An Interview with WordSurge® Founder Jordan Ackerman
Move over Dictionary.com. Make way OneLook Dictionary Search. Say so long RhymeZone. The Beta version of WordSurge® has hit the Web. Writers and poets, songsmiths, rappers, and anyone who loves words no longer has to settle for static “look-up” experiences. As WordSurge® founder Jordan Ackerman says, word discovery and exploration promise to create random and custom interactive opportunities that will benefit both native and non-native English-language users.
Jordan, what inspired you to create WordSurge®?
We were inspired to build a more comprehensive and engaging word-discovery tool, a platform that embodies the way definitions, synonyms, rhymes, and other reference tools can be integrated into one dynamic experience.
On the About page at WordSurge®, you list four “Chief WordSurgeons”—your founders and consultants, who boast some impressive backgrounds. How did this particular team come to be assembled?
Since graduating from New York University in 2011, I have been involved in several education and technology projects. During this time, I noticed that the online dictionaries I encountered had severe limitations, and in 2014 I partnered with a friend from high school to tackle [those constraints] and build WordSurge® Beta. We recognized the challenges involved and reached out for guidance from experts in the two areas most critical to our success: data mining/organization and highly interactive user interfaces. We are lucky to have a great team and to be able to work with such knowledgeable consultants.
[The team includes Evan Carey, an active gamer and game developer; David Kirsh, a professor of cognitive science at University of California at San Diego, who specializes in artificial intelligence; and Rob Malouf, a professor of computational linguistics at San Diego State University and an expert in data mining.]
What principal obstacles have you encountered in creating and launching WordSurge®, and how have you resolved them?
The greatest obstacle we face at WordSurge® is developing an exploration experience that makes vast quantities of networked information immediately accessible, while ensuring that our users are free to focus on what is important to them individually. Finding a balance between these goals is critical, especially as we continue to add new reference categories and features designed for discovery.
Maintaining this balance is an ongoing process, and we rely on user feedback to get it right. (Users may share their opinions at www.wordsurge.com or e-mail comments to email@example.com.)
Did you create the software from scratch?
Yes. WordSurge® is a custom, single-page app powered by two robust Web frameworks, AngularJS and NodeJS, which basically means it is fast and reliable.
The official title of your product is WordSurge®—The Smart Dictionary. How does your creation differ, and also set itself apart, from the huge number of other dictionaries already available online?
WordSurge® displays results for all our reference categories at once, but we wanted to go beyond just displaying disjointed hyperlinked text. By synchronizing our data and arranging our results into smart numbered networks across reference categories, we ensure that users always easily see which results connect to which definition(s) of a word. Users can also drag-and-drop or minimize reference categories to focus on what is important to them.
To complement our dynamic results categories, we provide two integrated dashboards that bring content and engagement to the dictionary experience. The first is our Index Dashboard, which supports navigation through our dictionary entries; the second is our Surge Dashboard, which is designed to encourage exploration of random and custom lists of words.
To date, how many words, approximately, are searchable on WordSurge®?
We currently have 200, 000+ common words and phrases, all of which are instantly browsable from our Index Dashboard.
A conventional printed dictionary basically consists of two parts: an alphabetic index of words and their corresponding definitions. Since dictionaries have gone online, they have focused on providing definitions while neglecting the indexing of words and the context it affords. Instead of providing an alphabetical list of dictionary entries, they display a search bar—which is great but it is only a narrow window to the index.
WordSurge® aims to put the power of an extensive index of words back into the hands of dictionary users by providing a responsive infinite-scroll Index Dashboard.
How might prospective users suggest words for or contribute words to the dictionary?
Users may suggest new words or results via our feedback tab on the right sidebar of the WordSurge® site.
Allowing users to update and add entries is extremely important to our mission, but ensuring the accuracy and consistency of our entries and their connections is even more important.
Currently, entries and results can only be updated or added by designated “WordSurgeons”; in the future, we will provide a dedicated and robust “Suggestion” tool.
You are seeking to attract poets, lyricists and songwriters, and hip-hop enthusiasts to your creative community. What will make WordSurge® the go-to, rather than the one-off, site for these artists?
WordSurge® is an excellent tool for students, writers, and artists alike. In addition to consolidating and coordinating our data with the Results and Index Dashboards, we specifically designed the Surge Dashboard to offer endless brainstorming and exploration opportunities. Integrating the Surge Dashboard into our dictionary introduces the ability to effortlessly discover new words, as well as review words searched in the past.
How do you envision users whose first language is not English to benefit from the site?
Many of our ESL users tell us that WordSurge® is most useful to them at intermediate and advanced English-learning levels, allowing them to discover connections among words, find replacements for words, or recognize categories and instances of things.
We believe that WordSurge® is an ideal platform for tools that can aid in non-native-language-learning, and we intend to add in the future more direct support for ESL users.
WordSurge® is now in its public Beta stage. What would you most like to learn from your public testers?
Initially, our goal is to understand deeply how people are using WordSurge®. Beyond developing a good picture of what is working and what isn’t, we want to hear from our users about improvements and new features they would like.
Jordan, if you could use only six words to describe WordSurge®, what would those words be?
Useful. Intuitive. Illuminating. Educational. Creativity-inducing. Fun!
Jordan Ackerman is a software developer, writer, and lyricist. A graduate of New York University, he holds a degree in East Asian studies, concentrating in Chinese and specializing in Web applications. Jordan is passionate about improving education and has worked at several start-ups focusing on online tutoring, linguistics, and social networking.
Featured photo by Ian Sane, Creative Commons license via Flickr. WordSurge® image courtesy of Jordan Ackerman. Interview by Maureen E. Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems.
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L. L. Barkat says
I love hearing about new ways in to words. Definitely going to share this with my eldest, who will have a lot to say, I’m sure, about what she both loves and wishes for in the app 🙂
Maureen Doallas says
I enjoyed doing this interview. Jordan is passionate and articulate about the product, and I know he has many upgrades already in the works. I’ve already seen several iterations of the site, so I do hope a lot of people engage in the Beta testing.
Richard Maxson says
Great interview, Maureen! I spent some time playing with WordSurge and it is captivating! I had to make myself get back to work. I use three “word discovery” (great description) tools now and this replaces them all.
Maureen Doallas says
Your comment, Richard, will make Jordan very happy. Thank you for reading!
Maureen Doallas says
Thank you for reading and commenting, Susan.