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  • Writer's pictureJolie Radunich

A Winning Formula: How Duolingo's UX and Business Model Conquered the Language Learning Market

jolie radunich_duolingo

Hey kid,

More people are learning languages on Duolingo in the United States, than there are people learning languages across all U.S. high schools combined.

I've used Duolingo since then. It was a fun supplement to the Spanish classes I took during the school day. It had the right mix of:

  • Gaming elements

  • Motivation to come back

  • Notification nudges to make me care

In founder Luis von Ahn's latest TED Talk, he shares his vision for making learning as addictive as social media.

Keep reading to see how the company paired an exceptional user experience while optimizing the needs of the business.

Meet learners where they are (& with the tools they have)

When von Ahn was brainstorming how to help people learn languages, he decided building schools all over the world was too expensive.

Then he realized most of the world's population already has a smartphone. And this 5 billion of owners is set to continue to increase. Mobile phone was the only way, in his mind, where he could reach a lot of people.

So Duolingo was born.

App learning can be very accessible for people willing to learn anywhere, from a train ride to work or time spent waiting for a friend to show up.

The accessibility factor offers more chances for your customers can use your product.

Adopt a freemium model and market its equality

Duolingo learners can learn as much as they want without having to pay a cent. Those on the free tier just have to watch an ad at the end of their lesson. (When I was learning in high school, this was me).

But the vast majority of revenue comes from people who pay to subscribe and turn off the ads!

Who are these generous contributors? von Ahn says most come from places like the U.S. and Canada.

What does this mean? According to the founder, learners in poorer countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Guatemala—where he's from—can continue learning for free.

What I like about this model is that it is a small form of wealth redistribution.

As a former free-tier user, the following suggestion is one I might've previously written off:

If your offer is strong, there are segments of your market that are willing to pay for it.

Create the right mix of incentives and nudges

Making a learning product accessible is step one. then you have to get people to want to use it.

Mobile phones have produced some of the most addictive technology that exists. From Instagram and TikTok to mobile games.

von Ahn didn't see mobile learning the same way.

Delivering education over a smartphone is like hoping that people will eat their broccoli, but right next to it, you put the most delicious dessert ever made.

Here's how Duolingo makes the broccoli taste like dessert with its techniques for engagement:

  • Counts the number of days learning in a row as streaks that learners don't want to break

  • Funny passive-aggressive notifications sent to inactive learners that help them come back

  • Doesn't aim for equal engagement with TikTok or others. Providing meaning wins out

When you can finally pull yourself away from scrolling on social media, you feel like you've wasted your time. That's why Duolingo doesn't compete with celebs and cats.

High engagement with traditional social media apps has clear negatives. After scrolling on social media people feel like they've wasted their time. Parents have specific concerns surrounding kid usage.

But for learners who return to Duolingo every day to practice, this type of engagement is encouraged.

Summary: Make learning as addictive as social media

Duolingo is the most popular language-learning app in the world.

It's achieved this remarkable status by offering learners the accessibility and encouragement to learn consistently.

Here are some visions from von Ahn on his hopes for his brand and language learning:

  • A Duolingo for each subject, from math to physics

  • A future where screen time isn't a bad thing

In the meantime, you and I can identify how to apply these tips or strengthen them, to meet our customers' user experience and optimize business goals.


For more posts about learning the business of edtech after 10+ kid years of learning with products, check out the monthly newsletter!

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