How emotional design can help you learn a language

“The emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements.” -Donald A. Norman

Capeesh is industry-tailored language learning made fun. For us, gamification has more to do with the overall design approach rather than patching in flashy progression systems. Our team consists of experienced game developers and language researchers, so it felt natural for us to use games as the main reference for Capeesh.

The first most prominent concept we introduced was the fully animated characters, inspired by first-person adventure games.

Capeesh’s mentors are not just fancy pop-up boxes, but a reminder of what language is all about: communicating with people! They will react to the user’s input and performance, give helpful instructions and carry a conversation. The mentors give Capeesh a friendly voice and a disarming vibe by connecting the subject of language with the real-life application of interacting with a teacher in a school type of setting.

Personifying an instructional mechanism is common in video games as you want the player to feel immersed in a transparent fictional world. We use that same design philosophy in Capeesh; even if our faculty setting is simple we still want to make sure our users can feel invested in the narrative. Angry Birds would never have become such a phenomenon if the developer, Rovio, didn’t put the extra effort into giving what is otherwise a simple physics puzzler; a setting, a plot and characters with personality. King’s Candy Crush Saga, one of the most played video games in history, introduced a somewhat logical premise, Tiffi’s adventures in Candy Town, to what appears to be an ordinary “match-three” puzzle game.

So why would a language learning app need a narrative? Well, a narrative, in this case, would be the journey the student takes: from being greeted by their personal instructor, Lin, in the on-boarding, to “beating” your final exams.

The interactive narrative is actually pretty similar between education and videogames: there’s a final objective, fail and win state, and the course is split into levels (semesters) with boss fights (tests and exams). It’s also a game over if you fail an exam, forcing you to start from the beginning.

So: are videogames and education basically the same? Well not quite, they do differ almost entirely in one key factor that makes designing a language learning application very tough — a student has completely different motivations from that of a player.

In an educational application, the user has the need to improve or achieve a specific skill, while the player, for the most part, wants to be entertained. Interestingly enough, this motivation can flip during the two experiences. In a game, once the player feels invested in the world, the feeling of needing to finish the narrative can surpass the entertainment value. In a language learning app, the student’s initial excitement quickly wears off if the experience doesn’t offer additional motivational mechanisms or meaningful stimuli, hence the initial need is not enough to carry the student through to the goal.

While implementing rewarding progression mechanics such as streaks, experience level, and high scores, has certainly become the go-to method of creating long-term user engagement, we know it’s just as critical to give the user the same instantly gratifying and joyful user experience they’d expect from a game.

Giving the user immediate satisfaction with plenty of slick transitions, responsive feedback, colorful graphics, crisp sound effects and bouncy animations will certainly make the repetitious nature of language learning less tedious.

Language learning has for a long time been purely brick and mortar, but with the changing mindset of millennials, the increased focus on diversity and empathy and the great adoption of games in language learning means we are only seeing the infancy of emotional design used in language learning.