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The path forward can be foggy and filled with uncertainty…just like this creepy forrest pic

Designing for Anxieties

Combining Jobs-to-be-done, onboarding strategy, and Fogg’s behavior model to combat anxieties around solutions

Kevin C. Kupillas
Apr 26, 2016 · 13 min read

Anxiety sucks. Some of it’s okay of course, like when it gives us that lil’ edge to help us not die. Beyond that, it’s terrible. It can cause some serious health issues (that’s a big one), make it harder to think clearly, harder to retain and recall information, and ultimately make it harder to progress in our goals.

As product teams, we think about the motivations of our customers and what their outcomes, goals, expectations and needs are. We also think about our business goals and metrics for activation, retention, etc. and then we try to design and build products to make all of those outcomes a reality.

One of our product’s most silent competitors, however, is our customer’s anxiety.

Anxieties impact behavior and perception

The more anxiety we experience when trying to accomplish something with a solution, the less likely we are to continue to do it. In some cases, there might be so much anxiety that we don’t even make an attempt to start in the first place.

Here are just a few examples of product-centered anxiety, the designed response to them, and some potential outcomes of not addressing them.

  • “I’m worried that my personal information, like age and weight, is going to be shared with everyone.” Adding a “Don’t worry, only you can see this” or “We’ll never post without your permission” can be used to alleviate the anxiety around sharing personal information. If not addressed, they might skip providing data that helps build a more personalized experience.
  • “Why do you need my location when I’m just trying to accept credit cards at my food truck?” Permission primers (the messages before the messages) can be more effective at getting access to data because they provide an opportunity to explain why you need a particular bit of data before the system dialogue is presented (and rejected). Depending on your product, denying these permissions could make the experience less effective or render the product completely useless like denying location data for a mobile payment app or denying camera access for a photo sharing app.
  • “Is my credit card info going to be safe?” PayPal was built around this anxiety. Beyond trusted brand equity, seeing one of those little secure badges on a website can help people feel more comfortable filling out purchase data. If they feel enough anxiety around entering their info, you’ll lose business because they’ll just seek out another source that feels, or appears to be, safer.
  • “Uhhhh what do I do next?” A clear call-to-action, and a solid signal-to-noise ratio can reduce the anxiety of not knowing what to do next. This might seem small, but people don’t enjoy feeling confused and lost, and any amount of time spent in the ol’ cognition realm can be taxing when added up together. In some cases, people will just seek an alternative that makes them feel smarter and more in control of their own destiny.
  • “What’s the cost of switching to this new product? Is this product going to be really hard to use? Is this product going to be better than the one I already paid for and know really well?” This one has many moving pieces but when you first communicate to the customer through initial marketing touch points, consider mentioning how you’re making the transition easy from what they know and use today. Is their existing data easily imported so they’re not starting from zero? How is this product going to make their lives better? Are we filling in solution gaps not available in other products? Without addressing these anxieties, you might have a hard time getting customers to even try your product out to begin with, especially if it requires a purchase.

These are just a few of a kazillion examples, but you can see that anxiety appears in all forms, and in all levels of severity. Understanding and speaking to what people struggle with and what people consider success or progress is fundamental to any marketing and product strategy. Understanding and speaking to what people are anxious about when looking at solutions is no different. In the end, we might do a great job at building the right functionality, but they might not progress down the adoption path if there’s overpowering anxiety that we’re not addressing.

Anxieties are always present, big or small, and anxieties will always have a degree of impact on customer behavior and perception. How much impact is what we need to find out.

Understanding and addressing anxiety

There are three concepts, or customer lenses, that have influenced me the most as a product designer: the Jobs-to-be-done theory, B.J. Fogg’s Behavior Model, and onboarding journeys. Although they were created without consciously relating to one another, they are extremely complementary in how they view anxiety and it’s influence on behavior. I encourage you to take a deeper look at each of these outside of this article to witness their full magic and glory (links provided at the end), but for now I’ll briefly explain what they are and how they relate to this topic.

1) Jobs-to-be-done

Customers hire products and services to help them make progress in their lives — this is the Job that they want to get Done. Customers will choose and judge a product based on its ability to help them achieve their desired progress and outcome for that job. Once they find a product or service that helps them do that, the Job is considered Done in their mind and then they move on to other areas of their lives that they want to make progress. The beauty of the JTBD theory is that it allows us to understand the motivations behind why people choose, or “hire” one product over another. Armed with this type of information, we can build more attractive solutions and better positioning that focuses on the progress they’re looking to make and that aims at getting them to hire our products instead of the competitor’s.

When I started learning about JTBD, one thing that really stood out was the focus on the customer’s anxieties around new solutions, and specifically, what is referred to as the four progress-making forces that can make or break adoption and retention. The four forces are divided into two groups: those that promote new choice, and those that block change.

Promoting new choice:

  • The push of the current situation: What problems in their current solution are pushing them to seek a new one? What anxieties exist that they wish didn’t?
  • The pull of the new solution: What is it about the new solution that pulls, or attracts them to it? What sounds appealing about the new products and what anxieties does the new solution promise to eliminate or address?

Blocking change:

  • The anxieties around the new solution: What uncertainty around the new solution is causing them to resist adoption? Are there concerns about learning curves and not being able to accomplish their goals with the new solutions?
  • The habits in place and inertia surrounding the new solution: What about the current solution is keeping them from seeking a better way? What things do they really like about the current product? What are they worried about missing? What’s making it difficult or impossible to switch?

These forces play an important role in choosing what products customers will hire. And even when they take a chance on a new solution, there’s still the ongoing measuring sticks they use over the lifecycle to determine whether a particular service or product is providing more or less value than the alternatives. Should I keep using the product, or fire this product and hire a new one?

How can we, as marketing and product teams, help relieve any anxieties surrounding them in our communications and product offerings? What is it about their current product that’s pushing them to seek something better, and what is it about our product that is going to attract them to us? What language resonates with them the most?

2) Onboarding journeys

Onboarding journeys span across the length of the entire customer lifecycle, from discovery to advanced usage, and are beyond filling out a signup form, swiping through a walkthrough or learning how to operate physical tools or software. It’s about making real progress in their lives towards the better version of themselves.

Like any journey, they can also be sprinkled with little crappy bits of anxiety here and there that are blocking people from progressing down the path to a better, more successful self (and customer!).

Samuel Hulick’s book “The Elements of User Onboarding” gives examples of addressing some anxieties during marketing’s “let’s get to know each other” phase. He writes, “If your product is project management software and you find out your customers are concerned with administrative overhead, acknowledge the nightmare that group emails can cause.“ This type of connection to our customers let’s them know that we understand their anxieties and concerns, and that we care about making their lives better.

How can we be sure we understand our customer’s anxieties and how can we acknowledge that we understand their anxiety in a meaningful way? How can we identify the steps and phases of the journey that cause the most anxiety, and how can we help them become successful?

3) B.J. Fogg’s Behavior Model

Last, but not least, is helping people adopt new behaviors or change existing ones to benefit their mission of making progress. The good doctor, B.J. Fogg, is all about understanding behavior and behavior change. Within the world of behavior change there are anxieties that can make change harder for people. The Fogg Behavioral Model talks about three behavior change elements that must come together for a behavior change to occur. Whether it’s a behavior they want to do themselves (quit smoking, eat better, exercise more) or a behavior we‘d like them to do for us (buy stuff, sign up for stuff, come back and see us again), these three elements are key.

  • Motivations: The three main motivational pillars are pleasure/pain, hope/fear, and social acceptance/rejection. These are the reasons we do, or do not (there is no try. Yoda taught us that).
  • Ability/Simplicity: The six simplicity factors are time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance, and non-routine. Reducing these factors is generally the goal — make it take less time, make it cheaper, make it easier to understand, etc. Increase simplicity and you will increase a person’s ability to do something.
  • Triggers: Things like cues, prompts and calls-to-action are types of triggers, and the timing and placement of these is crucial. Tapping someone on the shoulder to do something at the wrong moment is pretty useless, like reminding someone in the middle of the work day to take their medicine that night.

Placing the triggers off to the side for the sake of this article, it’s the three motivational pillars and six simplicity factors that stood out to me as being directly connected to anxiety. Take a second to think about all the times and ways things like pleasure, pain, fear, social acceptance, money, or physical effort have affected your behavior or perception. Now, think about your products and the various moments these factors might impact your customer’s behavior as well, both positively and negatively.

What motivations and ability/simplicity factors are present in your customer’s world? Are they anxious about the time it takes to do something, and just not doing it? How can you make things take less time and how can we increase simplicity and ability overall to help relieve these anxieties?

Solving for anxieties in your process

To start solving for anxieties in your product process, a first step is going through the exercise of matching your customer’s anxieties to the bits of value that currently exist in your product. This is about discovering the moments of anxiety, and looking for ways to solve them.

Start by talking with customers/potential customers.

Understanding what people do and what tools they hire to make progress is step uno. Knowledge is power (for real) and even if you sort-of-think-you-kinda-know, it’s worth taking a little time up front to validate your knowledge and assumptions about what makes them anxious. It will focus your efforts on the right places, increase your ability to build better experiences, and help you articulate why people should make the switch to using our product. “Don’t worry about [pain point in their current solution], that doesn’t exist in our world. C’mon in! The water is warm!”

Reach out to potential and existing customers, on the phone or in person, and ask them to walk you through how they go about trying to accomplishing their day to day tasks and activities. Write down the steps you hear in their process and try to explore what I call “bookend” moments; the moments immediately before and after their process. Dig in when you hear something resembling anxiety, and mark the steps or moments that are affected.

If you’re lucky, having the chance to observe your customers in their own environments is the best way to see and feel what it’s like beyond the screens we build for.

Again, the main things you’re trying to understand are:

  • The steps taken to accomplish their tasks and activites, including the bookend moments immediately before and after
  • The moments that cause the most anxiety, how they feel in those moments of anxiety, and why
  • The impact that these anxieties have on what they think, feel and do

Write all of the juicy details down so you can reflect and discuss with your team, especially for those that weren’t able to join the interviews. Creating a journey map will help your team visualize the moments that these anxieties occur, and help identify if the anxieties are stacking up from step to step.

Playing the anxiety/solution match game

Take the list of the anxieties you heard from your customers, and then write down all of the ways that you design for them today. What elements, like copy or bits of functionality, do you think help relieve the anxieties you heard? Draw lines to connect the anxiety with your solution, talking through each one to make sure there’s a shared understanding with your team as you go. If an anxiety is left without a solution match, then you know you have a value gap in your product that you can consider filling in.

Next, think about the value these existing solutions provide (in terms of solving for the anxiety), the awareness of these elements (using things like discoverability and traffic), and the future potential for some of these elements (or what you imagine might be valuable if done well). Rate the value, awareness, and potential on a low/medium/high scale. Your ratings are not going to be 100% accurate of course, but go with what you heard from customer interviews, historical usage and historical knowledge to get you through the exercise.

See the messy whiteboard session pic below from when my team was thinking about the anxieties our first-time experience might need to address.

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This anxiety/solution match game helps:

  • Identify opportunity/value gaps (missing solutions to the anxiety)
  • Identify areas for improvement (solution “x” is ok, but it could be better)
  • Highlight things in a way that can prioritize work based on value and simplicity. If something was thought of as a low value solution with low awareness and low potential, you know not to concentrate on that at the moment (and maybe even investigate whether it should remain in the product or not). If something was currently low value but high awareness and thought of as having high potential, you might want to focus on that to see how you can bump up the value. Cheap wins and the ability to quickly test something can factor into this prioritization, too.

Below is another whiteboard pic showing the list of things that we identified for exploration.

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Finally, design experiments to test your solutions

With your refined list of areas to focus on, start thinking, sketching, mocking, circulating, and discussing ideas that you and your team come up with. Get everyone on the same page of intent and purpose, and discuss how you’ll go about testing these ideas with customers. The fidelity of the designs and the types of experiments depend on what you want to learn and from who, but an important part is to focus on one thing at a time so that you can measure the impact more effectively. When asking for a piece of personal info, are 50% of people skipping over it, and does providing some microcopy explaining why it’s needed or how it’s used help people feel comfortable enough to provide it? How will you know that your solution relieves the targeted anxiety? What methods, tools, signals or user actions can help your team understand if it’s having a positive impact?

Take it away!

Anxieties seem to correlate directly to positive customer experiences, communication, adoption, engagement, retention, win-backs, and basically everything else under the product sun. Consider researching and discussing the relationship between your customers’ anxieties and the experiences you’re looking to provide. In the end, I think we can take comfort in knowing that if we understand and design for their anxieties, we’ll have a much greater chance at making the product experience delightful and memorable.

Here are some links that helped me get started with thinking about anxieties and ways to work them into my product design process:


Onboarding journey:

  • — Samuel Hulick helped me understand what onboarding was really about and why it’s so important to build a strategy for. Check out the tear-downs too! Hilarious and insightful.

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model:

  • — Amazing content, but forgive the site design :) Although there are many theories and models around behavior change both new and old, this model changed the way I think about life and design the most.

Hit me up with comments or 👏, and may you always find the progress that you’re seeking ☺︎

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