What does ‘Engagement’ mean to UX

I might have a skewed view when it comes to the term ‘engagement’. When I hear people say ‘engagement’ when referring to a digital experience, a red-flag gets raised in my mind. Many marketers think of ‘engagement’ in the same way alcoholics think of alcohol: you can’t get enough. The fact is, engagement needs to be throttled to be effective.


When referring to a digital experience, engagement refers to how engaged your mind is while interacting with an experience. Analysts have been struggling to measure engagement for decades and have utilized metrics like time-on-site, click-path, and shares to help determine how engaging an experience is. I don’t necessarily see the benefit in trying to measure engagement. Firstly, I’m not convinced that those ‘engagement’ metrics actually indicate how engaged a user is with a digital experience; and secondly, I’m not convinced that engagement is worth tracking, even if we could track it.


I feel like engagement is relative, and unique to each individual. However, I think there are some pretty clear break-points associated with the continuum of engagement.


BumpersIn broadcast, bumpers are short 5s announcements that generally bookend commercial breaks. – A bumper experience is one that a user doesn’t have to think about at all. It’s clear, concise, and simple. The Weather app is a great example of a bumper experience. 


CommercialsIn broadcast, commercials are the well known 30s communication spots that appear between programs. – A commercial experience is one that requires some level of cognitive or temporal commitment. A commercial experience could be very simple, but if it’s perceived as having cognitive or temporal strings attached, the user will need to see the benefit of engaging with the associated experience before he’ll make the required commitment. Most marketing experiences are commercial experiences.


ProgramsIn broadcast, programs are the meaty pieces of 30m -1h content that draw people to the medium. – A program experience is one that generally requires a higher level of cognitive processing, but have inherent, understood benefits. An ecom, or blog type experience would both fall under program experiences. 


Films In broadcast, films are the longer featured content that can last an hour or a whole night. – Film experiences aren’t common in the present state of the web; but are those ‘lean-back’ experiences that tend to only have interactivity at the beginning or end of the experience.


For me, engagement isn’t something that needs to be infused into every digital experience; and many experiences should throttle-back on how ‘engaging’ they are. For instance, I don’t want to spend 20 mins looking for Ikea products contextually in little vignettes; I just want to find their selection of chairs.


The thing I find really interesting is how varied clients perceptions of success are. I actually saw an analyst in a meeting suggest that having a 90s increase in average time spent on site indicated a huge success. Devoid of any other metrics, I could see how that might be seen as a success, but the fact was that the number of abandons substantially increased, and number of total views substantially decreased. So, the fact that users are spending an average of 90s longer on site, might only mean that they’re having a harder time finding what they’re looking for.


I think experience design needs to consider who the experience is intended for, and what their engagement tolerance is, in relation to the perceived benefit of engaging in the experience. I also think that experience design needs to be able to articulate why having a less engaging experience may equate to a more effective experience.


If you’re creating a film-experience when users only want a bumper-experience, you might be wasting time and money, and could be sacrificing a more effective experience for a more engaging one.


Remember to keep the goal in mind. Engagement shouldn’t be a goal. A goal should be something like, increase number of views, increase number of check-outs, increase number of shares. Although engagement can be planned for, it tends to be too esoteric to be accurately measured.


(Note: Feel free to utilize any of my diagrams or copy. I’ve recently used this to help explain engagement to a major software client that wound up with me being invited to conduct a workshop for their team of brand managers. Questions or comments, leave them below or ask me directly on Twitter.)



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