The Double Edged Sword of Duolingo

About four months ago I decided to try to learn a new language. The reasons are a bit more complicated but I want it to give it a real shot this time.

Since it's a try and I wanted to increase the chances for success by lowering the entry price, I chose Duolingo. It's easier to find five to ten minutes every few days, than to find a straight hour or two each week. The language - Spanish, no real reason there, it would be somewhat useful and it was more about testing the tool and my ability to learn in such way.

And it worked. I got hooked in, did at least the minimal effort each and every day, sometimes more if I had more time or will to learn more. I did it for 112 days straight. I was proud of that. And then this happened.

Duolingo streak broken

I forgot. I got the push notification, I even got the email, but I was busy and dismissed it and forgot. 112 days streak reseted, I'm starting from day 1.


And that's my problem with Duolingo's system. It introduces a gamification system which in theory should motivate users to continue learning. You earn XP when you learn, you earn currency if you get unbroken streaks. You can even place a bet, spend 5 currency to earn 10, if you'll learn every day. Something I did from time to time after I realized that I actually enjoy learning Spanish with the app.

But using game mechanics it a tricky thing. It can be double-edged sword. Difficult games can be both - very rewarding and discouraging. Same with system using game-like mechanics, like Duolingo. I heard stories of people hitting some high streaks, breaking them and quitting using the app and I was aware it will most certainly happen to me one day. And it did. And I do feel discouraged to continue learning by using the app.

Quick Save

So what's the actual problem here? There are few. I believe the gamification works as a concept and is quite nice, just the way it's implemented could be improved.

First of all, the system is there and there's no way to opt out. You gain XP points, you gain lingots, the chart is large part of your profile. You can even share your progress and compete with your friends. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just that it's a large part of the experience and as such should be handled with care.

The streaks system is rewarding but not as much as it can be discouraging. Look at the screenshot above. It hurts to see that red icon by itself, compared to repetitive green checks. And it doesn't help that it looks like we did something really wrong, scoring below the last line (as in worse than 0). And when we do, we begin from the start. It's a win some, loose all kind of game.

And I believe that's not the kind of experience when it comes to learning something.

Quick Load

So what to change? I like the gamification aspect of it. It makes learning more fun. The lingots system makes the app feel a bit like F2P title, in a bad way. With this feeling that the creators might designed the system, like such title, finding multiple ways to get your money with in-app purchases, to get the lingots. Maybe it's a matter of naming things. Shop might not be the best name to call a section of the app (although technically it's correct). Multiple currencies might be replaced with just XP (or just lingots, but I believe XP is safer and not stained that much with Pay To Win approach).

The biggest change would have to happen in the streak section. It can't be constant all-in kind of game. To learn something you need consistency and encouragement, rather than fear of loosing. When you're having a lesson in Duolingo and make a mistake, you don't start from the beginning. Not going further in the progress or even loosing a small portion of that progress is enough as a form of punishment for the mistake and still allowing you to continue. Same logic applies to your overall experience, not just one lesson. Win some, loose some. Create checkpoints along the way, so you don't have to start from the very beginning of the level. Good games takes away some of your points as a lesson to try harder or be more careful next time, but let you with majority of those which you earned previously, by playing well.

In Duolingo the simplest solution would be to cut streaks into smaller chunks. We have those already - weeks, months. Congratulate your users for finishing those, reward them for having a perfect week or month and reset the timer. Worst case scenario, they will have to wait few days to mentally start over, but they don't loose those previous rewards and high fives you gave them. You make those goals much more achievable while still rewarding. You make the failure temporary and short term, something you can recover from much easier if you just try a bit harder next time.

Another solution could be to earn the streak back, by working harder or more. You didn't do your last homework, but you can catch up, by doing twice as much today. That approach would need more tweaks and changes, but the bottom line is not to ruin the player. Balance the carrot and the stick. Make it possible to get back into the game with "I can do this!" approach, rather than "I need another 4 months just to be where I was yesterday" on their mind.

Try again?

Yes - some people get motivated when the stakes are high, when achievement comes with big effort and they either get the perfect score or no score at all. Permadeath games are gaining some popularity lately (again), but usually most games come with a difficulty slider and make the permanent death option for a hardcore level for a reason. And even then, I don't believe that's the good approach when it comes to learning anything. Learning is still work, maybe in a fun way but it's work. Rewards are there to keep you motivated to continue to do that work. Games can get away with harder punishment, because they're mostly an entertainment already.

As for me? Tomorrow I'll still going to learn Spanish on Duolingo. And day after that. Maybe just with a feeling of not so much achieving something new, but catching up. And I have 111 more days of catching up to do.