Duolingo—the language learning app with 500 million users representing every country in the world—is a case study in effective UX design. By adopting a gamification approach to education, Duolingo’s cheerful cartoon mascots and engagement tactics make daily lessons feel more like an addictive phone game than self-improvement. Below, I applied the UX best practices from our MIS5109 User Experience Design class to analyze what made Duolingo the most downloaded education app in the world.
Match between system and the real world: This is one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability principles for interaction design that is especially crucial for language learning. With a universal design that transcends cultural and linguistic differences, Duolingo introduces new words through cartoon drawings and familiar sentences that reflect how people actually talk. Content is further tailored to the language being learned. For example, my Dutch lessons will reference Dutch culture and traditions.
Gamification strategy: With progress circles tracking goal completion, daily streak counts, checkpoints and ranked leaderboards where users move up/down leagues based on weekly point accumulations, the Duolingo interface encourages daily usage through playful competition, cohesive design and positive reinforcement. For example, cheerful dings and dancing mascots celebrate correct answers.
Easy navigation and onboarding: One way to hit 500 million downloads? Make it easy to get started. Upon downloading, users pick a language and jump into a language lesson before the sign-up prompt, which couldn’t be simpler: name, email, password. Boom, done, back to playtime.
Iconography and aesthetics: The app icon depicts a fun, brightly colored cartoon bird that looks like the face of an addictive mobile game. I find myself absentmindedly clicking on it when opening my phone. I wonder if was a strategic decision to choose the exact same green as the iPhone phone and message app icons? The overall aesthetic subscribes to the school of flat design with touches of Google’s Material Design.
Visibility of system status: Another Nielsen principle, Duolingo puts a progress bar at the top of the screen to show users their lesson progress. Each lesson is only 5-10 minutes and flows easily into the next one (though it’s easy to “x” out at any time—user control and freedom!) Load times aren’t long enough to warrant a progress bar, so Duolingo fills those seconds with helpful tips and promotional fun facts.
Medium: “Heuristic Evaluation: Put your product under a microscope”
Usability Geek: “UX Case Study: Duolingo”
Duolingo Blog: “2020 Duolingo Language Report”