5 examples of gamification that make Duolingo the best at user retention

If you have ever tried to learn a new language on your phone, you most definitely know of Duolingo! Boasting 42 million monthly active users, Duolingo is the world leader in educational apps, otherwise known as ‘edtech’. In other words, they’ve built an app that makes learning fun! The app is filled with great gamification examples!

Duolingo’s product manager Zan Gilani himself says the app’s key to success is how it leverages gamification to keep people motivated and engaged. Its badging system has come to define the app. However, Duolingo goes way beyond just badges. They created a fun learning environment that keeps users engaged and conclusively boosts its user retention metrics.

In this article, we’ll tear down exactly how they do it:

3 challenges at the heart of the Duolingo mission

When Duolingo launched in 2011, it had a simple mission: make learning a language simple, fun, and free. Duolingo developed an interactive learning platform inspired by proven educational methods, such as the theme-based teaching approach. This means that courses are grouped in themes, such as ‘greetings’. According to research studies, this method gives a 45% boost to student results.

However, a mobile app differs a lot from the classroom. Given this, Duolingo’s mission faced 3 existential challenges. Today, they have overcome them all!

#1 The low user retention rate affecting all education apps

Edtech has one of the lowest user retention rates out of all kinds of mobile apps. Duolingo was no different when it started. In 2012, Duolingo’s next-day user retention was just 12%. This statistic revealed some clear issues with the onboarding process. Especially, the intimidating amount of knowledge that users needed to learn to get ahead.
Retention curves for android apps

Clearly, obstacles this big are a problem. You can’t learn a language in 1 day, so how will Duolingo spread the word about their app when their users don’t stick around for long enough to actually learn a language?

Today, it is clear that Duolingo beat the odds. Their next-day user retention is now 55%!

Want to improve your user retention metrics? Book a free consultation with us and see how our app gamification platform can help you!

#2 Creating long-lasting customer motivation

Improving short-term user retention is one thing, but it can take weeks to see progress in language acquisition. Given this, users will need to find the app fun! This means appealing to extrinsic motivation, such as the need for results, as well as creating intrinsic motivation. These motivators make the app entertaining and satisfying to use.

By finding the right balance, Duolingo can keep users engaged with short-term wins, while increasing the inherent motivation through genuine progress and skill development. It’s a proven theory! In fact, a study from 2021 found that 80% of language students enjoyed using Duolingo because of its gamification!

#3 Demonstrating genuine progress and improvement in language learning.

A key motivational driver in edtech is the human need for competence. Because it takes a long time to learn a language, any signs of progress might take a while to manifest. Given this, there needs to be meaningful achievements early on to motivate users.

You see this in most games as well, the first levels are easy and get you hooked on the overall game. As you progress the difficulty increases, but so does your skill level and motivation!

To conclude, all these gamification examples helped Duolingo become the app it is today.

What is gamification and how does it increase user motivation?

How gamification helped Duolingo become the #1 language learning app

Early in Duolingo’s history, these challenges defined the product strategy. Gilani, the company’s most senior product manager, said “we realized we needed to encourage people to form a daily learning habit”.

Gamification is great at making your app ‘sticky’, meaning that users are glued to it. Duolingo is proof of that!

gamification user retention duolingo

Studies show that gamification has a hugely positive effect on Duolingo’s brand equity and user retention. The team developed an effective set of gamification tools through extensive A/B testing, (for which they have become famous).

Gamification examples in the app range from the obvious, such as the badge reward system, to the barely noticeable. For example, think of that little red dot over the app icon that indicates a new item, or something unresolved. Just that small feature boosted daily active users by 1.6%. While that doesn’t sound like a huge number, they add up when you have millions of users!

By boosting their daily active users bit by bit, Duolingo tackled the problem of user retention. At one point, this was a particular issue.

Initially, the onboarding process was focused on sign-ups, in order to generate email addresses. However, more often than not, these users would ignore their notifications. Remember that 12% next-day user retention rate? Well, the product manager decided to push the sign-up page until after a test lesson. This little change alone led to a huge 20% jump in next-day user retention!

gamification user retention strategy

5 gamification examples from Duolingo and how they boost user retention

Let’s be clear, the gamification features implemented in Duolingo positively affect customer motivation. A study revealed that more than 1 in 2 users found the gamification examples in the app personally motivating. Let’s take a look at the different features used and why they work:

#1 A character makes push notifications more personal

Duolingo’s green owl is famous and serves more purposes than just marketing. Push notifications can be very intrusive or commanding. Duo’s part in this makes them friendlier, and people are more likely to listen to a friend. Don’t believe it? Well, it’s tested – against other push notifications, the personal greeting from Duo did best, and led to a 5% rise in daily active users.

gamification examples user retention

#2 Badge rewards lift referrals & lead generation

Duolingo’s badge reward system saw an impressive 116% jump in referrals. Badges fulfill the basic need for self-worth, an important intrinsic motivator. Users can look at their earned badges and review their progress, or, show off their badges to their friends!

It is key to point out that referrals are an invaluable resource for product managers. They are the most effective form of lead generation! It requires no financial investment and brings in customers more likely to stick around.

badge reward system

#3 Instant feedback gives users control and room for growth

Feedback supports the intrinsic need for growth. Also, immediate corrections lend a sense of control to the user. It’s a great gamification example for the case of learning. Imagine if the app made you wait to see what you did wrong. That wouldn’t be fun! It would feel like taking an exam unless you’re into that sort of stuff.

What’s more, the pleasing “ping” sound you hear when you answer correctly provides even more positive reinforcement. Studies show that positive reinforcement makes people more motivated to learn!

gamification how customer motivation

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#4 Leaderboards encourage competition and social interaction

Every time a user completes a course, they earn points that gain them a place on a leaderboard. This feature triggers a sense of competition and the need to prove yourself as a leader. In addition, the app often shows where your friends are placed, or tells you when they have achieved something. Not only does this provide the opportunity to congratulate friends on progress, but it also motivates you to keep up with your peers!

leaderboard gamification features

#5 Streaks give users a reason to come back.

The famous streak feature has a huge impact. Of course, it is indispensable in forming the daily habits that Duolingo’s product manager Gilani spoke about. As an app developer, you use gamification to incentivize behavior in users. A streak incentivizes persistence and engagement. This keeps users glued to the app!

Combined with the ‘weekend amulet’, where users can take a weekend off without losing their streak, you get a winning formula for user retention. In fact, users offered a streak wager see a 14% boost in day 14 user retention!

duolingo examples of gamification

Finally, a 2% rise here and a 1% jump there might sound inefficient, but Duolingo’s success speaks for itself. From 2017 to 2020, Duolingo’s revenue ballooned over tenfold, jumping from $13 million to $161 million! That’s an enormous increase, and one that the team can agree was based on its strategy of gamification.

Do you want to gamify your app into success? You’ll need a bespoke gamification strategy. To start off your journey, get in touch with our gamification experts and book a free consultation to learn more about how we can help your product reach its full potential.


Duolingo is the world leader in educational apps. In the words of Duolingo product manager Zan Gilani, the app’s key to success is gamification!

Let’s see how they did it:

3 challenges at the heart of the Duolingo mission

  1. Educational apps face chronic user churn. Edtech has one of the lowest user retention rates out of all kinds of mobile apps.
  2. Language learning requires long-term customer motivation. The app needs to exploit both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to be fun and motivating.
  3. Giving users a chance to see their improvement. Because language learning takes so long, users need to see their growth fast, or they will quit!

Gamification is the answer

Gilani, the company’s most senior product manager, said “we needed to encourage people to form a daily learning habit”. For this, the team chose gamification.

Studies show that gamification has a hugely positive effect on Duolingo’s brand equity and user retention. Small features such as a red dot over a course indicate new content boosted daily active users by 1.6%. These numbers all add up!

5 gamification examples and why they boost user retention

The small boosts in metrics add up – and they sure do in revenue. From 2017 to 2020, Duolingo’s revenue jumped from $13 million to $161 million! That’s an enormous increase, and one that the team can agree was based on its strategy of gamification.

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