How Duolingo uses Wake to scale its award-winning design team

The Duolingo design team

Duolingo, the free science-based language education platform, has organically become the most popular way to learn languages online. With its charming brand and fun exercises, Duolingo is a pioneer not only in the app and educational arenas, but also in design and technology.

The company has won many awards including iPhone app of the year, TechCrunch’s Best Education Startup and Google’s Best of the Best awards. And in 2015, Google Capital led a $45 million investment round, with participation from its previous investors.

A lot of its success can be credited to the team’s overwhelming commitment to develop a valuable, enchanting design experience for its users who rack up more than six billion exercises a month.

Sean Chin, product designer at Duolingo, sat down with us to discuss how the design team has evolved and how Wake has played an important role in their success.

The challenge of a scaling design team.

When Sean joined the team, Duolingo had about ten million registered users, a small fraction of the now 150 million users of the app. Sean was the third designer, alongside an existing product designer and an illustrator.

Having a small design team made for easy collaboration and communication; however, with such a large engineering team, they were grossly outnumbered and design became a bottleneck. The obvious solution was to add more design resources, which was great for the team, but also introduced new obstacles.

“When the design team was small, we could chat quickly and collaboration wasn’t difficult. However, now that the team has grown to nine people, communication and collaboration have become a challenge.”

The complexity of scaling a product and a team was difficult to do without the right solutions. So Sean and his team researched tools that would help support them as they grew.

The hunt for a simple sharing and communication tool.

At first, the team turned to Slack, a messaging app, to collaborate and communicate. Designers would share screenshots, links to articles, and videos of animations they were working on. Using Slack was helpful in creating a level of transparency, but with it being completely open, it became a struggle to see Slack as a safe space to share ideas specific to the design team.

“Because Slack was open to everyone, engineers and other teammates were giving feedback when it wasn’t ready, forcing some designers to share via email or offline completely,” Sean said.

The steps involved to share something with another person caused confusion and even more tension in the creative process. Between the complexity and fear of criticism from other employees, it caused designers to share less of their work, which was the whole reason they needed these tools in the first place.

“It was clear we needed a sandbox where we can share ideas freely without technical constraints or premature, uninformed feedback.”

Sean and his team use Principle, Sketch, and InVision, but they couldn’t find a way to centralize all of their work. Everything they tried had only made their challenges more complex.

Discovering a simple, safe space to share.

During their search, a former classmate of Sean’s who was a designer at Google, came into the Duolingo office to chat with them about their design operations and emerging growing pains. They were looking for something that would encourage people to share more often and didn’t beg for criticism too early.

“Other solutions we reviewed had very feature-rich product offerings that were a bit much for our use case,” Sean said.

But when Duolingo found Wake, the lightweight functionality was what won them over. A quick demo of Wake and the team had realized this was exactly what they needed to streamline their entire process.

The ability to quickly pop in screenshots and design work into Wake allowed for the team to centralize their shared visual consciousness in one area. And with Wake’s Spaces feature, the team could limit permissions allowing for a smaller group to share work privately.

“Wake was a breath of fresh air. If I want to share something, it’s so quick to do that. If I want to see something, there’s a live feed that pops up. Wake’s simplicity is its biggest draw.”

Solidifying the shared visual consciousness and looking to the future.

Since then, Wake has become a “ubiquitous” platform for the Duolingo design team. The designers see it as a centralized hub for design sharing, approvals, and collaboration.

“Any time I feel like I’m going down a rabbit hole, I can easily access Wake to connect with other designers and see a button or other asset I may have forgotten about. Even though it may not be directly related to my work, it keeps me nimble and helps me focus on things outside of my own projects.”

Sean also noted that Wake has empowered designers who had historically provided very little feedback. The safe space Wake has created encourages higher engagement across the entire team.

“Prior to Wake there were designers we rarely heard much from, and this app has empowered them to share more than ever. When we share more ideas as a whole, the more collaboration that happens and the better we work as a unit. All of this is critical to achieving our overall business goals.”

It’s also been a way for new Duolingo designers to align with the team quickly as they scale. Just three weeks before our interview with Sean, he had onboarded their first employee using Wake.

“I just told him to go to our Wake page, scroll around, read the comments, and just explore. Within weeks he was pumping out mockups that aligned exactly with our existing brand assets.”

The immediate access and context that Wake provides helped the new designer understand why they selected certain design variations and provided a peek into the evolution of their brand. All key pieces necessary to scaling their product and team.

“The immersion into Wake is incredible and is the most effective onboarding experiences I’ve ever witnessed.”

If you’re looking for a solution that makes it easier to share design work and bring your team’s visual consciousness to life, give Wake a try! It was designed to fit seamlessly into a designer’s workflow to encourage fast and frequent sharing throughout the entire design process.