For me, one of the best parts of working for a mission-driven company like Duolingo is the opportunity to work with people who want to do meaningful things. People come here to create products that change people’s lives. More specifically, they come to make an impact through Duolingo’s mission, which is to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available. 

We build product teams with this in mind, making sure that everyone gets to work on super-important problems. To do this, we not only need to hire missionaries—we also need to empower them. I have found that mission-minded teams make healthier decisions when they have autonomy over those choices, and that they’re more motivated too.

So how do you free product teams up to do their best work and give them the autonomy to make the best decisions, while still making sure their efforts are on-mission? We follow three principles every day to help us achieve this.

1) Take the long view

This is one of our operating principles at Duolingo, and something that guides all of our product decisions. It means doing the right thing, doing whatever is best for the user, even if it will take some time to get there, or even if it means sacrificing short-term wins. If the best proposal is going to take us three months to build, I want them to choose that idea over the one we could ship in three weeks but is hacky and only OK.

At Duolingo, product teams regularly find themselves deciding between short-term achievements and the long-term benefit of our users. For example, should our user growth team just send a lot of push notifications, which can get quick wins by increasing our daily active users? Or should they instead invest in mechanics like the daily streak, which have the potential to create long-term habits but will take much longer to build? The guiding principle for us is: Take the long view. Do what’s best for our users over the long term, not just what will drive our metrics in the short run. That’s why we invest heavily in the daily streak and don’t send tons of push notifications to our users every day. 

This is a necessary course correction, because product teams have built-in incentives to do things quickly, to ship fast and score fast wins. But if we only think short-term, we’re not building the best product for our users. And by encouraging product teams to take the long view, we also empower them to take full ownership of problems. Freeing them from the need to ship new products right away gives them the ability to do what they know is right.  

Bea and Duo high fiving

2) Build for the global user

When we design products, we tend to build with ourselves in mind. But we work for a tech company, so of course we are generally very tech-savvy. By contrast, someone who lives in a rural community in a different part of the world, and maybe just got their first Android phone a month ago, is not going to be as familiar with the kinds of interactions we're building. 

So I always encourage product teams to ask: Will our typical user understand what we just did? Will they understand what this main action button does? When they read what’s on the screen, will it make sense to them? Is the feature name going to translate well into other languages? 

About half the time, we realize we need to remind ourselves to build for our international audience, for our older audience, for our low tech literacy audience, and so on. The best product isn’t necessarily the one that works best for you, but the one that gives the most people access, which connects immediately back to our mission.

Lucy holding a shovel in a construction outfit

3) If it can be better, make it better

Nothing in our product is ever fully done. If you go back through the history of Duolingo, you’ll see every screen of the app changing significantly over time. No matter the goal of the feature, no matter how good the metrics, it will probably change in a year. That’s part of our growth mindset, and it applies to product development as well. Here’s an example of how we’ve redesigned our homepage recently, because we thought it could be better.

We take a perfectionist approach to product. Our teams can take several design cycles to solve certain problems, with each iteration getting closer but still not being quite right. If we can make it better, then I’ll ask them to try again. Until it is the best solution for our users—which is a very high bar—try again. 

Coupled with the other two principles, this gives teams both the space and the motivation to come up with the right answers to complex issues. This becomes very evident, for example, as Duolingo expands into new subject areas. A product team may be tasked with figuring out how we can use our model to teach math—and now it’s that team’s problem. I’ve placed my trust in them: You own this, and you are fully autonomous in proposing solutions to solve it. Find the most effective solution for the most users. Don't come up with hacky stuff; don’t aim at short-term wins. Shape what you are doing to these ideas, and you’ll feel your impact both in Duolingo and on the world.