The birth of Ziggy — Creating a character-based ranking system

Luke Murphy
Product @ Memrise
Published in
5 min readOct 18, 2017


Recently, we introduced a new character into Memrise in the form of Ziggy, a learning buddy that replaces the current rank system. The idea being that it’s a way to mark your progress; the more points you earn (ie. the more words you learn and the more you use Memrise), the more Ziggy grows and changes by ‘levelling up’.


Since about 2012, Memrise has had a simple ‘badge ranking’ system. In the time since then, we’ve gone through some pretty major product changes, including launching a couple of apps, overhauling the learning product, and a complete theme-change in our brand and apps. Because of this, we thought that overhauling the current system was sorely needed. It looks tired and old, and made no sense in the current narrative of the app (you can read more about that on the Memrise blog).

When we decided to scrap the existing ranking system, we had various ideas on how to change it. The three ideas we narrowed it down to were a traditional ranking system with badges, a character progression system, and an item collection system.

Traditional Ranking with Badges

Oooh spacey

The first concept we worked on was a fairly traditional badge-based ranking system, that acted as a like-for-like replacement of the current system, with an updated style and naming convention. We assumed that users may have less dissonance with this change, and that a ‘military meets space’ theme would work with the style of the rest of the app.

Character Progression System

They came from the deep

The second concept was a more radical departure; scrapping the ‘collection’ of badges, and introducing a character that you ‘level up’ as you learn, offering a progression system that focuses an emotional connection with a fictional character. Our assumptions were based around the fact that people identify with faces and happy characters, and it may add an extra motivator to the entire system.

Item Collection System

To infinity… AND BEYOND

The third concept centered around a cache of items that the user needs to collect while learning, all focussed around the space theme. This would provide users with a randomness to the journey that may increase retention due to the excitement around what’s next.

Testing Results

We conducted user testing with new users to see which would resonate more with them. Overall, the character concept resonated best with users, producing positive emotional reaction and connection for users, and made them feel the most excited.

Interestingly, the concept of ‘badges’ elicited responses like ‘these are boring’ and ‘these feel very 2002’. It makes sense, though, as the design is based on slightly older gaming systems that were hugely popular in the early 2000s, and the concept of ranking up with military badges does feel a bit ‘Starcraft’.

With the collection mechanic, people were just downright confused. They couldn’t understand why they were collecting items, or what these had to do with learning a language.

Testing the Character Designs

Once we established that the character system was what we wanted to focus on, we brainstormed and tested various different designs on new and existing users, via in person and remote user testing.

This resulted in a major preference for the bottom left variation, saying that these were ‘cute’, ‘happy’, ‘colourful’ and ‘approachable’.

Developing Ziggy

The visual/content concept behind Ziggy is that he’s a non-gendered alien, who has an engaging appearance and speaks in a quirky, irreverent way that is specific to him as a character. We wanted to make Ziggy genderless in an attempt to reflect the progressive nature of Memrise as a company, and include a specifically non-binary character within the product. In terms of speech patterns, we wanted Ziggy to sound different, which manifested in a slightly off-centre way of speaking, where Ziggy always talks in the third person.


Conversion data

Two weeks after launch, our conversions from ranks has increased on average 250%. This is mostly due to how we changed the spacing between the different ranks, and the fact that everyone is given a discount each time they level up. We did have this before, but to be honest, it wasn’t the most compelling thing in the world. This has continued at a steady pace over the last few months, with a whole lot more folks joining up to Memrise Pro.

On the engagement side, ranks haven’t had any detrimental effect on whether people keep using Memrise, or on whether they come back. We weren’t expecting an uplift on the engagement side, as the ranks aren’t a core part of the product.

Next Steps and Learnings

As with everything, this is the first iteration of a Memrise feature, which we plan to improve on over time based on the data and qualitative learnings we get from it. We are already planning the next iteration of Ziggy, and are also working on our future product communication strategy.

Ziggy v1.1

To begin with, we are revisiting on the names of Ziggy’s levels, as we feel they don’t accurately reflect the progression we had in mind and ultimately fail to capture the imagination. Similarly, we are looking at introducing more levels to the upper ranks, as the massive gaps in the rank spacing can be seriously demotivating to users who have been learning for a long time.

Product Communication

Based on our recent experience, we are looking at our full communication plan for future product announcements. This includes more opportunity for feedback from the community where appropriate, and a wider sharing of our features once they’re released.



Luke Murphy
Product @ Memrise

Design Advocate @zeroheight. Ex-founder @waxandstamp. Podcaster @rhythmbrewsuk. Noisemaker @Brutalligators. General reprobate. Sometimes Australian.