The Engagement Wall-Model for Product Development.

Getting someone to use your digital product is one thing - getting them to pay for it is another. So how do you get more Daily Active Users? The Engagement Wall Model is a way to think about that problem.

Background: The Next Feature Fallacy

Many apps and service catering to consumers follow the freemium model in some way: Provide some features of the product for free to create familiarity and some kind of usage-habit, in order to entice the user to pay for the upgraded version of the product. Examples of this business-model are too numerous to mention.

But what happens when you have thousands of free users taxing your servers, demanding support and new features - but not as many paying customers as you'd like? Way back in 2015, Andrew Chen talked about this in his article "The Next Feature Fallacy: The fallacy that the next new feature will suddenly make people use your product".

According to Chen, it is not uncommon for developers of a web app to see 1000 homepage visits turn into maybe 20 Daily Active Users (DAU) after 30 days. Not that amazing.

The Next Feature Fallacy describes what NOT to do at that point: Build an exciting new feature to lure free users to become paying users at a point where too few users will see it. As Chen explains, if only 20% of the initial 1000 visitors sign up to your service, and only 80% of them finish the onboarding process, a juicy feature revealed after successful onboarding will be seen by too few to seriously affect your meager DAU-number. As Chen puts it:

"A “day 7 feature” will automatically be used less than an experience tied to onboarding, since the tragic curve above shows that fewer than 4% of visitors will end up seeing it."

Chen introduces the concept of an engagement wall to help visualize the different levels of engagement you offer your users, and what barriers they must scale to become deeply invested in your product. As for what features to build, Chen offers this tip:

"It’s a good rule of thumb that the best features often focus mostly on non-users and casual users, with the reason that there’s simply many more of them. A small increase in the front of the tragic curve can ripple down benefits to the rest of it. This means the landing page, onboarding sequence, and the initial out-of-box product experience are critical, and usually don’t get enough attention."

I recommend reading Chen's article, and the rest of his blog, for more on this. Below, I will present a quick little infographic of the engagement wall model as I see it, as well as some thoughts.

An Engagement Wall-Model Infographic

The model is fairly self-explanatory, so I will just add that it is heavily related to the classic sales-funnel concept: Many users (or future users) at the wide top of the funnel, where users can enjoy low-effort engagement with the product; while the narrow bottom of the funnel sees fewer users, performing more high-effort activities.

These users have already seen the value in using your product, but must be catered to with new/improved features to remain with you. Top-funnel users also require attention, perhaps with new features, or perhaps with various incentives and information to invest themselves more deeply in the product.

The Engagement Wall-Model Infographic

Download a PDF-version of the infographic here.

Thoughts on how to use the model

The model as shown includes typical/generic examples of types of engagement found in apps/web apps. They certainly don't apply to all apps out there, and I don't mean to suggest that they will fit your app or that you should build them!

To me, the engagement model is a useful thing-to-think-with when it comes to discovering where you have lots of engagement, where you have less, and what the barriers are between your users and the things you would like them to do with your product:

Do the research - what is working and what isn't? And why?

This really is about UX and user research at its core, and a good fit with agile development:

  • Start from a point of solid empirical knowledge of a common problem someone has, build a prototype, get feedback, improve prototype - and launch as soon as you have something slightly valuable to the people with the problem you're trying to solve.
  • Keep doing research! Figure out who the users are, where they tend to come from, how they use (or don't use) your product. Why do they choose to stay, why do some of them leave?
  • Develop hypotheses based on looking at behavioral data. Ask your users questions to test those hypotheses. Don't do anything based on assumptions alone!
  • User interviews and surveys (when done right) can be a great way to expose yourself to surprises: Sometimes your users use your product in ways you never imagined, or have expectations you didn't anticipate. Some of these surprises could provide the missing piece to your understanding of the situation. Maybe it is a matter of making a small change, maybe you're looking at pivoting your business - but how will you know if you don't ask?

Places to start

  • Provide value everywhere; even to people just passing by your website (hint: No one ever just happens to pass by your website, there's always a recommendation, a well-placed link or ad somewhere). What value can you give to people who are not yet your users?
  • Make the onboarding process valuable in itself; don't just sign people up and wait for them to start using the product. Perhaps send them emails or notifications with tutorials and suggestions.
  • The free tier of your product should provide users with actual results, something that will actually make a difference to them.
  • There will always be one or more barriers to engagement related to your product. They could be related to the price of your product, privacy concerns or social or cultural factors important to some users. It could just be that your UX sucks. Anything is possible, and whatever those barriers are, they are very real to your users.

A final remark - on ethics

I'm always a bit torn when it comes to selling stuff to people. Inevitably, I think: "Is this a product that people really need and will find useful in their lives?". There's no doubt that marketers of both physical and intangible goods, such as digital services and products, have become very, very good at luring us in, creating desire and sometimes addiction - but does this mean the product is any good? I'll let that question hang in the air for you to ponder.

In my opinion and experience, as both designer and consumer of products, businesses sometimes get their priorities wrong. Perhaps especially with the freemium model, there is a tendency to think in term of monetization rather than what is valuable to the user.

Monetize...the M-word that sometimes seems to refer to taking something away from users, rather than giving them something worth charging for. Many a free app has too much of what UX people call white space plastered over in ads, in the name of monetization.

Another tactic is to use dark patterns, trying to nudge (trick) the user into signing up, accepting terms or put extra stuff in the cart by means of the specific UX design.

But shady tactics are not likely to significantly improve your number of Daily Active Users. Dark patterns will not earn you the respect of your core users. Monetizing people, rather than serving them, will eventually make them look elsewhere for the service you provide.

Selling your premium product as a way to get an ad-free experience may be enough for some of your users to cross the engagement wall and become paying customers. But if your monetizing ads have already scared away 80% of your traffic, what good does it do you? There's a reason people block ads.

Are people sometimes cheap and stingy? Certainly. But maybe the answer isn't to give them less - but more. Cheap people will never pay for anything digital. They're bad customers, and don't waste your good customers on trying to make money off the bad ones.

I read my digital news for free, but I pay for a subscription on a real, physical newspaper. Why? Because it has more value to me. Reading that big broadsheet in the weekends, not having to look at a tiny screen, waiting for ads to load or stop messing up the scrolling experience - that is worth paying real money for. Even without the ads, you couldn't sell me a digital newspaper; it doesn't have the same value to me.

Take care that you don't take away the value of your product, that your users don't just use your product because the alternatives are even worse - or non-existent.

Figure out what your users want and give it to them. Test the UX, the feature set, the price-brackets, but provide a quality product (and support). Pave the users way to your premium product with value. Make them want to stick around because it makes sense to them. Rant over.