Duolingo design lead Jack Morgan: 'In the digital age, it's easy to forget that data points are actually people'

  • Jack Morgan, design lead at Duolingo, led the product design for the brand's English Test. This is a start-up within it that uses AI to reduce barriers to education.

  • This test has made it possible for people to certify their English online, anywhere in the world, without having to go to a test centre, at a price that is one-fifth the cost of traditional tests, and the results are received in 48 hours.

  • Fascinated by how technology can solve real-world problems, Morgan wrote the Oscar-nominated documentary film Something Like Home, which highlights the power of free language education.

If you are currently learning a language online (or not), chances are you have heard of Duolingo. With around 300 million users worldwide, this free language learning platform has become the most popular way to learn more than 30 distinct languages that are on offer. Jack Morgan, design lead at Duolingo, led the product design for the brand’s English Test. This is a start-up within it that uses AI to reduce barriers to education. This test has made it possible for people to certify their English online, anywhere in the world, without having to go to a test centre, at a price that is one-fifth the cost of traditional tests, and the results are received in 48 hours. Today, the test has been taken in more than 169 countries, and is helping people all over the world to get access to a college education and job opportunities in English-speaking countries.

Fascinated by how technology can solve real-world problems, Morgan wrote the Oscar-nominated documentary film Something Like Home, which highlights the power of free language education.

 Duolingo design lead Jack Morgan: In the digital age, its easy to forget that data points are actually people

Jack Morgan, Design Lead at language learning app, Duolingo.

Jack Morgan is also known for leading design at Google’s education division, where he designed Google Squared, Google Digital Academy, and Google Academy London. At the fourth edition of DesignUp held in Bengaluru recently, a two-day conference that explored the integration of design and technology, Morgan spoke on 'How to Design Solutions to the World's Biggest Problems'. In an interview with Firstpost, he discussed the problem of illiteracy, the power of language, and what makes for good design solutions.

From Digital Manager at Havas in Central London, to being Google’s Lead designer for education, to moving across the pond to USA and Duolingo — what inspired each move?

The focus of my work over the past decade has been driven by a single question: "How can I add the most value?" My family has always been poor and working-class. When you can't even afford clothes, a good education can seem beyond reach. This was the case for us, and still is for millions. Everything changed when I became the first person in my family to use a computer and the early internet. It meant that for the first time in history, we didn't need money to get access to education. So I grew up in an era where even if we were poor, there were no limits to what I could learn with a computer. This changed our lives and circumstances forever, and I want to help make that possible for millions of other people. So the answer to my question of "How can I add the most value?", and every move I’ve made since, has been shaped by this.

What is it about languages that appeals to you, and what do you think of its potential to solve the world’s 'biggest problems’?

More than a billion people are learning English, and the vast majority of them are in developing countries where learning a new language can be a path out of poverty. But, learning a new language has always been expensive and those who really need a language to improve their lives can’t afford it. Our studies showed that while English was the most popular language being learned in most countries, the most popular language to learn in Sweden is Swedish — this is because of the large number of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Sweden. This means that for many, learning a new language isn’t just about economic opportunity — it’s also about surviving, thriving, and the chance at finding a new life.

SomethingLikeHome825

The stories of how language quite literally saved what would have been a doomed future for people like Alaa, Noor and Ahmed in Something Like Home hits hard. With society so desensitised to death and displacement, why is sharing these stories important?

In the digital age, it's easy to forget that data points are actually people. At a recent TedTalk I gave, it was clear that taking these large scale problems and humanising them can really get through to people. The people in these stories show us that every data point is a person, and they are living proof that our lives don't have to be defined by our circumstances, and that we can triumph over tragedy. I made the documentary because I think people need to hear that now more than ever.

What are some of the world’s biggest problems that you foresee as needing to be addressed soon, and why?

Illiteracy is still a huge problem worldwide, especially in developing countries. Around 780 million people cannot read or write. This is a significant barrier not just for economic opportunity but also, gender equality, given nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. In many classrooms in Uganda, there may be just one textbook per 30 students, yet the United Nations published a study, not so long ago, showing that more people now have access to cellphones than toilets. Even in Africa, cellphone penetration is at 90%. This means we have a real shot at using technology and free education to make a dent in worldwide literacy.

How do you design solutions for pressing problems? While solutions have to be unique, are there any broad rules of thumb or approaches to a problem that can be considered universal?

One universal method to solving a difficult problem is to take a scientific approach, and test everything extensively, rather than just trusting your gut. Our teaching methods are a result of analysing how millions of people learn at once on Duolingo. It’s the first time in history that this is possible, and allows us to make thousands of small tweaks to ensure people learn more quickly and more efficiently. This was not possible in traditional classroom environments.

Jack Morgan at a TedTalk

Jack Morgan at a TedTalk

Your role cannot be placed in a single bucket, and multi-tasking is par for the course. What is your approach to multi-tasking?

I split each day into two distinct halves. During the day, I meet with people to decide what to work on, collaborate and test ideas. I then do the majority of my work during the night when I'm least likely to be interrupted. I may begin a period of work at 6 pm and finish at 2 am. That allows me to get an entire day's worth of work done and still be awake in-time to start the day all over again.

How do you ensure that work is not all-consuming? How do you unwind?

This is definitely something I need to work on, no pun intended. My partner has helped me a lot over the past few years — she's showed me how to relax, but I'm still not very good at taking time off. My work is my passion, and I'm most happy when I'm working. I'm very extroverted by nature so I've never had a problem making friends. But between work, my relationship and my friends and family, there's little time left to actually relax.

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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2019 10:30:45 IST