I neglected Duolingo for 20 days after signing up. Here’s every email they sent me.

About 3 weeks ago, I signed up to Duolingo intending to learn Swahili every day for about a month. Why? To learn something new, to make some progress with a language I’ve been casually interested in for some time, and to document to process from a UX perspective.

What went wrong? Not to be dramatic, but work, sickness, war and calamity. I have simply not been in the mood to learn Swahili, and that is fine. That’s how it is.

Not according to Duo the green owl, however.

I have received an email a day since I last logged in, and they have not worked. In fact, I’m a little annoyed now as, after 3 weeks, they’re just reminding me that I’ve not made any progress with a goal I set and a loooot of time is now passing, and now I feel super unproductive.

So I made a decision. Rather than use this time to learn Swahili, I’ve decided to write a review of the emails they sent me instead.

As they say in Swahili… I don’t know what they say, I’ve not learned anything yet.

Day 1: Noble beginnings, good intentions

My welcome email from Duolingo, with tips to learn regularly and an invitation to set up a personalised learning plan.
… where’s the top tip?

As an intro, this is all pretty standard. The eponymous owl is introducing itself, and it looks just a little too manic in that top illustration for my liking, but I appreciated the energy. I also like the casual reminder that they are the world’s top language-learning app — just reinforcing that I have come to the right place for my Swahili-learning needs.

I appreciate the simplicity of the above-the-fold section of the email, with the simple “Learn now” prompt, however, it was only when I went back to take a screenshot that I noticed the offer to set up a personalised learning plan. Now that sounds interesting, and I know that this would likely help me succeed, however, coming last in the email means I missed it.

Ah, if only I had seen this on day one. I’d be fluent by now. Except reading the text, I realise this is actually just a tip about regular learning, something which is actually pretty obvious, and there’s no actual setting up of a personalised plan. So it feels like an empty promise.

Additionally, the subject line promised me a tip, and there’s nothing beyond the obvious here. Tell me some random fact about Swahili to spark my interest, give me a cultural insight, tell me how the human memory works; do anything other than just tell me I need to learn for 30 minutes every day. That’s perfunctory and obvious.

Day 2 and most other days: Casual emotional blackmail

An email reminding me to learn Swahili with an illustration of the Duolingo green owl mascot whistling and the subtitle saying I need to learn to keep it happy.
DaiLy Swahili RemInDeR oR ElSe

Ah, it didn’t take long for the threats to begin. On day 2, I thought nothing of the “Keep the owl happy” message. However, I received this email almost every day, and after 2 weeks of clearly not keeping the owl happy, it began to feel like some sort of paternalistic blackmail designed to break my motivation, the green owl equivalent of saying “I’m disappointed in you for not learning like you said you would.” Overly dramatic? Absolutely, but if I get an email with the owl crying one day informing me that it’s my fault, I will delete everything ever.

It’s good that the CTA is prominent — before the title, even. That’s essential given that this is a daily email. Most people will read the content once if at all, otherwise they’ll simply see the reminder and click on the button.

Or, at least, they would if this email worked. For me, I would have liked something a little more concrete in this reminder. How long would it take for me to come back and do the next lesson? What’s the next lesson about? Can you give me an example of a word I will learn next?

Reminders can be effective, but they may be even more powerful if you make the activity to be taken more concrete in terms of the time investment needed or the content that will be involved.

The subject line also varied with this email, for example:

An alternative subject line for the daily reminder email saying “Duo here! Have time for some Swahili?”
An alternative subject line for the daily reminder email saying “Duo’s advice? Practice Swahili today!”

With these subject lines, it’s good that there is variation, but there could be even more variation — otherwise, our friend Duo runs the risk of simply being ignored. However, it’s clever that they start with Duo’s name each time, as then I know exactly which email this is.

Why not mention the amount of time or the subject of the next line in the email? Give me an incentive to open and click on the “Continue learning” button.

Day 3: Harness the power of streaking

An email informing me I used a streak freeze to keep my daily learning streak intact with an illustration of a frozen flame.

On day 3, I got a nice little surprise. I had been given the power of a streak freeze! Whoot! The bad news? My laziness had meant it had already been used. Oh.

However, this was clever. This made me feel like it wasn’t too late to get back onto the platform. I imagine like with most similar products, if someone doesn’t return the day after they sign up to Duolingo, they are almost certain never to return, so if you can get them back and make them feel like it’s ok they didn’t return, there is still a chance, that would help short-term retention.

In addition, it highlights a feature I hadn’t been aware of, which I also had the option of buying more of. Cheeky.

The CTA here is “Protect your streak” rather than “Continue learning”, leaning heavily into gaming psychology to get me as the user to want not to waste this opportunity over simply continuing my learning journey.

Still didn’t work, but nice.

Weekly progress report

I think all of us working for ed-tech and wellness products know that information is power and giving users insights into their data as they progress can be motivating. And Duolingo certainly didn’t disappoint there.

An email with statistics on my first week’s progress with Duolingo including total learning time.
AMAZING how lazy I was.

This is an amazing idea in principle, showing me how much progress I could potentially have made. The trouble was since I hadn’t done anything since signing up, it all sounded rather… sarcastic?

“Amazing work this week.”

“Your hard work is paying off.”

Cue me sitting on the sofa with my 24-hour stream of Sky News and a G&T in my hand while procrastinating, reading this and making the following sequence of faces: 🤭😬🙃🥲😏😒😩

This made me feel pretty bad that I hadn’t been able to make progress. I would have appreciated more adaptation to my circumstance as a lapsed user here, giving me reasons to get back into the Duolingo game. They could have also reminded me of my motivation to learn Swahili with them in the first place, especially given how this was the first thing they asked when I signed up.

Alternatively, they could have taken more of a FOMO-angle with this progress report. After showing me I made little progress, how about showing me the progress others in the community made? Or showing me some of the content I missed by not returning?

This could be effective in combination with a promise, a CTA to make a resolution to do better next week or even to do 5 minutes right now rather than simply “Continue learning”.

And if you’re wondering, I got this same email in week 2 with zero activity, but the top section had changed:

Weekly progress email with zero progress. Duo the owl is shown looking annoyed.
Is the owl sad or annoyed?

Again, make this more concrete and personalised. Remind me of my motivation, show me what I’m missing.

And for the record, it’s rarely a case of not getting the chance to practice. It’s usually more not making it a priority.

Make emails more tailored to cater to lapsed ’n’ lazy users

I did get some variations on these emails, but the messaging was largely the same.

And now? I don’t feel motivated to go back to learning Swahili. I can’t remember what my original motivation was.

While Duolingo is certainly persistent, their emails lack that level of personalisation. They know my motivation, and they know what my next lesson is. Why not remind me of that, tell me what’s coming up next? Ask me if I remember a word I learned 2 weeks ago? Tell me it’s only going to take a few minutes? Give me a bit of FOMO?

Who knows, maybe tomorrow the emotional blackmail will get too much and I’ll jump back in. We’ll see.

Want to learn more?

Check out this piece with 8 Actionable Email Strategies to Boost Mobile User Engagement to learn more about how you can successfully leverage emailing to boost mobile app engagement. Of course, emails are just one way you can foster long-term retention — this piece lists 17 additional strategies for you to consider to boost engagement.

I neglected Duolingo for 20 days after signing up. Here’s every email they sent me. was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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