Churn is a five-letter word no founder or CEO wants to hear, and understandably so. But at least churn is unambiguous in one way: You can’t count customers you don’t have. But what about lapsed users? These are the customers who are lingering, stuck in a state of stasis. They’re drifting towards disengagement, swept along on a current of confusion, uncertainty, forgetfulness, and procrastination. They’re there … but they’re not really present.

It’s tempting to count these users as part of your customer base, but that’s a dangerous mistake. If you let lapses continue unaddressed, those users will become increasingly disengaged -- sometimes actively disengaged to the point where they feel actual animosity towards your product. Left alone long enough, these lapsed users become unreceptive to upsells, they likely won’t renew, and they will churn sooner or later.

Of all the SLOW forces that can cause a drift towards disengagement — struggles, lapses, obstacles, and workarounds —  lapses are the most insidious. Their manifestations are subtle, but pernicious. It's understandable that you may feel paralyzed in the face of your lapsed users. We get it. Their apparent confusion is .. well, confusing. So how can you pinpoint the cause? And more importantly, how can you correct the course of these users and and propel them back towards engagement and avid usage?

First off, know that it’s likely that most of your lapsed users are actually still motivated. They want to extract the value from your product — and they know that if they follow through and engage with it, they’ll succeed in the job they’re trying to do. They’re just getting stuck somewhere along the way while trying to reach their goals. And the good news is, motivated users are receptive to the right solutions on your part. They want to succeed ... but they're just not sure how. (That said, if you have a large group of unmotivated users, you have a different problem, and you need to step back and reassess your value proposition and your users’ underlying motivations.)

Identifying the root cause behind a lapse is the first step in helping your lapsed users get back on track.

Causes of Lapses

Unintentional lapses are the types that begin as an unconscious decision. They create a state of inertia for the user. These perceived impediments to progress cause the otherwise motivated user to lapse into a state of stasis. They’re poised to take action and reach their goals ... but they’re unsure or unmindful of how to do so. These lapses break down like this:

Confusion: This lapse occurs when the user is bewildered, perplexed, or unable to orientate themselves. The user is unsure of what to do to move forward and make progress. This may be because:

  • The design doesn’t align with the value of the task at hand
  • The user doesn’t understand how to make progress
  • The user has low ability

Forgetfulness: This lapse is more likely to occur when high stress or frequent interruptions make it harder for users to form new memories. The user doesn’t remember when they should interact with your product. This may happen because:

  • Hot triggers in the form of reminders are ill-timed or absent
  • Interacting with the product is non-routine; in other words, it falls outside of their normal routine and is hard to remember to integrate into their other processes

Uncertainty: This lapse occurs when a mild state of uneasiness and apprehension forms about future uncertainties. Users aren’t necessarily confused when performing tasks, but they aren’t sure about successive steps to take in order to make progress. This may be because:

  • Users have low ability when it comes to working out the particulars of necessary actions to take
  • The design is ambiguous in terms of progression of steps; the value of each step may be murky even though the ultimate goal remains clear
  • Cues are missing or unclear

Anxiety: Founded or unfounded, this lapse results from the anticipation of a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation. In the case of mild anxiety, it may be extremely difficult to identify the root cause. Users have very little control over their anxiety, so it is hard to "talk them out of it." Instead, your product should avoid anxiety inducing situations at all costs.

  • The user may fear making mistakes
  • The user may fear failure
  • The app may not be reinforcing success, leading to a nascent anxiety that they’re “doing it wrong”

Worries: Although both are associated with a general sense of concern and disquiet, how a user experiences worries allows you to easily differentiate them from anxieties. A user is more likely to vocalize their worries, because specific worries often trigger a problem solving mindset — while anxiety is more of a vague sense of unease.

There could be a myriad of reasons for worry:

  • The tasks are too time consuming
  • Users are being asked to enter too much personal information
  • Users are worried they won’t succeed. This state of worry is related to uncertainty, in that being uncertain of what to do next can lead to feelings of worry that in turn cause procrastination

Interruptions: If the product doesn't integrate well into the user's day-to-day activities, then they are more likely to fail to find situations where they “have the time to” engage with the product. Users' workdays already follow a natural rhythm and they will disengage with products that they perceive as an interruption.

  • As we mentioned earlier, when something is outside of a user’s normal routine it can lead to forgetfulness.
  • But this can also lead to procrastination -- the user wants to find time to interact with the app, but keeps procrastinating because they feel it’s too difficult to integrate into their usual processes

So, how do you go about pinpointing when lapses are happening, why they’re happening, and then coming up with a solution? It’s actually not as difficult as it sounds, as long as you’re willing to take a methodical approach and dig deep. It’s important to note that although multiples types of lapses may be present, the root cause is often the same. That’s because lapsing behavior can often have a snowball effect -- for example, confusion may lead to worry, which may in turn lead to anxiety and procrastination. But that doesn’t mean you have to solve for all of these manifestations. Identify and solve for the initial source of confusion, for instance, and the worry, anxiety, and procrastination will likely disappear.

Both the reasons for the lapses and the point of engagement at which they occur will help determine the correct course of action. Effective approaches include:

SLOW Interviews

One major step you can take towards identifying the sources of problems and forging solutions is to do SLOW interviews with your users. These interviews dig deep and help you:

  • Understand your users’ behaviors and ideal workflow
  • Uncover the underlying reasons for lapses
  • Uncover areas of low ability
  • Pinpoint areas where value perception can be added through design
  • Identify areas where workflows can be streamlined
  • Identify the types of targeted triggers to employ
  • Clearly understand the job users are hiring your product to do, what they’re trying to accomplish, and why
  • Hypothesize solutions to the causes of friction points

A Better Kind of Cohort Analysis

Users who were onboarded 8 weeks ago are unlikely to be facing the same challenges as someone who signed up 2 days ago. Rather than looking at all users as one unit, grouping users into weekly cohorts helps isolate which updates to your product are accelerating adoption — and which ones are not.

The most important metric is how quickly, on average, that each cohort is able to succeed with your product. Events that help you identify the pace of success are called progress markers. Simply put, a progress marker is a description of when and why a user feels like they were able to get something done successfully. It clarifies the purpose of their actions. It shows you what they care about. And in doing so, it helps you truly see which aspects of your product your users find valuable. 

Think of progress markers as tiny “yay” or “aha” moments -- in a word, successes -- that must be written down in the the mother-tongue of the user’s own language. And, for your own sanity, they should probably include a description of the user’s motivation and desired outcome.

By using progress markers in cohort analysis, you can see if it takes an average of 5.2 days for the “Week 7” cohort to reach their first progress marker and another 7.4 days for them to reach their second progress marker. Then, you can compare their progress with the successive and previous cohorts to see what changed to decrease (or increase) the time it took for your users to make progress. This will help you both measure momentum towards avid engagement and determine at what point in their workflow people are experiencing impediments that can cause lapses and a drift towards disengagement. We explain this measurement system in more detail here.

Design Principles and Constraints

It’s important to have clearly defined design principles and constraints that align with your product’s purpose. We go into more detail about the importance of constraints here. Every design decision should serve the purpose of helping your users succeed with the job they’re trying to do. Clarity of design will help prevent lapses before the fact, and an audit of your principles can help you identify the possible causes of lapses and correct the issues after they've occurred.

Triggers and Microcopy

The strategic use of triggers and microcopy can address the underlying causes of lapses and help your users get back on track in a number of ways:

  • ‍Hot triggers (triggers that allow for immediate action on the part of the user) in the form of reminders can help drive forgetful users back into your product

Clear, well-placed microcopy can: 

  • Alleviate uncertainty by helping users understand what to do next
  • Allay anxieties and worries that you’ve identified
  • Clarify and remove confusion about processes
  • Reinforce successes, which will help boost motivation

Flexibility

Offering users the perfect amount of flexibility -- not too much, not too little -- is admittedly a bit tricky. You don’t want to offer so much flexibility that you inadvertently create confusion and chaos; at the same time, you shouldn’t create such an exact process that each and every user must complete their workflow in the exact same way.

But it is important to design your product so that users have enough flexibility to integrate it into their processes. Essentially, you should give users enough flexibility to encompass all the ways they might do the job -- no more, no less. This is especially applicable in the case of users who are procrastinating because they’re finding it difficult to fit your product into their routine. Give them just enough flexibility to integrate it into their routine, and they won’t feel the need to lapse into procrastination any longer.

Bottom line, don’t let your own worries, anxieties, and confusions about your lapsed users lull you into inaction. It’s not as complicated as it first appears, once you come up with a methodical plan to discover the causes and create solutions to help your lapsed users regain their momentum towards engagement and avid usage.