Uplingua: Deeper Language Learning through Reading


At this point, it feels like we all have used Duolingo or its cousins to learn a language. And what has it really gotten us? Most people aren’t satisfied with the progress they’re making when the primary teaching methodology of the current app offerings is rote translation with no cultural context.

Research on language learning tells us that it is best learned through deeper cognitive processing, such as through conversation or reading language in a text.  Is there a way to maintain what people like and needs about independent learning but promote deeper congitive processing?

Can we make reading in a new language accessible and enjoyable even from a lower level?
Potential Users
Language learning apps draw from users who use apps for supplemental learning (in conjunction with formal classroom learning).  They may be language hobbyists who don’t feel pressure to make fast progress.
However these apps also attract users who have higher learning stakes, such as assimilating into a new community, learning to communicate for work or travel, or requiring it for immigration purposes.
Research objective: We want to know how people feel about their current language learning methods and what gaps exist in current tools.

Product objective: We want to make a product that supplements current language learning tools to promote deeper and more culturally aware learning


I combined primary research via interviews of potential users with competitor research of similar products. My goal was to understand what motivates people to study another language, how they feel about current studying methods, how they feel about their progress, and what challenges they face making progress they are satisfied with.

Primary Research: Interviews

I spoke with 5 participants, all native English speakers, who have learned a second language. They all had different learning goals and proficiency levels, and they ranged from learning one additional language to several at once.

Affinity Mapping

Key Themes

I found 9 over-arching themes:
  • Methods people like to learn language
  • Reasons people don’t progress in a language
  • Learning culture connects you to a language and teaches nuance
  • Learners want untranslated novels, cultural texts, practical language
  • Motivations include travel, school, work, and cultural connection
  • Learners feel dissatisfied with skills practice, especially speaking
  • All feel Reading/Writing/Listening/Speaking skills are important for most learners
  • Native English speakers dabble in multiple languages
  • Learners have mixed feelings towards current learning apps

Secondary Research: Competitor Analysis

I looked at Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and Beelinguapp. Duolingo and Babbel represent more modern language learning apps, while Rosetta Stone is an earlier generation of learning tool that has transitioned to the app market. Beelinguapp is not as well known, but represents a reading-focused app.

Key Takeaways

  • Users are accustomed to a free and paid tier for learning
  • Reading texts, especially authentic texts,  is not widely available in these apps
  • Listening to longer texts is also not widely offered
  • Cultural learning is often missing, despite user interest

Creating User Personas

User Personas

Two different persona roles were developed for this project through discussion with the research participants.

First we have Ella, who loves traveling, but as a native English speaker, feels shut out from visiting some places due to not knowing the language or the culture. She wants to be able to learn multiple new languages so she can visit anywhere confidently. She isn't happy just translating sentences; she wants something more substantial so she can feel like she can hit the ground running when she arrives.

Luis is a more advanced learner. He's already finished what he can find in most apps, but still doesn't feel like he knows a language well enough. He wants to read real books, but gets overwhelmed with vocabulary and grammar when he tries to study on his own. He wants support for higher level language learning.

Developing Solutions

Once I had a good idea of the motivations, goals, and pain points of potential users, I started to ideate on how to help solve the problems they face through Point of View Statements and turning them into How Might We...? questions.

Priority Features

I used user stories to brainstorm possible features for alanguage learning app. From this, I ranked them into priority levels, high, medium, and low. This created our list of must-have features.

Priority Features

  • account creation
  • select and edit subscription level
  • payment collection forms
  • profile and settings page
  • view a collection of texts
  • select a text
  • view, select, and add a language to learn
  • view cultural footnotes
  • translate and define a word in a text
  • annotate the text
  • collect and save words from a text to remember later
  • play audio recording of the text
  • view and respond to questions based on the text
  • view a collection of previous learner responses to text-based questions

Site Map

For this MVP version of the app, the main branches include the account/profile page, the list of languages available to be learned, and a specific language home page (ex: Japanese language home).  From this language homepage, users can also visit individual text pages with further content. All pages are gated through an account log in to determine if content is available to users at different subscription levels.

User Flows and Task Flows

Symbols Key

I ended up with 5 distinct user flows that represented the major features of the site.

Testing Mid Fidelity Wireframes

At this stage, I tested the usability of the product with 5 participants in a moderated usability test. We tested 4 tasks: Creating a new account, Interacting with a word in a text, Reading a culture note, Starting to learn an additional language.

Key Insights

  • Users understood text interaction icons, and described functions as useful
  • Most users preferred translation vs definition when looking up a word
  • Users weren’t sure how to look up culture notes, but liked the feature
  • Users weren’t sure where to go to add a new language, but preferred to access this through the menu on language home
  • Most users did not interact with the profile, and didn’t know what to expect to see on a profile page

Mood Board

Mood board #1 focuses on reading as a juxtaposition of calmness and excitement. Reading is a way to travel while being stationary. What thrilling places can we read about on the muted beige of a page in a book?

Mood board #2 captures the passion and excitement of adventure in far-off places. Language, and reading, will take us to places we dream of, so in this mood board we live in a colorful dreamscape of pinks, blues and purples.

Core Brand Values:

  • Openness
  • Exploration
  • Growth
  • Cross-culture learning
  • Diversity
  • Enjoyment
  • Cozy


For company logo/wordmark, I used the Alba font from Fontalicious.  It has a pleasing roundness and feels inviting, welcoming you to the language learning community, while also not feeling overly cute.  The initial U created the app logo which is striking and clear, while also maintaining that welcoming feeling.

Testing and Revising

For this iteration, I did an unmoderated usability test on maze.co to try to see how users interacted with the site without conscious or unconscious guiding from me as a facilitator. I tested the same 4 tasks as in the previous test: Creating a new account, Interacting with a word in a text, Reading a culture note, Studying an additional language.

Users responded positively to the product's simplicity and features. Some users said it was tedious to click through multiple steps to access a translation of the target word. Users also wanted more tutorial or instructions to learn about product features, and had trouble knowing to click/press on a word or culture note to interact.


  • Add text guidance for reading units and text page
  • Made text interaction default to translation

UI Kit

After iterating on the prototype, I collected the components to create a centralized UI Kit for simple reference. It includes components such as buttons and toggles, commonly used images including branding, and the icon set.

Product walk-through

Interact with the prototype in Figma


In this video, I give a tour of the 4 flows tested during product development: Creating a new account, Interacting with a text, Reading a culture note, and Learning an additional language.