re at a speech and you just lose your train of thought, or you’re networking at a conference and people are introducing themselves to you and then you can’t remember their name—that has some impact on how you’re viewed by your colleagues, professionally as well as socially.

To address these problems, we started Elevate back in 2014. We put together a large list of potential skills that are crucial for many professions and we kept adding skills to that list.

Ilana: Were you looking at specific research while creating the app?

Michael: When we work on each game we do a considerable amount of research on what the practicality of a skill is, and how it’s currently taught offline as well as online. It’s questionable, how well you can actually train the brain in abstract skills, and there are arguments and studies on both sides. But we toe a different line—we really focus on the trainability and practicality of the skills.

“Various studies point to the fact that 85% of your earning power is related to your communication skills.”

On top of that, there are various studies out there stating that HR executives will throw out resumes if they have two or more typos in them.

We also just launched a large efficacy study on our existing skills and we hope in the next two months or so that we should have some results from that. We’re certainly keen on making sure that our users are getting out of Elevate what we’re promising.

Ilana: What were the learning techniques you wanted to incorporate into the app and how did you choose how to structure each game? Was there a lot of trial and error?

Michael: We do a lot of research on whether or not something is useful for people, and whether it’s something you can train somebody in. And then we go about creating games that can translate to the mobile environment and be something that somebody can do in 60 seconds, 90 seconds, 120 seconds, and over time people receive educational content as well as tips so that they can continually improve themselves.

We focus on two different aspects of each game we create: its usefulness and its level of fun. At the end of the day, usefulness actually trumps fun for us. We want all our experiences to be fun and interesting and educational but we would much prefer something to be really useful and a little bit less fun than really fun and not very useful at all. We also worked with outside educators making sure that the games were pedagogically sound.

Ilana: What was your target audience before you launched and how do you find it different now?

Michael: There’s always a primary audience and a secondary audience. Our initial target was individuals, working age, 20–45, and we knew that 45–60 was sort of a secondary market. We were almost solely focusing on the American audience—and that’s something that was true a year ago but is not true today. Now we know from our data that about 80% of our users are American but about 15% are living in non-American English-speaking countries: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India. So we’ve been focused on creating content that is global in nature, recognizing that we also have a 5% sliver of people for whom English is a second language.

We actually have a large number of users in their 60s and 70s and that is something that we weren’t expecting, but we have a huge number of users who are retired or senior citizens, and who want to keep their minds sharp. We’ve had interest from various health providers, for using this for patients with cognitive disorders or who’ve had concussions or other physical ailments that have manifestations on mental acuity.

Ilana: So what about the grammar training? There are differences between British grammar and American grammar, for example.

Michael: There are two things on the British angle. We’ve added, I believe, six games right now that have British English support and we plan on adding about three or four games in the next month and eventually have most if not all of our games with British English support.

For that, we hired a consultant who’s an expert at both British English and American English, and he’s helping us make sure that, as we’re navigating through punctuation rules and various grammar rules, we’re not testing on things that are debatable or things that vary from stylebook to stylebook. One thing we had trouble with was the collective nouns. Using “they” or “he or she” was certainly something that generated a lot of controversy and we spent a good deal of time looking at it and knowing what the vast majority of stylebooks say but also looking at the trajectory of usage. We also don’t want to be pedantic. We don’t want to test rules that are ostentatious or showy.

Ilana: What has been the feedback from your users?

Michael: When we launched Elevate we had done a pilot study—we had about 10,000 beta testers (who were customers of the MindSnacks language learning apps) and made a lot of tweaks based upon that. And we did a pilot study on the efficacy of the skills that we were teaching and the numbers were very good in terms of people who didn’t play Elevate and how they progressed, and people who did play Elevate and how they progressed.

We’re constantly, constantly auditing our content—reviewing it. We  are a five-star app, and almost all of our customers love our app, but we certainly get some people who get very angry about some grammar rules.

When users write in to us, we spend a good deal of time writing back to explain specifically why we made a particular decision. I might spend 30 minutes a day just writing back to one person, and our users really appreciate that. We’re serious about the education and we know that a lot of this stuff is debatable and we’re trying to toe that line between teaching communication skills that are essential but not being pedantic about it.

Ilana: We here at Mash Stories are writers: how would you say that the math-related games would be useful to writers?

elevate-3Michael: For someone who’s focused on improving their writing skills, writing, reading, speaking and listening games are going to be more central. But the skills that we’re teaching in math are practical. For example, one of our games is Purchasing, and Purchasing is really about understanding the impact of daily habits on your yearly spending. If you go to a coffee shop four times a week and spend $4 every time, that’s a lot of money. But the point is we’re not actually teaching a specific math—it’s really about estimation.

Soon we’re going to be creating games focused on financial literacy, personal finance, budgeting and things like that in the near future.

“I think that for writers it can almost be like thinking about heuristic devices that you can use for cutting through some of the details to really focus on the essential facts.”

What I came away with from my talk with Michael Levy was that like any skill, writing can be cultivated. As a regular user of Elevate myself, what I wanted to focus on was my reading speed, and I’ve found myself improving as I go along. It helps me remember that we, as writers, are constantly learning, discovering, and honing our skills. We can get a little bit better every day—as long as we practise, practise, practise.


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Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Printer’s Row, Tin House’s Open Bar, McSweeney’s, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is also the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and struggling writers.