Jack Morgan, Design Lead, Duolingo, on Solving the World’s Biggest Problems

The self-taught designer talks about the importance of seeing opportunities instead of barriers

Jack Morgan takes me by surprise, and it’s not just his deep baritone and pronounced British accent. Before I can jump in with my list of questions, he asks me about The Hard Copy – not perfunctory queries but probing questions about my vision and roadmap. He’s clearly spent time on the site because he comments on the layout (likes it) and is intrigued by the cover image (BV Doshi). It’s the last working week of the year, but Morgan is no rush as he reminisces about his early days and explains the reasons behind Duolingo’s success.  

Let’s start at the beginning and your decision to pursue design 

My family had neither money nor education. I graduated high school early, skipped university and was waiting bars in my early teens. The inflection point in my life came with access to a computer and the Internet (back in the dial-up days of the early web) and I found, in the words of the late Steve Jobs, that it was like a ‘bicycle for my mind’. There were all these free resources and people around the world willing to answer your questions. In the early 2000s, I stumbled upon historic design texts like Paul Rand, A Designer’s Art and Grid Systems In Graphic Design and was fascinated by classic design systems, so I decided to learn more. I studied books on graphic design from the 60’s through to newer classics like the Vignelli Canon, inadvertently giving myself a classic education in design. 

I would create a curriculum for myself and methodically learn what I wanted to from the Internet 

My first job in tech was at fifteen, working for a British IT company. At seventeen I approached the advertising agency, Havas, in London. I took some self-initiated sketches to them and they took a chance on me. I became a manager after several years and then began design work for Google, also in London.  I moved to the United States to join Duolingo in 2015.

This belief in self-learning via free educational resources is something that has always stayed with me. 

You say you want to solve the world’s biggest problems. That is particularly interesting for us in India, where our problems have massive scale. What does this demand from a designer? 

The only things it needs are intent and imagination. The tools are now within everyone’s reach. Without realizing it, many designers do not give themselves the permission to think at scale. Start by asking yourself  ‘What are the biggest problems I could help to solve?’ and ‘How could I add value?’  

Another effective method is to project into the future. I always look at a problem or product and ask ‘What could this be like, five years from now? For example, I looked at The Hard Copy and thought ‘Where could this be in five years?’ (Writers Note: We scheduled a separate call to get advice on that) 

Train your mind to see the opportunities, not just the barriers 

The logo for Jack Morgan’s yet-to-be launched initiative

Tell us more about this ‘seeing the opportunities’ mindset that designers should cultivate 

I’ll give you a simple example from everyday life. A person you want to speak to, or a company you want to engage with, both represent opportunities. You shouldn’t be scared to approach them, as long as you have something of value to offer. The barriers are in your mind. 

When I see someone who is hesitant to speak to me at a conference, I will make the effort to go and strike a conversation with them – because I’m not there just to speak, I’m there to meet people and learn from them.   I got both my jobs at Havas and Google, by proactively approaching the companies with self-initiated projects. If you have something of interest to say, by and large people want to listen.  

Given your interest in education and equal opportunity, Duolingo is a perfect fit. How did that come about? 

I’ve always had the greatest admiration for the founders of Duolingo, Luis Von Ahn (who is also the inventor of ReCaptcha) and Severin Hacker. I love the way they have kept their mission of free education at the heart of Duolingo.  I joined them when they were a thirty person team, in one room in Pittsburgh. 

Today, Duolingo has 300 million registered users.  The no 1 language being learnt on the app is English of course, but there are many others. The most popular language to learn in Sweden, for example, is Swedish – a direct result of the country’s refugee intake.  Learning a language for many, is a path out of poverty and the door to a new life.  

We have the map of the world up in the Duolingo office, with a light that goes on for every user active on the app.  The bright, high-density areas in the cities are to be expected. But sometimes you’ll see a few lights flickering in Sub-Saharan Africa or some other remote area and you realise that someone out there is trying to learn a language. It’s very powerful.  

What would you attribute Duolingo’s success to? 

Duolingo came into a world where learning a language was hard work, and made it fun.  

Everything about Duolingo, from the owl mascot to the gamified product design, is carefully crafted to make the experience rewarding and not dull and onerous.  

Even the ‘ta-ding’ sound when you get something right, gives you a tiny moment of triumph. I’ve watched first-time users actually chuckle as they learn on the app. 

The app uses machine learning and data-driven decisions to make the entire process easier, including an understanding of what users’ struggle with. (Writer’s note: Duolingo has open-sourced CEFR Checker, a semi-automated, machine learning tool to check and classify content across multiple languages) 

Finally, we’re constantly evolving to see how we can help our users meet their goals.  The Duolingo English Test is an example, where users can now get widely accepted certification by taking a test on the app. 

Final advice for designers? 

Technology has brought us to a point where our work as designers, impacts tens of thousands of lives.  This is exciting but also means that we must think about our responsibilities very seriously. 

Jack Morgan was a speaker at DesignUp 2019

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