Don’t Allow Behaviors. Encourage Them!

Increase your product engagement by telling users what to do.

As a consultant, I’ve talked to a lot of startups who have “social” products. You could tell that the products were “social” because they had comment sections and sharing icons that let people post to Pinterest or Facebook.

Of course, one of the things that the founders complain about is that too few users are actually making comments or sharing or doing anything remotely social with the product.

There’s a very simple reason for this: the founders have added features to their product that allow users to be social rather than encouraging them to be social.

This doesn’t just happen with social features, of course. This happens with almost every feature. Unfortunately, there seems to be a belief that everybody wants to do whatever it is that your product lets them do, and all you have to do is make it possible. This is blatantly untrue.

Even when users desperately want to do things—record what they eat, track their exercise, keep in touch with friends, make more sales—products still need to encourage them to behave in ways that will help achieve those goals.

Let’s look at something very simple. Imagine you have a product that allows people to record their weight every day. You’ve done your research. You know that this is something that people want to do. You’ve made it very simple. All people have to do is to open the app on their phone and type in their weight. Voila! You’ve allowed them to do something they want to do. And they do it for about a week and then they stop.

They stop for a lot of reasons. Maybe they forget. Maybe they don’t always have their phone with them when they weigh themselves. Maybe they overeat a couple of nights in a row and don’t want to know what the scale says. Whatever. They didn’t stop because they hate your app or because your app doesn’t have enough features.

So how do you get users to keep going, even in the face of all the obstacles that life throws in front of them? Well, at a very minimum, you might send them a notification every day telling them to input their weight. You might even track some times when they’ve been more likely to enter their weight and send the notifications when they’re most likely to want to do it.


But wait, there’s more. How about, if they miss their morning check in, you were to send them an email or text asking them to respond with the weight and let them update it that way? That might work if they remembered to weigh themselves but didn’t have their phones at the time. Or, what if you set things up so that their friends would know when they skipped days so that they could get reminders from humans? Maybe that would be creepy. Maybe it would be incredibly effective. It would probably be worth testing.

What these ideas have in common is that they’re all designed to encourage the desired behavior—which also has the added benefit of encouraging engagement with your product. They don’t just allow people to do something. They tell people to do something.

This is especially important for features where users have no natural inclination to perform the task or where the benefit to the user might be less than the benefit to the company. For example, you might want me to tweet about your product more than I want to tweet about it. If you just allow me to tweet, I probably won’t bother, but if you encourage me to do it, it becomes significantly more likely that I will do so.

I want to note that I’m not talking about tricking users into doing things they really don’t want to do, like email everyone in their address books. I’m talking about using things like messaging and triggers to remind users to do something that they are happy to do but might not otherwise do on their own. I certainly don’t mind promoting a product I like, but I’m probably not going to do it unless you ask me to do it and make it really easy.

If you’re wondering why all this is necessary, try to remember how busy your users are and how very tiny a part your product plays in their lives. Users interact with hundreds of products and people every day. Sometimes they need a gentle reminder that you still exist and that they probably want to tweet about you.

Register now for Laura’s webcast with Eric Ries on Essential Tips for Lean User Research on October 18th.

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