Invisible Choices, Made by Default

There are two popular language learning software platforms: Anki and Duolingo. Anki is hard, free and effective. Duolingo is easy, commercial and ineffective.

The number of Duolingo users far outstrips the number of Anki users. Duolingo has 8 million downloads on the Play Store. Anki has 40 thousand. So there are 200 Duolingo users for every Anki user[1]. If you ask a random language learner what software to use they’ll probably suggest Duolingo. If you ask a random successful language learner what software to use they’ll probably suggest Anki. Most language learners are unsuccessful.

It should be no surprise that most language learners use an ineffective product. Learning a language is hard. Duolingo is designed to attract as many customers as it can. Therefore Duolingo must be easy to use. Anki is designed to work. Therefore Anki must be hard to use[2]. Effectiveness and mass-adoption are mutually exclusive.

On average, you’ll have to ask 200 language learners what software they use before one of them tells you about Anki. In practice, you are unlikely to stumble across Anki at all. You can only find out about Anki if you go looking for it and you’ll only go looking for it if you already know it exists.

No one ever told me about most of the software I use. Usually I’ll infer that it must exist and then go looking for it. This is how I discovered qutebrowser, Spacemacs, tmux, i3 and—of course—Anki.

This principle isn’t limited to open source software. Everything I’ve ever taken seriously exhibits a similar pattern. There’s a common way most people do it and there’s a cheaper, better, skill-intensive way a tiny minority do it.

Minority opinions are inherently controversial. Here are a few (relatively) uncontroversal examples to illustrate the trend:

  • Vim keybindings vs. conventional hotkeys

  • Lisps vs. programming languages without syntactic macros

  • Good history books vs. the news

  • Powerlifting vs. popular exercise de jour

  • Tiling window managers vs. the desktop metaphor

If you disagree with one of the examples above that’s okay but I won’t reply to you in the comments.

I don’t mind choosing to be part of the majority. I watch mainstream movies. I eat at popular restaurants. I perform the oldest magic tricks in the book. I’m okay with these choices I know about.

I make most of my choices unknowingly, by default, from the options presented to me. Most of the time I pick Duolingo over Anki without ever knowing I’ve made a choice.

  1. ↩︎

    I’m ignoring the Anki desktop app, the med student userbase, the paywalling of the iPhone Anki app and differences in churn to simplify this example and because I don’t have the relevant numbers.

  2. ↩︎

    I mean that effective spaced repetition is inherently difficult. The Anki onboarding experience could be improved without loss of utility.