Meet the illustrator behind Duolingo’s crying owl

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Jan 11, 2019
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On New Year’s Day this year—for the third year in a row—I proudly declared to my friends that this will be the year I finally learn French.

“I’m serious about it this time. I’m going to use Duolingo every day no matter what. Please hold me accountable—ask me how it’s going every time we see each other,” I told them over Bloody Marys, the exact thing I’d said a year earlier.

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But the only one who’s ever held me accountable is Duo, Duolingo’s owl mascot. Skip a five-minute daily lesson—as I did on, you guessed it, January 2—and you’ll hear from Duo. No matter which of the 37 languages you sign up to learn on the app, your lack of engagement typically results in a quick reminder like this:

Oops. No time for that today, but I’ll get back on track tomorrow, you promise the bird. But then you come home from work and spend seven hours scrolling through your ex’s new girlfriend’s Instagram and Twitter feeds before falling asleep to a rerun of 90-Day Fiance, your frozen burrito still thawing on the counter when you wake up in a cold sweat. Just me? Okay.

The notifications keep coming. The shame is real. Duo knows you have time for a quick lesson. It’s only five minutes!

This goes on for a while, until you eventually get one final message.

It’s officially over. It feels really, really bad. Hopefully you at least still have that frozen burrito.

The team behind Duolingo knows that it’s much easier to not learn a new language and never come back after the first lesson. Their solution to motivating people to learn: Make it into game.

Duolingo’s Super Mario is Duo, the all-knowing green owl who does their best to keep you progressing. Advancing through lessons and getting cheerful, congratulatory messages from them makes you feel accomplished so you keep coming back; reminders that you’ve skipped a lesson or three make you feel like you’re missing out and messing up. The app’s gamification is one of the biggest reasons why Duolingo has over 300 million users worldwide.

Related: The UX lessons I learned from video games

Last month, Duolingo rolled out an illustration-driven redesign that aims to make the app even tougher to abandon. At the forefront of the redesign is, of course, Duo.

It wasn’t obvious from the outside that the app needed a redesign, but internally the team was working with two art styles that didn’t mesh well together, which hindered their ability to use Duo in more dynamic ways.

Their big challenge was to make Duo into much more of a mascot rather than simply a logo. Making them more expressive and more vibrant would mean the app would be more engaging and fun.

Since joining the Duolingo team six years ago, illustrator Greg Hartman has made some major cosmetic changes to Duo every few years.

This time around, Greg explored Duo from several different angles in order to develop the character further. More expressions give Duo more of a personality, enabling them to react to different situations, both good and bad, in ways that make them connect more with the user.

The many faces of Duo

For example, users who skip a certain number of lessons used to get an email with a GIF of Duo crying and looking disappointed.

That’s been redesigned to animate Duo’s eyes welling up with tears, looking downright miserable.

Turns out that illustrating for an app isn’t as simple as drawing something cool and then handing it off with a high-five to an animator. The key, according to Greg, is to design for animation from the beginning.

“A huge part of character animation is just getting the pose right.”

Greg Hartman, Duolingo
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“When character animation is done right, you’re able to get the loop you want—and that means more delight for the user, which in turn means the replay ability will be higher,” said Greg. “Our in-house animator and I spent a lot of time going back and forth on illustrations to get them perfect for animating. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was to keep illustrations simple.”

Drawing characters in the right pose is another important part of successfully illustrating for animation. The wrong pose means the animated version will look unnatural. That’s distracting for a user, especially if it’s something like creepy slow blinking or feet that don’t seem to match the body.

“When we redesigned Duo in 2014, his feet were two little round tangerines. People wondered what was up with that, and I was like, ‘Trust me: When we animate this, it’ll be awesome.’ Here we are years later, and we’ve finally animated his feet as a part of this redesign—and it is awesome,” said Greg.

Illustration has obviously played a huge role in Duolingo’s success, so what can that tell us about the future of its role in product design?

“In the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised if we let the UI talk less and let the imagery talk more.”

With emojis and GIFs, we’ve started to communicate with each other using a visual language—21st-century hieroglyphics. Why type a “hahaha” in response to a funny text when you can pin an animated iMessage “LOL” sticker to the text bubble or simply send the crying-laughing emoji? Visuals can communicate the same thing to people no matter what language they speak, and that’s something incredibly useful when it comes to design.

“In the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised if we let the UI talk less and let the imagery talk more, especially with AI,” said Greg. “Illustration within apps wasn’t much of a thing even five or six years ago, but we’re going to see illustration become really prominent in products as a way to improve the experience.”

As for how successful this illustration-driven redesign has been? Duolingo reports that so far they’ve seen in increase in total sessions done by about 5%.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to heat up this burrito and take my second five-minute French lesson so Duo stops crying.

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