A few days ago, I consciously ended my Duolingo streak of ~480 days. This post talks about why I did the streak in the first place, the effects maintaining a streak like that can have, and some (potentially useful) suggestions to the Duolingo team.
Some background before we start.
- Duolingo is a language learning app. You can learn many different languages on the app with fun lessons and stories.
- A streak is basically the number of consecutive days on which you do something. In this case, my streak on Duolingo involved completing at least one Duolingo lesson each day. Lessons can be around 5–15 minutes long.
Why do the streak?
My intention was always to learn Spanish. It was never about maintaining a streak. That is precisely what I did for about 400 days.
For me, the streak was just an icing on the cake. A medal of honor to show for my efforts. Maintaining it felt effortless for the most part because my interest in the language kept me coming back for more.
Why stop the streak?
At around Day 400, my interest in the language began to dip. I felt like I wasn’t getting any real-world practice. It’s not necessarily a fault of the app. If you’re learning a language, it’s best to figure out ways to incorporate it into your daily life — which I didn’t really do.
Once my interest began to dip, the only reason I would come back to the app was to maintain that streak. I thought that my dip in interest was temporary and I would eventually get back into the groove — so why sacrifice on the streak?
Stopping the streak
For a long time, I kept convincing myself that I had to continue the streak because I had come so far. However, opening the app started feeling like a chore. It became exhausting to finish simple lessons, purely because I had stopped caring for them.
Eventually, the guilt started seeping in. The guilt of realizing that you have to let go of the learning because you’re not learning anymore. You’re just mechanically maintaining a streak.
So after about 480 days (I am not sure of the exact number because I can’t find it in the app now) — I finally, consciously let go of the streak.
Suggestions to the Duolingo team
The idea of streaks is cool, but it can slowly start becoming overwhelming. Streaks are not sustainable in the long run for everyone. All humans need to detach from something they are learning in order to absorb more of it. Sometimes, the detachment can last for weeks or months because everyone learns at a different pace.
In order to help such people out, the concept of a “streak freeze” exists, where if you miss one or two days of Duolingo, your streak stays protected. However, I feel like it’s not solving the issue at hand — it’s just prolonging the inevitable.
So what can be done? I believe streaks should be replaced or morphed into something more sustainable. People go through various phases in their lives, and a learning app needs to account for the variance in people’s mental states, disciplines, attention spans, and overall motivation.
It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and you can’t keep everyone happy, but an empathetic learning app would feel far better than an app that is unforgiving if you lose a streak.
Here are a few ideas and suggestions to achieve just that.
Let people unwind with rest days
Instead of providing streak freezes, give people one or two days off every week. We take days off from work, from school, from exercise — pretty much from every activity we do, so why shouldn’t the same apply to an app too?
The user should feel entitled to this break. In fact, you should encourage people to take these breaks each week in order to increase retention and to maintain the spark of learning.
Introduce a regularity percentage
A regularity score could be used measure how often you practice Duolingo. For example, someone who practices every single day would have a score of 100. Someone who practices less frequently will have a score of 98.
Of course, leaves should be left out of the regularity calculation, otherwise the user will feel guilty when taking a leave since it will impact their regularity score.
Let people take a yearly vacation
Besides the weekly leaves, getting a yearly vacation of 15 days will allow people to detach and relax. They can setup their “vacation” in the app and it’ll remind them when the vacation is about to get over. If people utilise their vacation and their weekly leaves, they will get ~280/365 days of practice overall — which is fantastic.
Create lesson plans based on the user’s schedule
By observing the regularity and practice patterns for a user, you could create customized routines for the user with achievable goals. Instead of relying on notifications, feeling guilty at 11pm for not having done Duolingo, and not having a plan that works — seeing a personalized plan with rest days + easy days + hard days can be quite comforting and might motivate users that rely on structure and organization.
Of course, the plan shouldn’t be enforced, but simply exist as a guideline for the user in order to get the most out of the application.
Show the total number of days a user has practiced
This is as opposed to the total consecutive days that the user has practiced (viz. streak). Seeing this number climb whenever you practice will be rewarding, but also low stakes since missing a few days won’t reset it.
According to me, a streak is less important than encouraging sustainable learning and self-care. If I’m maintaining a streak by mechanically finishing lessons, then did I really learn anything new? Probably not.
Plus the guilt of losing your streak and the sadness that many people feel when they lose it can discourage them from continuing Duolingo. I know a few people who gave up on Duolingo this way. So it feels like streaks might not be sustainable from a business perspective either.
I love how Duolingo is structured and the many aspects that make it charming — from the characters to the multiplayer aspect of it. However, I do feel that it can sometimes put a lot of pressure on the learner by being harsh on them for missing a lesson every now and then. If it becomes a more forgiving application, willing to account for the irregularity of human motivation and behavior patterns, it would make the gamification feel less intrusive and more rewarding overall.