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Flip Fixation Flaw

I’ve decided to coin a new term to describe an issue I see in many flashcard applications and web sites. I have argued with developers over email and in comments about this issue but it is one I feel strongly about:

A flashcard application is said to be guilty of the Flip Fixation Flaw when the developer’s attempt to emulate the experience of studying and flipping a physical flashcard comes at the cost to the student of time or software functionality.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with creating a digital flashcard experience within educational software which is modeled upon the original physical paper based flashcard. This only becomes a problem when the marginal benefit of this approach is outweighed by the cost in terms of speed, space, and visual experience.

It’s Not Just about the Flipping

The three most common ways developers commit the flip fixation flaw are:

Lost Speed – When there is a non-trivial amount of time wasted upon creating the visual experience of “flipping” a digital flashcard to show another side of the card or sweep the card off the screen to show the next card. Because reviewing a well-studied flashcard can take less than a second, anything but the fastest flip animations can easily double the time it takes for a student to study a medium to high volume of flashcards.

If developers really want to flip the cards, then please: flip’em really fast!

Lost Space – In order to further give the user the impression they are looking at a physical card, developers often draw an image of a rounded or regular rectangle on the screen in which the content of the card is displayed and upon which the flip action is performed. This is a terrible waste of screen real estate because both the card and sometimes dozens of precious pixels are being wasted that might have been better put to slave labor portraying bigger fonts or more text.

Even if you want to “flip” the digital flashcard, we don’t need to waste screen space on a cute little flashcard, just flip the whole screen or canvas on the window.

Lost Memories – Some developers, who apparently really miss the real thing, like to create flashcards which reproduce the red vertical line and blue horizontal lines on ancient paper flaschards and elementary school notebooks.

Get over it, move on! Are you worried the users are going to type out of line or off the left margin? It may spark moments of nostalgia for people like myself who have actually used the brand of physical flashcards that looked like this, but no, we really don’t want to stare at the blue and red lines when we practice our flashcards.