How Gamification Has Catapulted Duolingo, Strava, and Forest to the Top of their Respective App Categories

BLOG by 

March 30, 2022

Achievements, XP/leveling up, leaderboards, and other “fun” mechanics from the world of gaming are enabling the very best non-gaming apps to maximize user engagement, revenues, and retention.

If you’ve ever been around somebody playing Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, Pokemon Go — or really any of best video games from the past decade — you’ve likely seen the extremes to which players can dedicate themselves to a game.

In as little as twenty seconds of downtime, people caught in the addictively entertaining throes of such games find themselves grinding for gold, items, and experience points; completing quests; or working to ascend a competitive leaderboard.

Earning these virtual objects and unlocking these forms of virtual recognition activates receptors in our brains, triggering a powerful sense of enjoyment and accomplishment – and reinforcing that our in-game efforts are well-worth the time (and perhaps even the piles of real cash) we’ve invested in said efforts.

These strategies have worked particularly well for mobile gaming, which now dominates consumer spending on all other gaming platforms combined by more than 25%, with mobile gaming revenues on track to reach $100B in 2020 (App Annie).

What is gamification?

Today, many of the previously mentioned mechanics (achievements, badges/rewards, leaderboards, etc.) that are responsible for the user stickiness in mobile games are now finding their way into non-gaming applications – in such categories as education, fitness, travel, personal finance & banking, ecommerce, food ordering, ridesharing, and more.

Gamification, as this strategy is known, is quickly going mainstream in the world of app UI/UX design.

Here are just a few of the apps that are doing it best, with a breakdown of some of their top “gamified” features:

Though learning a language can be fun, it can also be downright frustrating, nebulous, and, let’s be honest – often less appealing than binging an entire season of The Mandalorian or The Witcher.

That’s where apps like Duolingo come into play. With more than 300 million users worldwide, Duolingo has made a business of making language learning fun – even addictively so.

The company’s product managers credit gamification for its success at helping users develop the daily learning habits critical to the app’s popularity.

“Motivating yourself to learn is very hard and learning a language is even harder, especially when you are doing that online on your own, so we realized early on that we needed to try to encourage people to form a daily learning habit. We found that the most effective techniques for this come from the gaming world,” explains associate product manager Zan Gilani.

In Duolingo’s case, pretty much the entire application is designed as a game, and it is in all-in approach at making language-learning fun.

Here are some of the ways Duolingo uses gamification to motivate language learners and keep them coming back for more:

XP (experience points)

Just as you might expect when turning in a quest in a role-playing game (RPG), when you complete lessons or practice sessions in Duolingo, you’ll earn XP. Earn enough XP, and you’ll level up in the respective language, which can itself be gratifying but may also earn you street cred amongst your Duolingo friends.

XP is the primary mechanism by which Duolingo motivates its users to keep learning and practicing, as it is tied to other mechanisms like “The Streak” and Lingots, the in-game currency. Duolingo users can set their own daily XP goals to match their desired time commitments.

The Streak

When you meet your daily XP goal for consecutive days in Duolingo, you start (or extend) a streak. Your streak, or the number of days you’ve met your daily XP goal, is displayed prominently whenever you’re in Duolingo, in the form of a fire icon with a number next to it.

Keeping your streaks alive is a powerful motivation tool, as simple as it might seem, as it’s tied to many of the other mechanics in the game, such as achievements.

Conversely, losing a streak is a sad, sad event, for both you as a user, and for Duolingo, which sees broken streaks as a precursor to leaving the platform for good.


Lingots are a form of in-game currency that users earn by meeting daily XP goals, leveling up, unlocking achievements, and a long list of other behaviors Duolingo hopes you’ll work towards. Lingots can be spent in the Duolingo virtual store on bonus skills (new lessons), power ups (to earn back lingots, for example), and streak freezes (to keep a streak alive when you miss a daily XP goal). You can even use Lingots to buy a cute new virtual outfit for Duo, the brand’s owl mascot and learning helper.


Depending on which platform you’re on, you can unlock achievements by reaching certain thresholds of XP, words learned, or days with an active streak. Achievements are a powerful mechanism for recording permanent progress in your Duolingo experience.

Strava is used by many of the world’s elite professional athletes and by more than 40 million amateur athletes to track and analyze runs, bike rides, swims, and other popular outdoor activities.

At its core, Strava is a fitness tracking platform that allows users to track and analyze their fitness activities using GPS, heart rate, and other sensors on your smartphone or wearable device.

However, the core tracking and analysis features aren’t why Strava has been successful; a myriad of other apps can do the same thing, and few have approached Strava’s popularity.

The secret ingredient is motivation.

If properly motivated, people can then form healthy habits, set and chase goals, and consequently improve their fitness.

Here are just some of the ways Strava uses gamification to help motivate its users and add an extra layer of satisfaction to fitness activities:

Strava Segments (and Leaderboards)

With Strava Segments, your local park or even just the street you live and run on becomes a virtual racecourse, where you can compete for a top-10 spot on the segment leaderboard or even a course record against any user who’s ever done the same “segment”.

Even if you’re not fast enough to challenge for course records or a top leaderboard position, Strava automatically turns your own segment personal bests on into 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place medals to “reward” your strong performances, and you can see yourself climbing the leaderboard as you become faster. You can even filter by age group, weight, gender, or even club associations, to level the playing field, as it were.


Challenges are achievements users can sign up for, such as “June Distance Challenge”, “Virtual 13.1M”, “June Commute Challenge”, or “June Climbing Challenge”. Once you accept a challenge, Strava will automatically track your progress towards the challenge, whether progress is measured in number of activities uploaded, total distance, or even elevation climbed. If you complete a challenge within the allotted time (usually a month or so), you’ll be awarded a permanent unique badge that appears in your Strava profile, and sometimes a chance at a physical prize like a pair of the latest Altra kicks.

Automatic PR Tracking

Strava automatically parses your activity data to let you know if you’re progressing at certain benchmark distances such as one mile, 5k, 10k, half-marathon (13.1 miles), and marathon (26.2 miles).

You’ll earn shiny 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place virtual medals in your workout summaries to commemorate your achievements at these benchmark distances. It’s extra fulfilling to finish a particularly strong workout and see that you crushed your previous PRs at multiple distances in the course of a single workout.

When you do achieve new all-time PRs at these distances, your new personal best will be posted to your Strava profile, for all to see and (possibly) marvel at.

Progress Bars for Weekly and Annual Mileage Goals

Strava’s data visualizations let you literally see yourself falling behind your weekly or annual mileage goals and are a powerful motivation not to skip tonight’s run for a few rounds of brewskies. (No, that doesn’t count as carb loading!)

Community Interaction

Not to be overlooked, one of Strava’s main differentiators is that it is a social fitness platform. Every activity you post can be commented on or given “kudos” (think “likes”) by other users. You can follow and be followed, and you can join virtual Strava clubs for a sense of community and perhaps even accountability. With any race or workout, Strava automatically shows you other Strava users that recorded an activity in your vicinity, so it’s easy to connect with people you’ve encountered. You can even see “Flybys”, which shows you in an overhead map view exactly when/where you encountered these users and/or left them in the dust (or tasted their dust).

While the other two apps featured in this story use gamification to get you to use your phone more, Forest wants you to use it less — at least when you’ve got urgent work to get done. And, with more than 2 million satisfied paying users and the #1 spot in the App Store’s Productivity Category, Forest seems to be effective at helping its users focus.

Yes, Forest is a productivity app. But you won’t find task management, reminders, calendaring, or other traditional productivity tools here.

Instead, Forest makes a game of staying off your phone so that you can work without the distractions of social media, YouTube, and other popular time wasters. It’s also great for social occasions, where you want to be able to keep your focus away from your precious glowing screen.

The premise is simple, and it is gamification at its purest:

Plant a tree when you’re ready to focus

When you need to focus for a period of time, use Forest to plant a virtual tree and start a timer. The tree will begin to grow from a sapling into a full-on tree, provided you leave it alone long enough. But if you leave Forest prematurely to use an app you haven’t whitelisted, your tree will die a horrible, virtual death. (Shame on you!)

It’s a simple but powerful way to keep you from picking up your phone when you need to focus.

Build a forest

Each tree you successfully plant will be added to your virtual forest for the day, week, month, or year.

This adds a more permanent memento of your perseverance that can be both aesthetically pleasing and motivating.

Coins (In-game Currency)

As you successfully get work done by leaving your phone alone and growing trees in Forest, you earn coins, an in-game currency. Coins allow you to purchase new tree species, which augment the diversity and beauty of your virtual forest. Or, you can use coins to purchase additional zen-inducing soundtracks to accompany your tree-growing sessions.

Interestingly, you can also use coins to purchase real world trees, which are planted by Forest’s partner, Trees for the Future, to revitalize hundreds of thousands of acres of real soil and improve the lives of thousands of real families.


Premium users can unlock achievements that award you with permanent badges and even boatloads of coins for progressing to milestones such as: four hours of focus, successfully planting 7 days in a row, and more. These achievements serve as hard proof of your L33T ability to focus but also accelerate your ability to plant a vibrant and diverse forest.

Understanding the End Game

Despite serving different purposes and audiences, Duolingo, Strava, and Forest have successfully built some of the most effective mechanics from the world of gaming into their apps.

“Gamification continues to be a hot topic in the app world because of the success these companies are seeing. The ultimate payoff for implementing gamification is user engagement that is an order of magnitude higher than baseline — and everything that follows when it comes to revenues and reduced churn,” explains Harry Lee, CEO of award-winning app development agency CitrusBits. “Gamification is not trivial to implement. From a design perspective, gamifying an app requires a careful combination and implementation of multiple game-like mechanics, synergizing to provide a ‘sticky’, game-like experience.”

As more and more apps proliferate into the market, competition will become much stiffer across the board. Ultimately, it is the apps that utilize proven methods of engaging users, like gamification, that will unlevel the playing field and outperform the competition.

Have a new or existing app that requires gamification? The CitrusBits team has built successful gamified apps across numerous categories, including food & beverage, job seeking, and sports & entertainment. Contact CitrusBits today for a free consultation.

About the Author


Content Writer

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur. Odio ullamcorper enim eu sit. Sed sed sociis varius odio vitae viverra. Eu sapien at vitae vulputate tortor massa semper vel. Lectus sed gravida blandit lorem consequat erat integer non ut. Morbi amet dui cras posuere venenatis. Laoreet sapien lacus sit sit elementum risus massa auctor. Enim ornare pharetra quis massa fusce. Nibh vitae in erat ut mollis erat. Amet cursus ut sem condimentum ultrices. Felis morbi malesuada sit amet ultrices at ut consectetur.


Let’s stay in touch