How the Redesigned Duolingo Mascot Triggers User Behavior (and memes)

The developers at Duolingo know that when people stop using the app, it’s not because they’ve signed up for a language class and are learning elsewhere – it’s because they have stopped learning altogether. To protect against the high risk of distraction when it comes to using a mobile app, they have taken a creative strategy for staving off churn – sending emails of their adorable (and newly designed) mascot Duo the owl, crying in a pool of tears in your inbox and begging you to come back to your lessons. You won’t want to disappoint Duo.

And it’s more than just the emails where Duo shines. “The developers at Duolingo know this email campaign works, because they’ve A/B tested several iterations of the crying owl, down to how many teardrops he sheds. Today, the company is launching its biggest redesign in five years, and Duo is at the forefront. Now the owl’s illustration has been simplified to make it easier to animate, and he’s been given a wide array of expressive emotions in hopes that users will become more attached to the mascot. He’ll even cry animated tears in your inbox now. “It’s so sad and pathetic :(,” a Duolingo spokesperson told me.”


It’s more than an improved illustration or app reskin – it’s an entire approach to user behavior. As the app’s Mascot has developed, so has the overall design of the game itself and the tactics it uses to keep users engaged and learning. The subtle use of psychological triggers and gamification establishes an emotional connection with an otherwise innocuous mascot (most games have a mascot that players forge an emotional connection with; think: Mario – who emotes and responds to your progress and performance) and nudges and other tactics (e.g. Hot streaks) keep users incentivized to continue learning.


And so far their strategy seems to be working – the Duolingo bird has had a “profound effect” on people. Yes, there have been successful metrics reported back on app engagement, and the bird has also become a meme in its own right. “People have Photoshopped exaggerated e-mail blasts that could be mistaken for real ones, and the app has even been parodied in a Clickhole article titled, “Duolingo Is Reporting Any User Who Goes 10 Minutes Without Opening The Duolingo App As A Missing Person.”

^ one of the parody emails