Hey Scott, it’s a pleasure to have you here at UX Planet. Can I ask you to introduce yourself to our readers? What’s your background? And what you like and dislike like to do (not necessary in product design)?
Thank you for having me! I speak and write about engagement, which is the way that we build meaningful bonds with products, ideas, brands, apps — in fact, anything! — including other people, and even ourselves.
Given I’m looking at such a deep topic, it’ll be no surprise that I enjoy reading, researching, and other deep thinks like poetry and music! Aside from that, I actually quite enjoy building my own website — it’s a way that I stay within the digital design world — and is something I’ve been doing for something like 25 years or so!
What I DON’T like is looking at cat photos. I just don’t get the whole cat meme! (Sorry, internet!)
The topic of our interview today is ‘user engagement.’ I know that you’re an expert on this topic, so I expect to hear a lot of insights! 🙂 The phrase ‘user engagement’ became a buzzword in the product design industry. Almost everyone who designs digital products uses it to describe their products. And I bet that most people misuse this term. So, what exactly user engagement is? When it comes to a digital relationship, how can we discern what is and what is not engagement?
Engagement can definitely be a buzzword. We use the word everyday, but it has different meanings to different people, from clicking on a link, through to be being engaged to be married. So which is it?
A year ago I released my book, The Shape of Engagement, to offer some clarity around the concept. It contains seven shapes, each shape as a model to visualise and explain how engagement works.
One of the shapes is the 3-E Model, where I explain that engagement isn’t one dimensional, it is three dimensional. First, there is Engagement as Expression. This is where someone is mentally focussed and gives us their attention. Secondly, there is Engagement as Encounter, which is physical, where someone takes action and experiences what we are doing. Finally, we have Engagement as Empowerment — which is a deeper, emotional state, and more to do with someone aligning around what you do.
To talk about user engagement, as opposed to say customer engagement or brand engagement, is to specify the context that this psychological state of engagement is happening within. It all works the same, it’s just about whether the person we are engaging is a customer, user, employee, partner, friend, etc.
Finally, you can see from what we’ve discussed that a click is clearly not engagement. A click, or tap, or downloading an app, or opening it up, or sharing it all, are all interactions. A series of interactions can be evidence of engagement, sure, but they by themselves are not a psychological state of togetherness!
Thanks a lot for the clarification. Being in the design industry for a while, I believe that product designers are more scientists rather than artists. When we design products, it’s essential to measure and verify each design decision we make. What about user engagement — how can we measure the engagement? What metrics can we use?
This is great question, so first of, let’s clarify: engagement is not abstract. It can be and should be measured just as much as anything else. That’s how we know it exists! (And to boot, there’s a large amount of academic literature about it, spanning decades.)
Now generally engagement measurements are proxies, which is to say that we measure a behaviour that is evidence of engagement, rather than the psychological state itself. And actually, I think that’s good, because if we say “we want to get our users engaged”, what we really mean is that we want the behaviours that will come when our users are engaged.
For instance, engaged users will use an app more, dwell on a website for longer, recommend products to others — and it’s those behaviours, those outcomes, that we want.
There are broadly two ways to measure engagement through behaviour. One is to use a series of operational KPIs, such as DAU or MAU, or churn rate, or ARPU, or even DAU/MAU. This gives you one dimensional measurements.
But another, more strategically insightful way to measure engagement, is to measure the 6 psychological levels of engagement. We do this by measuring activity and behaviour that is evidence of each level, which in turn will help us determine what the average engagement level is, what the bottlenecks are, and where our strengths are.
Really briefly, the six psychological levels are:
- Acknowledge. Your users are mentally aware of you. This could be evidenced by visits to your website, people on a mailing list, or followers on social media.
- Explore. Your users are discovering more about you. This might be longer visits on a website, interaction with content on social, or even downloading an app and testing it.
- Act. If you users haven’t signed up to your product yet, they definitely have by now, but you have not yet passed the “home screen” test. Typical measurements revolve around a core action.
- Identify. The user identifies with the product, such as saying things like “I love X” or “I’m a Y-er” or “I’m a Z-user”. Measurements are often based on a degree of usage that indicates emotional connection.
- Integrate. Having identified with the product, the user commits to it and makes it a part of their daily life. Like level 4, this will usually be measured by volume, particularly around daily usage.
- Enlist. The user adopts the same end goal as you and subscribes to your mission. This could be measured with contributive KPIs, such as commits to a github.
Therefore, if we find that few people are carrying out a behaviour that pertains to level 4, then we have identified a bottleneck to people getting to the next level. In fact, the move from level 3 (Act) to level 4 (Identify) is the critical moment where users crossover from lower, momentary engagement to higher, more emotional connected engagement.
The imperative for designing for engagement, of course, is that we consider these 6 levels at relevant stages of the user journey, and optimise for them. So for instance, how can your product introduce a sense of social identity and belonging, but not too early on?
Having all this information I want to ask a stupid question — why it’s important to design for engagement? What are the benefits for business? Can you give us an example of a company (or companies) that followed a strategy of designing for engagement and demonstrated that it was a correct approach?
At an intuitive level, we just know that if something is engaging, it will have a greater chance of success. And, the research backs this up.
For instance, a few headline stats: Rosetta Consulting report revealed engagement is directly correlated with increased spend (up to 300% more per year), retention (5x more loyal), and re-spend (6x more likely to try a new product). In the landmark report by Gallup, HumanSigma, companies that optimise for engagement outperform the average by a factor 3.5x, and publicly traded companies that practice engagement outperform the S&P 500 by over 36% (ECSI)
And we should also say that engagement is incredibly common. It’s not a magical elixir — it’s happening everywhere, and many do it right.
Now I’m always careful of suvivorship bias, but let’s point out a few groundbreaking engagement designs:
1.SnapChat and Instagram captured the rise of photo-led social media through the fourth level of engagement: identity.
They show a lot of other people’s faces, which means that when you are using their app, you are reminded that you are part of a collective of people who use their product. So before you’ve done anything, you know what you should do by looking at others, and you know that it’s the “cool” thing to do. (This is a concept called social proof)
They also have their own world of vocabulary which gives users something to identify with, such as instagramers, snapchatting, filters, lenses, stories and streaks.
2. Apps like Pokémon Go, Air BnB and Uber are different again, because they designed themselves with the singular vision of getting you to perform a core action that meant you would very likely engage with someone in real life you did not already know.
To aid this, AirBnB for instance worked on building trust and humanising your connection. Whereas traditional hotel booking was an action performed by the customer to an unknowable hotel entity, Air BnB asked hosts to show their faces and say something about themselves, and for customers to say something about themselves in return, thus facilitating the action of a conversation which nurtured trust.
Two different startups trying a new angle are LetzDoIt and MealTribes, who design to build confidence so that you will socially engage with people offline. LetzDoIt actually combines Instagram and AirBnb’s approaches, with a multiplicity of pictures of other users combined with messaging between host and attendees.
3. Products like Gmail and Android have retained their lead through the 5th level of engagement, integration, and in particular, the nuance of customisation. With so many different plugins and add-ons, you can really find a setup that suits just you, thus preventing any competitor from being able to mimic what you have.
Nike tapped into this years ago when they developed NikeID as a customisation tool, and IKEA have done it with their home AR design app, both of which are innovations that give you a level of customisation that cannot be rivaled because it is so personal (the only way would be to out-innovate them!) It’s an angle also being taken by Brayola, who help women know their perfect bra size.
4. Or finally, look at Strava, which is in many ways just another running app. Yet unlike other fitness apps — all of whom reach level 5 — Stava goes to level 6 with Strava Sumit, their offering for those who have a very specific, high challenge mission (it’s not a goal: they call it your mission).
That was great, thanks! I suppose that our readers can’t wait to hear practical tips on how to design for engagement. So can I ask you to give us practical advice on how to design for engagement? For example, what if we decide to design user journey for an e-commerce app and want to make it with a maximum level of user engagement. Where and how should we start? Maybe you can share a strategy (or strategies) designing for engagement? Or commonly used methods?
Another great question! So let’s workshop this!
As we’ve discussed, we have three places where we want to increase engagement: mentally (do people know about and understand our app?), physically (how are people using our app and performing the core action of buying), and emotionally (are people building a bond with us?)
First, let’s look at mental engagement. To do that, we’ll have a great brand and personality, and we’ll have a name or logo or slogan that shows that we’re more than just selling posters: we’re about inspiration.
If you’re reading this, maybe such matters are outside of your control, but what we can do is interpret that into the app. So we’ll have photos of people who use the app. We’d mirror the vocabulary throughout the app. We’d try to make the app the personality of the brand.
And, we must say, we’d make certain that our app is obvious for people to understand and use (unless it was a very specific strategy to obfuscate and gamify in someway).
Second, physical engagement. We might think that digital technology isn’t physical, but that’s not the case. Anything visual is experienced physically, so we can make the app visually rich through animations, graceful design, consistent use of color, and other visual delights. In the same way we can use sounds and haptic feedback. And critically, the gestures, or at least the way the hand interacts with the regular tapping, is physical engagement.
Maximum engagement here would mean that the user participates with the app to create something new. Perhaps something can be made inside the app. Perhaps we speak to the app, or respond to it, or even play it.
Finally, emotional engagement. It’s a bit deceiving to call this part emotional engagement, because emotions are more involved at every levels. What we are talking about here is the emotion of affection, where the user has a bond with the app.
That bond is created when an app empowers the user, and whilst that is certainly about the function, it’s also about things such as providing purpose, fulfilment, identity and the like. This is best achieved with the app actually serves a doorway to further content, an ecosystem of benefits. So how do your follow through emails, your funnel, your returning prompts engender not just another purchase, but sense of engagement with the purpose that your customer is pursuing? Essentially: what does it mean to be a user of your app? That’s the killer question!
Fantastic! Thanks so much for the tips. I should say that we reached the end of our interview. Maybe you want to say something to our readers?
I’ve actually just put into beta a tool I’ve been working on. It’s an assessment that works out your own unique engagement strategy, based on some of the things we’ve discussed above.
Here’s the link: http://scottgould.me/assessment/
I’d love it if readers can give me any feedback before I publically launch it!
Thanks, Scott! It was a pleasure to chat with you today.
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