When It Comes to a Positive UX, Engagement Isn’t Everything

Moving beyond what clicks, swipes and minutes can do for a user.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on May. 31, 2022
When It Comes to a Positive UX, Engagement Isn’t Everything

How often should a user engage with your product? That is the question when it comes to designing an effective user experience.

For years, the prevailing wisdom among tech companies has been to drive as much user engagement as possible, both in an effort to hold their own against the competition and combat decidedly waning attention spans. The quest for novelty, innovation and, of course, more money, has created an emphasis on ensuring that users sink as much brain power and time into an app as possible — leading to a rise in design features like gamification and push notifications, which then drive clicks, swipes, shares and other common engagement metrics.

The reasoning behind this is simple: A highly engaged user base is more likely to enjoy a given product, and spread the word to others about how great it is. Engagement is also one of the key touchstones companies point to when they are trying to show their value.

Engagement Isn’t Everything 

For years, the prevailing wisdom among tech companies has been to drive as much user engagement as possible — leading to a rise in design features like gamification and push notifications, which then drive up clicks, swipes, shares and overall minutes spent interacting with an app. But some designers are beginning to question the merits of this approach. Instead, they are focusing on a user’s intentions for using the app, and how engagement can be a tool for providing value to them.

This engagement-for-engagement’s sake mentality has held fast for the last couple of decades, but as society’s relationship with technology continues to evolve, it is slowly being edged out by what product designer Jeremy Caballero calls “anti-engagement design” — an approach that doesn’t try to keep users’ eyes on their screens at all times. Unlike what its name suggests, designing for anti-engagement is not about negativity, it doesn’t replace engagement with nothing. Rather, it seeks to reframe what exactly engagement is, how it is measured and how it can be used to provide value to users.

“People have started to see that over-engagement, that addiction, to their device, and naturally people try to move away from those trends and try to find clarity with the time that they have,” Caballero told Built In. “What then happens is people are using more products that help you be more mindful of your time, more authentic.”

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‘Set It and Forget It’

Those are the feelings he is hoping to foster with his own app Guideline, a retirement planning platform he co-founded and designed in 2015. Companies offer Guideline’s 401(k) administration services as a benefit to employees. Individuals can also set themselves up with a personal IRA account on the app. The goal is to help users with their financial goals throughout their entire lives, starting from when they are at the beginning of their careers all the way to when they retire.

“It’s a long game,” Caballero said. And the level of engagement Guideline maintains with its users reflects that. 

In what Caballero calls a “set it and forget it” approach, users simply sign up, and input a little information about their financial situation and goals. Guideline takes it from there, handling whatever administrative, investment and compliance matters that come up. That’s it. 

“We see that moment when they enter onto the platform as this really fleeting, sacred moment of figuring out what we are going to do to understand that user and their situation,” Caballero said. “As a designer, you hope you’re able to capture that moment and build a worthwhile experience so that they feel confident in that initial decision. And then, every so often — maybe every year or so — make sure that their personal situation, their life, still aligns with their savings philosophy.”

You read that right. Caballero expects users to engage with Guideline’s app about once a year. That’s a far cry from the highly engaging, gamified approach a lot of other companies in the fintech space take, like teen-focused banking app Wingocard or personal finance app Charlie (which was acquired by Chime last year).

Crypto investment app Stack uses gamification to make the whole process more “approachable,” co-founder and CEO Will Rush said in an interview with Built In earlier this year. “Gamifying it and making it fun, that’s just table stakes, right? You have to do that to increase engagement.”

Like many of these apps, Guideline wants to help its users achieve their financial goals. But it takes a very different approach to engagement. Instead, its lack of engagement is a “statement of confidence” in the product, Caballero said. 

“I feel so safe with my money going to this platform that I don’t have to look at it, because I trust exactly what’s happening over there,” he said.

More on UX Design:For Digital Payments, the Best UX Is Forgettable


Disengagement Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

It’s also worth noting that high engagement is not a fool-proof indicator of a user having a positive relationship with an app, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the app provides value. This is a phenomenon that Dr. Heather O’Brien is quite familiar with. As an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s spent the better part of 20 years researching user engagement, and is a firm believer that a lack of engagement — or disengagement — is a necessary and even healthy part of the engagement cycle. 

“Engagement is meant to be, not the prominent goal, but more kind of the helper, if you will,” O’Brien told Built In. “Just because someone is continuously using the app, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re engaged.”

And just because a user isn’t necessarily engaging directly with an app, doesn’t mean they’re not maintaining a relationship with it, and getting use out of it. In a paper she co-authored last year on the subject, O’Brien pointed to video games like World of Warcraft as a good example of this. Of course, players will engage with the game quite a bit, but eventually they will disengage from the game in order to learn how to play it better through other media (like books, YouTube videos or podcasts). This is a strategy Seattle University associate professor and researcher Christopher Paul calls “theorycrafting.”

“Just because someone is continuously using the app, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re engaged.”

“Focusing on disengagement as a stopping behavior in this context misses critical elements of players’ engagement. Instead, we might envision parallel engagement cycles taking place that feed into each other,” O’Brien and her co-authors wrote, adding that, as users play and engage in theorycrafting, they will complete related tasks that will then influence their engagement with the primary task of doing well in the game. “[T]hus, the user is ‘dipping into’ other resources for micro-engagements as part of a longer engagement with the primary task.”

This goes hand-in-hand with deciding how much friction to design in an app. To build a positive app experience, a general rule of thumb is to make that product necessary, intuitive and delightful — it should provide a solution, be frictionless and easy to use, and spark joy

But frictionless design isn’t always the best approach. Sometimes you need to include a little bit of resistance to encourage “temporary, momentary disengagement in order to allow for people to reflect or do things outside of the app,” O’Brien said. This is especially important for more complex decisions, which require research and effort. Pushing someone to make a decision quickly by encouraging lots of in-app engagement could be detrimental to a user’s end-goal.

“People are going to be more satisfied with the choices they make if they’re able to step back,” she added, pointing to health apps as a good example. “It’s not much good if you’re in the health app doing your stuff, but you’re not doing your stuff outside of the app, too. If you’re not taking your medication, if you’re not getting your physical exercise, it’s really moot that you’re using this app.”

The same can be said for something like Guideline. Users will be much more likely to reach their goal of a comfortable retirement if they practice healthy financial habits in other ways besides just using the app. With that in mind, Guideline doesn’t bother with sending messages to users constantly or encouraging lengthy interactions with the app. It’ll only reach out if it’s important, like if there’s been a change to the user’s portfolio, or if there’s some kind of pertinent tax or legal update a user should know about.

“When you design things in such a way, it makes your outreach that much more important,” Caballero said. “It’s like ‘Oh, Guideline’s reaching out to me? That must mean something.’” 

He pointed to platforms like Google Maps or TaskRabbit (where he used to work as a lead product designer) as more familiar examples of this. People tend to only open apps like these when they need them, so these apps don’t really bother with lots of unnecessary messaging or engagement-grabbing design. They have a simple, clear UX to help users fulfill their needs, and then they sit there until they’re needed again.

“You have to think about your users, and hope you understand them well enough to know when and where they might need you,” Caballero added. “I only want to be called to my device when it needs me.”

More Anti’s in Design:Anti-Design Is Going Digital


Engagement Reimagined

Typically, measuring engagement means counting the number of clicks, mouse hovers and minutes spent on-screen interacting with an app or product. It means measuring the amount of attention a user gives. And the assumption is that, the more attention a user gives, the better their experience, which can then be reported to a company’s leadership team as a success.

An app’s success metrics are geared toward the activity of users when they’re on the app itself, but when they step away there’s no way to track that behavior. Instead, O’Brien said companies should be homing in on users’ goals instead of their actions.

“What do they want to accomplish? How are they currently doing it? And how can that be improved?” O’Brien said. “Why do we want to engage them in the first place?”

Olivia Belitsky, an e-commerce product manager and member of Built In’s expert contributor network wrote that there are two ways to track an app’s success that are better than engagement: satisfaction scores and completion rates.

“Why do we want to engage them in the first place?”

“When you’re building something new, you should choose your success metrics based on the best way to capture the value you’re adding to your user’s day,” she explained. “It would be a shame to measure success by simply using engagement because that doesn’t accurately capture whether we’ve built something of value.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how much time a person spends on an app if they’re not getting what they want out of that experience. And that is the entire point of anti-engagement design — it is built so the focus is on the destination, not necessarily the journey. 

As for Guideline, Caballero said this direction has proven quite successful, claiming the app’s participation rate (meaning the people who actually use the service after they sign up) is “much higher” than the average of 70 percent.

“Everything we think about is for the user and what they need for their personal finance,” he said. “Because of the way we’ve set things up, and the way the product is designed, it’s reaping the benefits.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed theorycrafting. It has been updated to correctly attribute the term to Seattle University associate professor and researcher Christopher Paul.

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