Ongoing Onboarding: How Duolingo Introduces New Skills

I recently booked a long weekend trip to Amsterdam to meet a friend who has been living in Europe for the last few years. When I travel abroad, I try to learn a few key words and phrases in the native language, before I go, even if I’m headed to a place like Amsterdam where I really don’t need to know a lick of Dutch to get by. When I started trying to find a way to learn those few polite Dutch phrases, I recalled that I’d downloaded Duolingo on my phone and I decided to challenge myself to learn as much Dutch as I could before I depart to see how it changes my experience of the city.

Initial Onboarding

Duolingo is one such application for learning languages and offers 33 language courses for English speakers. They have an initial onboarding process that has received a lot of praise. Getting in and starting to learn the language is easy and accessible. You feel a sense of accomplishment after only investing a few minutes. The onboarding process provides a friction-free entry to the tool, allows you to get invested before asking anything from you, and makes creating an account simple. The praise is well deserved. But what’s it like after you’re onboarded?

The Learning Experience

For a free ad-supported service, I’ve been impressed by their multifaceted approach to teaching language, by engaging seeing, listening, writing, and speaking in their lessons. The lessons, grouped by skills, are brief and can usually be completed in less than 5 minutes. A limited number of new skills are unlocked as you work through the lessons. It’s easy to fit in a lesson when you have a little bit of time and you can adjust the lessons for your environment by allowing you to indicate that you can’t listen or speak in a particular circumstance. Over time, you work your way through what Duolingo refers to as the ‘tree’ which represents all the skills in the course.

Working through the initial levels provided a good amount of repetition and reinforcement while slowly building on what I had already learned. I just jumped in and started completing lessons. At no point did the system make any suggestions about how to best progress through the skills and levels, so I continued working on the first few levels until I reached level 5 (the highest level in any skill in Duolingo). What can I say? I’m a completist. I also know that, personally, repetition is the key to language learning – or at least it was in my previous classroom-based language learning experience. Up to this point, I was completing all of my work with Duolingo through their app on my phone.

Wait, There’s a Web Based Version? And It’s Different?

In the early stages of learning Dutch, the approach of learning a variety of vocabulary words and simple sentences allowed me to start to identify the pattern of the language. Using context clues, I was able to figure out the right translations and this approach worked well enough. However, I found that as I moved forward and unlocked new levels, there were some instances where just trying to understand the pattern wasn’t enough. For me, and I suspect to a degree because of the particular type of classroom-based language instruction I had, I needed to understand the actual grammar rules to feel confident as I tried to understand more complex concepts. This prompted me to see how others used the app, which led me to Google, which lead me to discover that I was missing entire aspects of the system and I would never have known they were there if not for that Google search.

One of the key things that I discovered was that I could also complete lessons via the Duolingo website, which makes typing out phrases much more manageable, particularly as you start to learn more complex sentences. Not only would it be easier to complete some lessons but hiding in the web-based version were those grammar rules I’d been yearning for.


Image of Duolingo mobile app screen with a skill selected, showing a button to start a lesson, and another with an icon of a key that allows users to test out of this skill.


Image of the Duolingo website with the skill selected, showing the same features as the mobile app, but with the addition of a lightbulb icon. The second image displays the skill introductory content that is displayed if the user selects the lightbulb icon.

This introductory content is not available in the app-based version of the Dutch course.

The Missing Piece

I was stunned to discover that there was skill level explanatory content available in one version that was missing in the other version. The idea of including or omitting content from a particular experience was a significant topic in the days before responsive design where we were building separate experiences for different platforms. I was surprised to see that they hadn’t included the explanatory content into the experience in the app. Particularly since the UI patterns that are established in the web experience are easy to translate into the app experience.

Omitting this piece of key content fails to appropriately onboard a language learner to the skill that they’re about to cover. Whether it’s explaining the concept of a word that doesn’t really translate into English or the rules for using one version of an article (de) that means ‘the’ over another version (het), knowledge of these concepts helps the learner more quickly identify the pattern in the lessons they are about to complete. This level of understanding can led to quicker mastery and ongoing engagement.

Whether it’s learning a new language or preparing someone to make a critical choice or helping someone manage an ongoing health issue, making sure to provide the appropriate level of explanation, introduction of concepts, and ongoing support throughout your experience will help your target audience succeed in meeting their goals with your product. 

Just a quick aside: if the fictional world of Dutch in Duolingo were true, the newspaper industry would be thriving. Everyone is reading newspapers (kranten) even the ducks (eenden)!

Do you want to make sure your system provides the right level of introduction and support as your users address more complex interaction on your site? See how we can help.

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