We’ve talked a lot about how to identify the job your customers would hire your product to do as a crucial cornerstone of successful product creation. And we’ve stressed the importance of clearly conveying the unique value you offer, as well as the ways you can ease your customers’ struggles and help them make progress in the job they’re trying to do. And while these concepts form the critical, foundational building blocks of creating a base of avid users, driving engagement isn't just a “set it and forget it” proposition.

Many people feel that attracting users and keeping them engaged is the responsibility of marketing, sales, and/or an amazing customer success team. And of course these teams need to be strong and aligned around adoption to create and sell successful products and foster avid use. But driving users back into your product -- over and over again -- isn’t the sole responsibility of these teams. If you hope to build (and maintain) a strong customer base of avid users, ones who will return to your product over and over again, you’re going to need to design for it. And that means understanding some fundamental truths about human behavior and psychology. 

From the first moment when you ask someone to switch to your product, through that first value-driven interaction in onboarding, and on into (hopefully) continuous avid usage, you’re trying to instill a new pattern of behavior in your customers. Ideally, you’re creating a set of favorable conditions that will encourage people to increase a positive behavior over time -- in this case, regularly interacting with your app with increasing intensity. 

And when we begin to seriously think about strategies to encourage behavior change, we have to take certain psychological factors into account. If your goal is for your customers to increase regular interaction with your product over the course of the engagement cycle, three factors must be present: motivation to perform an action, ability to perform an action, and a trigger to initiate the action. Triggers are generally the most effective component to focus on in order to promote a desired behavior change, especially for already-motivated individuals. 

But before we explain about the main types of triggers and most effective ways to customize and employ them to increase engagement, let’s briefly discuss the other two prerequisites for instilling a pattern of behavior change: motivation and ability. 


Motivation initially plays a role in the very first stage of adoption, the “switch” stage. This is when people must decide whether to fire whatever method they’re currently using to solve their problems and hire your product instead. Are you conveying enough value to motivate people to switch? Keep in mind that humans are resistant to change, so to increase motivation to switch to your product, you must lower the perceived pain of adoption by conveying your product's superior value and ease of adoption. 

 And to maintain and intensify their motivation to increase engagement with your product, you need to consistently fulfill your customers' hopes that your product will remove the struggles and obstacles they face when trying to do the job they’ve hired your product to do. And you do that by clearly demonstrating and proving your value every step of the way. 


At its most basic, ability is just what it sounds like: Are users able to interact with your app and extract the intended value? Have you made things unnecessarily clunky, confusing, or time-consuming? There are some specific factors to think about when it comes to increasing ability -- think of them as Ability Enhancers: 

  • Time: Does the behavior take a long time? Is your set up long and grueling? Is onboarding an arduous task that doesn’t convey immediate value to your users? These stages should be easy, breezy, and full of clarity around the value you’re going to provide. Do you provide quick wins and “ah-ha” moments in your onboarding that make it a no-brainer for customers to jump right past low usage and into fair or frequent usage?
  • Money: Does the behavior require a lot of money? This doesn’t apply for free plans, but do your paid plans appear to offer high value for the subscription fee? If you’re providing stellar value, you can probably get away with a higher price, but even a modest fee can seem princely if you aren’t giving users bang for their buck.
  • Cognitive Load: Does the behavior require significant mental effort? This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to dumb things down. Some effort can be satisfying IF there’s a payoff. That said, if it’s difficult for a user to figure out why and how they should interact with your product, the cognitive load will be too high and you’ll decrease adoption.
  • Repulsion: Is the behavior strange, or out of the norm? Think of this as anything that might make the user uncomfortable or give them a case of the creeps. This could include asking them for too much personal information, or anything that might give the impression that their privacy will be violated in some way.
  • Convention: Is the behavior something the person is not used to doing? In an effort to stand out, don’t try to reinvent the wheel just for the sake of being different. Make every effort to ground your product’s functionality in something that will feel familiar and comfortable to the user. And make sure that the reasons you ask customers to take certain actions makes sense -- and doesn’t need excessive supporting documentation or other factors that will reduce their ability to interact with your product.

But all the motivation and ability in the world aren’t going to result in a sustained behavior change without the third factor: a trigger to cue users to return to your product. In fact, while all three components must be present -- motivation, ability, and triggers -- to instill a behavior change, focusing on triggers is the most effective technique to drive engagement and foster avid use. 

That said, triggers are not one-size fits all: Different types of triggers are more effective depending upon the relative intensity of your users’ motivation and ability. The three main types of triggers break down like this: 

Engagers for Motivated Users: These triggers are just what they sound like: reminders for your motivated users to interact with your app. Because these users are already motivated to interact with your product, all they need is a nudge to drive them back to your product. Reminders could be in the form of emails, notifications, or even in-app reminders to perform further actions. Because this group of customers is most likely to form your avid customer base, designing targeted reminders should be your first priority.

Enhancers for Users with Low Ability: Users with low ability are encountering roadblocks at some point (or points) when trying to make progress with your product. Because of these roadblocks, these users are in danger of moving into a lapsed usage category. It’s important to identify their moments of struggle and obstacles and simplify the tasks they’re attempting to do. Enhancers should alert the user that the roadblock has been removed, and emphasize the new simplicity that you’ve introduced. 

for Users with Low Motivation: 
Users with low motivation aren’t grasping the value your product is offering, so go back and identify ways you could more clearly demonstrate this value. Trigger these users with enticements such as a reward or a clear demonstration of the value that would be derived if a given action were taken. You don’t want to oversell yourself and try to boost motivation based on anything other than your product’s intrinsic value, or you risk annoying or alienating your users. Because this is the trickiest group to convince -- and most likely to lapse -- this should form your third priority. 

Each type of trigger -- engagers, enhancers, and enticements -- can take one of two forms: hot or cold. A hot trigger allows a desired action to be performed right away. An email containing an actionable link is an example of a hot trigger; an email reminding someone to perform an action at a later date is a cold trigger.  Because they’re actionable, hot triggers, especially for motivated users, are much more effective than cold ones. 

Popular wisdom states that hot triggers are mainly meant to be put in the path of motivated users. And it’s true that a hot trigger + a motivated user = the most chance for successfully creating and maintaining an intensified behavior change over time. That’s why hot triggers for these users should be your number one priority when it comes to designing your product with behavior change in mind. But it stands to reason that a hot trigger -- one which allows for immediate action, rather than action sometime in the future -- would in general be more effective than a cold one in just about every situation. 

After all, a cold trigger for a user with low motivation is a risky proposition. It’s taking the chance that this user might overcome their lack of motivation to take action and receive a reward in the future. But if the promise of the reward or value extraction is immediately available -- such as a link in an email -- and requires little to no effort on the part of the user, there’s a much better chance that this user might take action immediately. And, through value reinforcement, this user may experience increased motivation.

Similarly, for a user with low ability, a hot trigger that offers the means to remove a roadblock immediately is probably more likely to be effective than a long-winded email explaining how to remove roadblocks at some later date. 

Ultimately, the takeaway here is that triggers should form an important part of your engagement strategy. But in order for triggers to be effective, they must be tailored and targeted depending upon the motivation and ability of the user in question. And no matter what kind of trigger you employ, hot is always a better bet than cold.