Designing for [Meaningful] Engagement

Measuring what really matters


These days it’s incredibly easy to drop analytics into any web connected product, giving you access to endless amounts of data and metrics. Product managers analyze metrics like time on page, session length, session frequency, bounce rate, and pages per session, all in an attempt increase “engagement”, believing these metrics are relevant to their product. And when these metrics don’t hit the expected mark, they go running to their dev teams screaming “We need more engagement!”, without understanding what engagement really means.

With the ease of access to analytics, comes the ease of falling into the trap of assuming that the default metrics being measured are relevant to your specific product.

They’re not.

Not to say that there isn’t value in the out of the box metrics that come with most analytics packages, but these metrics are more often optimized for blogs trying to increase page views and on page time so they can show more ads per user. For the modern web connected product or service, the standard metrics don’t cut it. To understand what metrics you should be using to measure engagement, you need to first define what qualifies as engagement for your specific product. This is meaningful engagement.

Meaningful Engagement is the engagement that occurs when users interact with the core focus of the product. The period between the start and end of each of these meaningful (core focus) interactions is where meaningful engagement happens.

time spent in app ≠ engagement

Let’s make this clear, meaningful engagement is not measured in time because session length is not an accurate way to measure meaningful engagement. Nor is session frequency. It can be thought of simply as units of occurrence.

meaningful interactions / interactions = meaningful engagement

So in order to increase your meaningful engagement you need to increase the ratio of meaningful interactions to all other interactions. If your engagement metrics revolve around anything else, you’re doing it wrong.

Creating Meaningful Engagement

After you understand what meaningful engagement is, you need to create it.
Meaningful Engagement should include two things:

  • Interactions — an action leading to an effect.
  • Decisions — choices made by the user that have a meaningful effect upon user interaction (immediate or future).

Now let’s apply meaningful engagement to a real world example.

How would you measure meaningful engagement in Google Maps? At it’s core Google Maps is obviously a map app. As a map app it’s core focus is assisting the users in finding the location they are searching for, and providing directions to that location. With this understood, the best way to measure meaningful engagement would be to measure a successful location search and arrival at destination. If you’ve ever used Google Maps you’ll realize that other than this single meaningful interaction, there isn’t much else to do in the app, and that’s a great thing. Maps has no distracting interactions, and the few decisions that you need to make, like mode of transportation, all tie back into the core interaction.

As you can see, increased time in app is irrelevant to engagement. As long as a user is able to successfully arrive at a destination using the app, there is no reason to keep them engaged longer than they need to be. And when is comes to session frequency, Maps makes no attempt to pull you back into the app until you have another location to query. This selfless relationship of giving the user everything they need while demanding nothing in return is what drives meaningful engagement.

selfless over selfish

Every day people are constantly bombarded with distractions from products demanding attention in an effort to inflate their definition of engagement (time/frequency). Instead selfishly demanding meaningless engagement to pump metrics, we need to re-think the way we define engagement and strive to create selfless products driven by real metrics. If you really care about user experience, meaningful engagement is the only engagement that matters.