When You Have To Learn A Language Quickly

Jordan Kolb
6 min readFeb 25, 2021


The research process behind a language-learning app for last-minute travelers.

The Prologue

The idea for this personal project came from the https://www.uxchallenge.co/ website. It provides a list of UX design challenges that are meant to solve real world problems. Before UX, my background was primarily in informal teaching. One of my part time jobs was teaching English to Chinese children over the internet. This lead me to choose the following prompt to work on designing an app for:

Combining my interest in language learning and education!

Obviously, I couldn’t just jump into designing what an app like this should look like. I did a significant amount of research into what exactly a prospective user would want from this kind of app.

Understanding the Market

I went through so many different apps you could call me a master at introductory Spanish.

I researched apps that would be considered rivals for this UX Design challenge. I looked at the most popular language-learning apps on the market and used them for around half an hour to an hour each. I organized the matrix into a short-term vs long-term learning as well as if the app caters to more specialized situations where you’d use the language.

I discovered that most of these apps are catered toward structured long-term generalized learning. DuoLingo forces you to learn 3 levels of language basics before you can access more specialized lessons. While Travel is one of the first categories you unlock, the lesson consists of only matching pictures with words or filling in sentences. This is something that I would find out doesn’t mesh well with my users preferred method of learning. This lesson also does not go into specific travel circumstances one might find themselves in.

Mondly was a bit more relevant. It uses conversations to give context to the words you learn. The categories are also more specific and cover different aspects of travel like shopping, preparing, transportation.

TripLingo acts as a translator, phrasebook, money converter, and culture guide all in one! TripLingo actually has many of the features that prospective users would be interested in while traveling, including being able to translate English phrases into varying levels of “slang.” However, TripLingo does not help you learn a language in any structured manner.

A short summary of the potential competitor apps I researched

Understanding the User

I interviewed 12 people of different ages and experiences with learning a language. I wanted to find out about their motivation to learn and their experience not knowing a country’s language while traveling. Some examples of questions I asked were:

  1. What motivates you to learn a new language?
  2. How did the language barrier affect your time when traveling?
  3. How did you prepare when it came to learning a language for traveling to another country? Did you feel your method helped?
  4. What phrases in particular helped the most during your travel? For someone who only has a few days to learn a language, what should they learn?
  5. What activities or circumstances did you find yourself in having to speak the country’s native language the most?

Synthesizing the Information

Creating an affinity map allows you to easily organize information into easily summarized ways. Some of the insights gained from these interviews were very interesting. Here is an example of a few categories from the journey map that tie into one another and tell a small story.

Going back to Duolingo, while some users liked how “gamified” the app was, the overall consensus was that the Duolingo model isn’t an effective way to learn a new language short-term. Users feel they subconscious learn better when listening to a foreign story, or feel they remember more when having a conversation in the language.

Users mentioned that, even if you know how to speak some words or phrases, the stress of speaking aloud to a stranger is intimidating.

This is because people don’t want to across as being the “ugly American” stereotype. No guest wants to accidentally say something offensive to the people hosting them in their country.

The main reason people do want to learn a language for travel is because they know the tourist track is a heavily curated experience that only shows a country’s culture at face value. Going off the beaten path and eating at a small family-owned restaurant will give you the more authentic experience.

But what makes going off the beaten path difficult is navigating through the transportation system. They tend to be unfriendly to foreigners and confusing to understand. Compound this with a non-Germanic alphabet and now you’re comparing words one character at a time trying to find the right way to go.

Lastly, speaking a language as a beginner limits your ability to express yourself. Speaking formally makes it harder to socialize and bond with people.

One Week To Learn A Language

Lorelei is a woman of many people!

A persona is the personification of your synthesized research. Lorelei Olson here is my persona for this language learning app. Lorelei is a busy 31 year old who will soon be on a vacation to Costa Rica. Finally! Unfortunately because of her work as a Media Analyst, she’s been super busy lately. She finally has some free time but for only one week before the trip! Lorelei needs to learn Spanish fast, preferably the relevant travel information that will help her get by. She can’t rely on friends to translate for her as she’s going by herself! Good luck, Lorelei!

I created a “stat chart” of how well she learns based on interview responses. During my time getting a TEFL certification, I learned that there are different types of learning. Lorelei learns best when she’s listening and speaking the foreign language especially in a conversation.

I also used the horizontal bars to quickly give a visual to how Lorelei feels. She has the motivation but lacks the focus to learn due to work.

The Stress of Learning a Language

A journey map allows you to plot the emotions of your persona as they go through the journey of discovering or using your app.

In this journey map, Lorelei tries using DuoLingo and appreciates it at first. She enjoys how inviting and friendly the interface is and the pictures do help with associating specific words. However, she has to level up before she can learn the travel related content and she lacks the focus to wait that long. She has to learn seemingly irrelevant words that feel like a waste of time. She eventually gets to the travel section and feels a bit satisfied.

However, because she’s not a visual learner, she doesn’t retain the information the following day! She can’t review phrases she got right previously either! Lorelei just finished looking up Costa Rican sodas and wants to learn about food. The app won’t let her because she needs to finish the current section which is 5 parts long! Frustrating!

This leads Lorelei to give up and find TripLingo, an app that has a phrasebook of important travel-related sentences for her to memorize (and speak in different slang too!) Unfortunately, just memorizing phrases is boring and uninteresting. Lorelei needs a travel-specific language learning app that’s fun STAT!

This leads to the…

Problem Statement

The problem statement is the ultimate focal point for designing this app. Every decision when designing must cater to the problem statement.

What will Lorelei do?

This project is currently in development! In the second part of this article I will walk through the design process for this UX Design Challenge!