Simple, Intuitive, Gamified: How Babbel Turns Language Learning into a Lesson in Great UX Design
If you want to learn a new language, chances are you’ve heard of Babbel, the app that promises to make learning another language easy. A Babbel study found that 15 of its hardest-working users learned Spanish in just three weeks, with two to three hours of regular practice per week.
I’m interested in learning French, so I thought this was a great time to see if Babbel lives up to its reputation. After a couple of weeks with Babbel — admittedly, without regularly practicing French in the app — I found myself curious more about the way its UX was designed.
The more I used the app, the more I became convinced that the entire Babbel experience is centered around intelligent design decisions for a seamless user experience. Here’s why.
Simple design for a more effective result
The old saying, “Keep it simple, stupid,” comes to mind whenever I think of great design. Design doesn’t need to hammer the user over the head to boast about how fancy it is. Rather, the UX should do the talking all on its own. Babbel accomplishes that with its user flows.
The app is designed around chronological courses that consist of numerous lessons. Each course gets progressively harder and builds on the earlier lessons learned, until you’re finally able to master the language you’re studying.
To accomplish this in design, Babbel relies on minimalism. Each page in the app boils down to just one concept or mini-concept at a time; for example, the apps asks you to match the flag of a specific country to its proper spelling in the language in question.
As Babbel’s VP of product design, Scott Weiss, puts it thus: “Effective language learning is a completely immersive experience. Anything in the UX/UI that distracts from the learning experience could potentially reduce efficacy. Our primary goal is to get everyone learning languages, so this singular focus has really helped us to keep everything extra out of the experience.”
The minimalism also extends to the visual design. Note how there’s a lot of white space to precisely focus my attention on the lesson at hand and do away with inessential distractions. The on-page text is limited to just the bare instructions I need to understand the lesson and attempt it. Finally, the huge call-to-action button at the bottom of the screen serves to remind me in a straightforward way about my user-flow goal.
Intuitive design to facilitate learning
Another benchmark for great UX is how intuitive the app is. If a significant portion of my cognitive memory is spent on simply learning how to use the app in the first place, not to mention remembering how to use the app as I progress (which occupies more of my cognitive capacity), then the UX suffers greatly.
The beauty of Babbel is in how intuitive it truly is. It’s one of those apps you can simply pick up and “play” on the first try, without having to first familiarize yourself with complex instructions.
Lessons that call for listening to properly spoken French and then filling in the missing words don’t require any explanation. As soon as you tap on the audio icon and finish listening to the pronunciation, you simply tap on the blank spaces in the phrase you need to complete. Then, the virtual keyboard seamlessly slides into view, and presto. You know what you have to do!
Weiss gives insight into this design philosophy:
“All digital experiences require learning, but most of that learning is how to use the game or social platform rather than achieving something that lasts beyond the in-app experience. With language learning, the education is primarily intended to benefit the user in person, on the phone, or in written communication. The app experience needs to be almost entirely intuitive, so that as much learning as possible is done with the app rather than how to use the app.”
Gamifying the learning experience to boost engagement
Gamification is one of the most effective tactics to increase engagement with apps. When you gamify a process, experience or, in this case, a lesson, you make it more fun. When something’s more fun, it doesn’t seem like a task, but rather an enjoyable experience that delights.
Babbel’s take on gamification is both fun and practical. In the app, gamification comes primarily from the app awarding you a score based on the number of right answers you get in each lesson. Lessons have dozens of questions. The gamification here is, naturally, to always try and beat your old score — think of it almost as trying to beat your own high score in a video game. The practical element of gamification is that it motivates you to do better, too, which has a positive impact on your language learning.
Weiss sums it up perfectly: “What makes Babbel rewarding is the sense of accomplishment that one gets from completing lessons. That sense is reinforced by showing the number of items correct and incorrect, with the opportunity to keep working to complete the incorrect items. Combined with a scoring system that demonstrates long term progress, Babbel learners have a pretty thorough understanding of their learning accomplishments.”
Many iterations on the road to success
An app like Babbel requires numerous iterations to deliver its great UX. It’s the effort of multiple teams within the same company using data culled from numerous sources — and working together for a singular goal. Weiss has some parting advice for designers looking to create a very usable app:
“Iteration is built into our UX process, and we rely on multiple data sources. We regularly conduct usability research, with the expectation that new designs will go through at least two iterations until they’re right. We study analytics data from the paths users take, including visit duration, return frequency, and undertaken activities — as well as performance during lessons. Our Customer Service team feeds data back to the product teams from customer contacts and FAQ accesses.”