Designing Push Notifications that Don’t Suck

At busuu, we think of ourselves as being not only a language learning app, but also part of a broader self-actualization category.

So we think we’re cousins of brain training apps, for instance. Fitness apps too.

Whether our apps teach people a new language, keep their brains active or their abs shredded, our ultimate goal is the same: we seek to help our users self-improve.

Yet, the road to a better self is paved with procrastination and disenchantment. Most people give up after a few days, when initial motivation has worn off. This is the famed “New Year resolution” effect: buy a gym membership, go a couple of times and never come back.

Regular, routine practice is the best way to master a skill. So, as product designers, we need to help our users cement good practice habits.

This is where push notifications come in. As users lapse, we can use push notifications as external triggers to re-engage them; prompting actions which in turn reinforce the practice habit.

Now, the problem is that most re-engagement push campaigns suck. And that’s an understatement, really. Most of them are just here to remind you to use the app and provide you with no other value. They are nagging, desperate calls for attention (“It’s time to do x”, “Come back?”). To add to the insult, they also feel disconnected from the product. Tapping them brings you back to a menu or navigation, with no action initiated, which leaves you wondering “why the f*ck did you even bring me back?”. No wonder 60% of users opt-out of push notifications.

So first, let’s have a look at some examples of poorly executed re-engagement notifications. Then, I’ll show you how we increased open rates 300% by building notifications that don’t suck. Valuable, relevant and habit-forming push notifications.

Re-engagement push that sucks

You’ve probably heard this before: push notifications need to be valuable, relevant and well-timed.

This is a mantra for mobile marketers. Yet, it’s interesting to note how it’s not applied by most re-engagement campaigns.

For instance in our industry, language learning, this common-sense principle seems ignored.

Duolingo sends the exact same push notification every day. Anonymous, generic — paternalistic too. Not valuable either: if you tap on it, you just land on the course navigation.

At some point, they will send you a last nagging push to try and get you back. Nagging ex- anyone?

Memrise isn’t much better. Generic push, which once again lands me on the course navigation.

Both these examples are case-studies for bad re-engagement campaigns. They’re not personalised, nor relevant. They’re also disconnected from the product experience: tapping them only lands you in the navigation menu, instead of starting a valuable action.

I believe this happens because such re-engagement notifications aren’t considered part of the product. Though this varies from company to company, they’re usually considered “Marketing domain”. The rise of Mobile Marketing Automation (aka MMA) frameworks is partly to blame for this. There’s no need to involve Product anymore to build and launch a push notifications campaign. Marketers can simply do it from their dashboards.

Don’t get me wrong though: I love MMA frameworks as they allow much more agility and speed than hardcoded logic. Marketers can create, A/B test and iterate on campaigns without engineering input. Nor waiting for store approvals. It’s really awesome.

Source: Andy Carvell, https://medium.com/@andy_carvell/2015-the-mobile-growth-stack-revised-58f5d11d43f3#.irwzktux5

But it also means these campaigns are now built by marketing teams who might work in isolation and might lack a holistic Product approach to their re-engagement notifications strategy.

Push is part of the product

At busuu, ownership of push re-engagement campaigns is shared between Marketing and Product. We see these campaigns as integral to the product and key to helping users stick to their learning habit.

We were also doing push wrong, just like Duolingo and Memrise. But then, we built intelligent push: personalised, relevant and valuable. And we got metrics to prove it.

  • Our push open rates increased by 300%
  • For the same volume of push sent, revenue has increased 10x on Android and 400% on iOS

Use personal data

We happen to store every vocabulary item a user encounters throughout their course. So we thought: what if we asked users whether they remember what [insert word here] means?

We retrieve one word a user has recently learned and quiz them on it — right from the push notification.

As Andrew Chen puts it: “Focus on understanding what your users value about your service and tailor your messages to their unique needs and interests. You’ll see push engagement skyrocket, and your users transform into rabid advocates.”

Ask a question

Formulating the push notification content as a question goes a long way towards making it effective.

Indeed, a good trigger sparks intrigue according to Nir Eyal:

A bit of curiosity goes a long way when it comes to prompting specific, intended actions.
Triggers entice users to swipe to learn more when there’s some mystery regarding what they might find if they do.
Timehop, for instance, sends a cheeky notification reading, “No way, was that really you?,” and prompting the users to open the app. To see the photo, users need to simply swipe. It helps that Timehop’s messaging is lightweight and humorous enough to be out of the ordinary.

Also, we never send the same word twice — making it unpredictable and introducing variability. “Variability stimulates curiosity, and can make a notification worth checking” Nir Eyal goes on.

Link to a valuable action

What happens then if you tap on that push? Hint: it doesn’t send you to the menu or navigation, leaving you wondering what to do next.

Instead, it launches a Vocabulary Trainer, which is a fancy word for a quiz on the vocabulary you’ve learned so far.

Best of all? The first question in this quiz is about that word you’ve just tapped on!

In motion:

Add a reward and an investment

Readers familiar with Nir Eyal might recognize a “hook” here.

First we prompt the user with a personalised push notification (external trigger) which sparks curiosity (internal trigger).

Tapping on the push, they go through a quiz (action).

At the end of the quiz, they get a congratulations screens with their score (reward).

Finally, by training the vocabulary they had learned, they have strengthened their long-term memory (investment).

The cycle is complete and it starts again when the next push notification (about another word) is received.


Any re-engagement push strategy benefits from product thinking. App marketers and product people can come together to deliver a superior experience.

An experience so good it doesn’t even feel like a re-engagement campaign, but as a genuinely valuable feature.

All credit goes to the amazing team who shipped it: Toto, Adrian, David, Daniele, Juan, Jarek, Edoardo, Marc, Swarnim and Louise. Also thanks to Hayley, Sylvester and Kirsten who made this post possible. ❤️