The Bingo with Duolingo: A Product Review

If my cheesy, overly excited title doesn’t spell it out enough: Duolingo hit the jackpot in language learning. Here’s what made me fall in love with it.

I first used Duolingo when I studied abroad for a semester in Denmark in the fall of 2015 and had to learn Danish. This was possibly one of the most difficult languages I’ve tried to learn! Those ö’s and æ’s don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Duolingo was my best friend as I travelled for 30 minutes from my homestay to the city, when I struggled hard to study for my Danish written exams, when I was bored and desired a suite of virtual language instructors for company. It did not make me extremely fluent (as I didn’t progress all the way until the very end), but it earned me an A in the class (and an approval stamp from my host mother!)

Whoopee!! From the Duolingo website.

My love for Duolingo rekindled recently when I decided I wanted to touch on my Spanish. I was pleasantly surprised to find new features in the app such as bot conversations, creating clubs with friends and an additional suite of languages to choose. Duolingo was already amazing before — I can’t imagine how many more are able to learn a language now that it’s even better!

What is Duolingo and what are its goals?

Duolingo is a software service that teaches you a new language. It’s free forever (!!!) because of its unique business model. It currently has 23 languages with 66 language courses, and its continued expansion shows that there is a lot of demand for the service. Acquisition of new users isn’t necessarily a big hurdle, as there will always be people enthusiastically wanting to learn a language, and there also aren’t many competitors in the space. The app attracts many excited language learners, but (as with anything!!) enthusiasm eventually fades. Therefore, the most important goal that Duolingo should achieve is active engagement: keeping users engaged with learning up until the very end.

Engagement is the top priority. Taken from Forbes magazine.

Why do I find it such a great product?

Meet Duo. This owl’s a cutie.

Duolingo has already received many accolades and validation from its users in sealing it as a great product. It won app of the year in 2014, has 20M+ users, and boasts 100,000 new users every day. But what did I find so magical in the app? Was it the gaming aspect? Was it that I could learn a language quickly? Was it because of the cutely illustrated green owl? Maybe it’s all of the above! Find out below.

Well-Rounded

Apps can only reach as far as the screen, microphone and speakers can project. But that’s enough for Duolingo to mimic real life learning situations. It uses a variety of input and output stimuli (auditory, visual, writing, etc.) to teach you a language. When learning something new, it’s important to have all these stimuli so the learner is able to solidify their skills. This wide range of stimuli also caters to the different learning needs of users.

(1) Auditory input, worded output. (2) Auditory and visual input, auditory output. (3) Auditory input and output.

In particular, I admire that the words are paired with the visual stimuli of the object. There are also certain challenges that require me to talk into the app or listen to a voice and input words. This plays at both my auditory and writing skills. Unlike other platforms that only show me flashcards of words, Duolingo makes me an active participant in the process of learning

(1) A mix of auditory and visual input. (2) Cute pictures accompanied with words! Effective stimulation of the visual.

On top of this, it provides various modes of learning. As mentioned, the magic of Duolingo is in its gamification. We see the use of levels, unlocking challenges, and auditory or visual rewards after every level of completion, akin to other game concepts. But it goes beyond this. It uses competition among peers as an incentive to keep playing, it has a bots feature that creates a conversational dialogue between student and computer, it allows teachers, parents or friends to act as accountability partners.

Duolingo has unlocked this robust and holistic method of learning that helps students solidify their skills and helps them stay engaged.

Engaging

I believe constant practice and repetition is one of the keys to language learning. Duolingo employs this as well — we must repeat learning certain words to embed it in our heads. But rote repetition can get very… repetitive. How do we balance engagement and the need for redundancies?

As a psychology major and behavioral economics fan, I believe the key to engagement are the psychological principles and reward systems embedded within the app.

First, novelty. Humans crave the variable rewards of seeing something new. That’s why we’re always wanting to check our emails or messages. While levels and challenges within Duolingo can get “repetitive,” they are variable enough that each challenge differs from the previous one. For example, for the first challenge, I might be asked to pair the words conejo and rabbit and a load of other words. The next challenge might still use the words conejo and rabbit, but in the context of a sentence: Los conejos beben agua. It may be asking me to repeat the same words, but I use it in a different way. Way less boring and more effective than just repeating conejo conejo conejo to myself all day.

In productivity articles, we are told to break down tasks so we are more likely to accomplish them. Here, Duolingo breaks down a set of skills into challenges and challenges into bite-sized lessons so as not to overwhelm the user. The levels build upon each other and rely on knowledge from previous rounds to unlock more advanced rounds.

(1) A set of levels. (2) A set of lessons within the Animals level. (3) A challenge within Lesson 4.

The app uses the Endowed Progress Effect through keeping daily streaks of accomplishment. Because one level or daily goal was achieved, users feel more compelled to continue along with their progress since they already started it anyway. Users are compelled to check the app daily so they don’t end up breaking their streaks and, thus, starting all the way back to zero.

It’s social (perhaps one of the most important drivers of engagement and accountability in any situation) and employs the use of teachers, parents and peers in keeping engagement. A new feature added was the ability to add “clubs” that you can join with friends. They act as accountability partners (or friendly competition!) so you can keep yourself on track with progress. You can also get others to see your progress, like a teacher, parent or a friend. Social psychology and biological competitive instincts at their finest!

Compared to other apps, its daily reminders are also not intrusive to the user. The app gently notifies you to keep at it with your daily streak. But if it notices that after 3 days, you’ve wavered in commitment, it tell you that it will stop with notifications for now, until you’re ready to come back on. A little passive-aggressive, but, hey it worked on me!

Lastly, and as mentioned time and time again, it uses gamification techniques very cleverly and rewards the user with the right incentives to keep going. After I finish a set of lessons, I get a daily streak badge. After I finish a challenge, I get both a visual and auditory reward and even unlock another challenge! But even beyond this in the “Shop” tab, I can use the Lingots I’ve earned to acquire Power-Ups and find Outfits for Duo (the owl!). This incentivizes users to earn Lingots through continued engagement with the app.

(1) If I reach my daily goal, I earn streak awards. (2) I can use lingots to shop!

Personalized to the User

When I first sign on, I must pick the language I want to learn but am also asked how often I want to learn every day. I appreciate that the creators recognize there are varying frequencies of daily learning and that they give this choice to the user early on. I’ve also talked about how the presence of different stimuli as learning mechanisms cater to user’s specific needs (i.e. If I have hearing problems, I can choose not to use audio cues). I appreciate that there are options to disable certain types of input or output stimuli.

The app recognizes that advanced learners might want to skip out on more novice tasks. If there are more advanced users, there are checkpoints in which they can test out of a certain set of skills.

As I progress through the levels, it gives me suggestions on areas I can improve on. I appreciate these feedback loops a lot because I am usually unaware of my weak spots — I’m glad the app is able to show me what best to improve on.

(1)(2) Bots feature. (3) Advanced users can test out of certain skills.

A new feature added was the Bots conversation. I was particularly very interested in this because it allows the learner to contextualize the learning in the form of a conversation. The topics that come up are relevant to current events. Not necessarily the state of society in a horrid Trump administration. That might be too advanced and too layered a conversation for foreign language learning. The topics may be more like seasons in a year or holidays that have recently come up. Casual conversations. The bots feature makes things more conversational and personable and caters to some user’s needs of wanting a steady flow of conversation rather than rote learning.

Socioeconomically aware

This is less about the design of the product, and more on the design of the business. Duolingo is totally free, so how does it make money?

Its business model is unique and is coined a “twofer”. It serves two functions in one: 1) teaches a foreign language and; 2) translates simple text from documents and articles. The revenue comes from the companies partnered with Duolingo that receive these translated files.

Luis Von Ahn and Severin Hacker, the two co-founders, wanted to make language education free for all. Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala and was appalled by the expensive costs incurred in learning a language. The founders believed that free education would change the world and so created this outlet to provide that. I always admire the stories behind entrepreneurial ventures and this hits the spot in my heart. I’m hoping Duolingo will eventually offer Filipino language learning. Then I’ll go head over heels.

Sure, it’s great. But it can’t be all that.

That’s true. So, what else can it improve on?

The following suggestions I have are thoughts that came out of my fluttering head and in no way involved user research. If I had a chance to do more research, I’m sure I could fully fledge out the ideas. But for now, I hope these suggestions can do:

  • Adding a Dictionary/Word Bank capability that can be accessed in certain features. I want to use the word pig in a sentence when speaking to my bot, but I can’t quite place my finger on the exact word. Where do I look for it? Google Translate. What if I could immediately access it from a list of words I already learned? This way, I can also look back at my progress and quantify just how many words I’ve learned.
  • I don’t quite understand the need for a “Practice” version of a level when they seem so similar anyway. Perhaps making it clear to the user what the “Practice” version entails and why it exists. I don’t think this was communicated during onboarding.
  • My friends don’t play as much as I do. Because I see this leaderboard of inactivity, I don’t feel incentivized to continue on. Social influences are powerful tools of engagement, but also disengagement. Perhaps there could be a way for me how the overall community was doing and a way for me to interact or compete with people at my level.
  • What if I could converse with real people?

There you have it. A little taste of my opinion on Duolingo. Like I mentioned, hopefully they’re able to come up with a Filipino offering — I’d gladly look over the translations and contribute to the app myself! For now, time for me to get back to my español. Hasta luego!