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

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.

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

We might do a great job at building the right functionality or onboarding steps, but they might not progress down the path if there’s overpowering anxiety that we’re not addressing. Focusing on the anxieties that are present when people research and consume solutions will help you improve the adoption and retention of our products and services.

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.

  • “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.

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.

  • 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?
  • 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?

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.

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.

  • 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.

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!”

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.

There are always outside forces that our products will have little or no control over, but it’ll give you insight into any additional anxieties that their working environment may bring to the table.

  • 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

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.

  • 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.

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.

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

Product Design @Apple. More about people, problems & progress, less about the other stuff.

Product Design @Apple. More about people, problems & progress, less about the other stuff.