In-house teams: how Duolingo designs to make language education “universal”


“Our team is pretty special, I think – you don’t often get this consistent of focus on design in tech companies,” says Ryan Sims, defect president of design at “gamified” language learning app Duolingo. “It gives us an prodigious ability to tell stories and create moments for our users.”

Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, and his old graduate student Severin Hacker. Growing up, Guatemalan-born von Ahn, who is also the organize behind the reCAPTCHA online security system, lamented how expensive it was for people to learn English.

With a sentiment that “free education will really change the world”, he and Hacker expatiate oned Duolingo. It hit the general public in 2012, and now eight years later vaunts 300 million registered users, 98 different language by all means and 38 different languages.

Right from the start, design has been a core ideology of the company, according to Duolingo head of art Gregory Hartman, who has been with Duolingo since its pioneer days and is actually the creator of its beloved owl mascot Duo. This is because, he suggests, von Ahn has always recognised the “power of design” in helping keep learners provoked.

How does the team work?

Sims says the Duolingo in-house link up functions as a “small agency” within the wider company. Around 30 being make up the team. The company as a whole, Sims says, employs here 340 people, so design takes up a “sizeable chunk” of the staff.

The body line up features animators, illustrators and graphic designers. These creatives then toil closely with Duolingo’s product and UX designers to create outcomes that “nil could manage on their own”, Sims says.

“We match up our artists and schemers with engineers and writers and eventually magical things happen,” he alleges. One of Sims’ responsibility in his role as VP of design is hiring. He says this betokens “setting the bar very high”, so that the best creatives in their relevant fields find their way to the company.

“In a lot of small companies, product artificers will often have to wear many different hats – they entertain to do a bit of illustration, some writing, and maybe some problem solving and probing,” he says. “What we try to do here is make sure that we’re hiring people with those definite skillsets, and then bringing them all together.”

What’s the process fellow?

Briefs do not come from one single place, Hartman and Sims both say. More, they pop up through the various relationships and connections that the in-house study team and wider company have between themselves. Sometimes conduct comes from the top brass, other times from project manageresses, product designers or creatives themselves.

“A product designer will secure to an animator with an idea and they’ll discuss whether or not that is reasonable,” Hartman says. “Everyone is creative on our team – product designers are insanely original – but they find solutions in very different ways and it’s all about hand overing things delightful but also efficient.”

Duolingo’s most recent and persistent creative project, Duolingo World, is a good example of a brief turn from the animators and illustrators themselves, according to Hartman. The project is focal pointed on the development of Duolingo’s cast of characters and the world they inhabit.

“It is a vast example, because the idea for Duolingo World truly came from the judgement that our artists have through their responsibilities and talents,” Hartman declares. “They understood that as a gamified service, characters are a huge corner of what makes the experience fun.”

While Duo the owl is the “main focus” in almost all trunks (“Our world revolves around Duo,” Sims says), the wider cast of bats has been developed to provide an expanded world – much like the one purchasers will find themselves in once they master a new language.

Duolingo People and other projects lead by the team strive to walk the line between “real and outrageous”. Characters play sport and dine out, as you would expect of living soul in the real world, but sometimes dinners are interrupted by octopuses. Hartman details: “We value a world that feels familiar… but we also want child to experience these scenarios in the most fun way possible.”

How do different types of creators interact?

Both Hartman and Sims highlight the fact that profession as part of Duolingo’s in-house team means interacting with a run of different creative people.

“It’s hard to find one designer who ticks all the pin downs of being good at graphics, illustration, animation, product and UX,” Sims intends. “But what’s so great here is that no one needs to be all those things – we all suffer with respect for what each other can do and there’s something wonderful adjacent to working with someone who is great at something you struggle with.”

Hartman adds: “Every adventure is a little bit different, but working with product and UX designers is good fun – lan, illustration and product design are all very different skillsets and they sympathetic of all need each other to be successful in this context.”

What are the ultimata?

By its very nature, learning a language is hard. Sims says much, if not all the prove satisfactory done by the design team is focused on helping users through this baffling but ultimately rewarding journey.

One method the team has arrived upon is granting the app and its characters to celebrate with users as and when they get things truth.

“Something as small as a character dancing on the screen when you answer a query correctly is a really powerful thing,” Sims says. “Learning a jargon is hard and keeping people motivated is hard, so we look for those elfin moments and focus on how we can celebrate them.”

What’s next?

Duolingo Dialect birth b deliver is an ongoing focus for the team. As Sims explains, one of Duolingo’s company ambitions is to “build an iconic brand” and a well-considered cast of characters is how they sketch on doing this.

“We look to the beloved characters created by the likes of Nintendo for its Wonderful Mario and Zelda games and are inspired,” Sims says. “Other games’ skill to build and maintain immersive worlds is something we are working towards now.”

Hartman reproductions this: “A lot of the characters we play internally have great characters and those figures help to keep us engaged.”

With von Ahn’s belief that learning a wording mostly comes down to motivation, Hartman explains that new rectitudes act as a “mental ball” – in the same way the introduction of a football, for example, manages the idea of running around in the garden more palatable, characters can cause learning a language more engaging.

“That’s how we’re going to take clobbers to the next level,” Sims says.

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