Duolingo: A Push Notification Teardown
Duolingo is somewhat legendary in the push notification industry. However it began, they just managed to build a name for themselves over the years for sending aggressive, emotionally manipulative push notifications. When they wanted you to open up their app and pick up those German lessons again, they did not beat around the bush. They wielded guilt better than an elementary school teacher who isn’t mad at you, she’s just disappointed.
Soon Duolingo push notifications became a meme, with its community pointing out how its notifications toe the line between motivating and threatening.
Luckily, Duolingo understood that any press is good press, and they decided to roll with it. For April Fool’s Day 2019, they introduced a spoof feature, Duolingo Push. In a tongue-in-cheek video, they offer to literally send somebody in a Duo the Owl mascot costume to stalk you until you complete your language streak for the day.
Duolingo isn’t exactly a mobile game per se. But, dating back to 2009, it’s one of the frontrunners for gamifying language learning. So for this month’s push notification teardown, I decided to install the Duolingo app and see for myself what their push notification campaign is like.
What’s It Like to Use Duolingo?
I am a sporadic user of Duolingo, and I was looking forward to seeing how the app had changed in recent years. Using the app is pretty straightforward. You select which language you want to learn, and then build up your skill set from basics. There are bright colors and pleasing sounds whenever you get a right answer to incentivize you to keep going.
There isn’t much expansion on the core game loop. You learn vocabulary and beat levels so you can access higher levels. There is a leaderboard in which you can showcase how far you have progressed against your friends. However, the more levels you beat, the more gemstones you can earn. And with these gemstones you can access certain privileges, including:
- Freezing your daily streak
- Wager gems to double your money, if you maintain a 7-day streak
- Buy heart refills, so you don’t have to wait for your hearts to renew
- Mix and match different costumes for Duo the Owl as he motivates you
Duolingo Monetization Strategy
When I first started using Duolingo, years ago, it gave off the impression of being more of a labor of love than a for-profit platform. Now, the mobile app uses “freemium” or F2P monetization tactics. It actually has a wide range of monetizing strategies, such as ad revenue, rewarding users for watching ads with gems, and also having a paid version of the app, Duolingo Plus.
Like other F2P games, such as Gardenscapes, Duolingo employs a core loop that penalizes users for getting it wrong. Every time you get a wrong answer in one of their language lessons, you use up a heart. Once you use up your 5 hearts, you are locked out of using the app. You can trade in 350 gemstones for a refill… or they tempt you with trying out a free trial of Duolingo Plus, where you have infinite hearts. Otherwise, you will have to wait until your hearts renew themselves.
How Were Duolingo’s Push Notifications?
Despite what the memes suggest, I did not feel like I was being harassed by Duolingo push notifications, or that I was going to wake up in the middle of the night to see a green owl peering through my window.
The pre-permission notification was straightforward, with no frills. It explained that notifications would be used as a method to keep you committed to your daily learning streak. The language “in danger of missing your goal” worked very well to put the onus on the user to stay on track and keep practicing. In this frame of mind, notifications are a help, rather than a hindrance, to app experience.
Notifications came at a predictable rate of one or two a day. Usually one in the morning, a little before lunchtime, and another in the afternoon. They were friendly and no-nonsense, always advising me that it was time for my Irish lesson. The addition that it would only take “5 minutes to complete it” was a nice touch, as it underscored how small of a time commitment it was asking for.
I clicked on the notifications at first, but ultimately never formed a habit of opening Duolingo at the same time each day. Notifications didn’t vary much beyond the standard “take 5 minutes” message. They were never personalized, beyond telling me at what point in my lessons I was.
Although they did change it up occasionally with notifications that played on my competitive spirit. Duolingo sent me occasional push notifications trying to needle me into doing my lessons by reminding me that I was a contender on the Bronze League leaderboard. This worked the first few times. But ultimately when I lost momentum doing the lessons for their own sake, I also lost interest in the leaderboard side challenge.
I started swiping notifications away as soon as I saw them. Which led to the most truly insidious push notification I’ve ever seen…
Receiving a push notification from Duolingo to tell me they were going to stop sending me push notifications was a masterstroke of psychological warfare. The “Hi! It’s Duo” at the top was the real clincher. I felt both guilty and ashamed, like I’d been blocking calls from my grandmother. I had let Duo down. I’d let myself down.
Once I went back into the app and completed a lesson, the notifications started up again. But I’ve started swiping them away yet again. Ultimately, the new freemium design of the app is what’s driving me away. There are too many frills and distractions – leaderboards, banners trying to get me to watch ads, ads trying to get me to pay for Duolingo Plus. It distracts from the actual point of the app, which is learning vocabulary. And the notifications aren’t engaging enough to get me to venture back in again.
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