What is “User Engagement”?

I hear a lot about how UX can improve “user engagement”. It sounds great – you want people to use something, so it needs to engage them. But the more we use it, the less clearly we define it. Usability Geek talks about gamification as the secret to engagement. Meanwhile, UX Collective has 7 rules to increase engagement by holding onto attention. And Appcues has 6 strategies to increase engagement and fuel growth.

So which is it? Is engagement a way of using a product, a way of grabbing attention, or a way to grow the audience? Like many terms that become jargon, we’ve lost the thread.

What do we mean by user engagement

In general, “engagement” seems to mean interest in using something. I particularly like the UX Power Up definition:

Engagement is how we stay connected to our users interests, motivations and goals. 

UX Power Up: User Engagement

This feels like a reasonable approach, and a good way to think about the goal of a product. With that in mind, the “connection” UX Power Up mentions requires user research (always a good thing), and a focus on quality over quantity of features.

It’s clear why such a reasonable overarching goal is now ubiquitous. The challenge is that, as shown with the above articles, that engagement could be in service of many other things, such as:

  • Convincing new users to sign up (growing the audience)
  • Retaining users, or decreasing the number of users who leave
  • Increasing the amount of time users spend with the product
  • Changing the types of things users are doing with the product (for example, moving from passive to active use)
  • Getting users who have left to re-join

Like any goal, we need to determine how to measure it.

Metrics and KPIs

There are two steps to defining “user engagement”. First, identify what the objective is – why is engagement important? Put another way, which of the possibilities is engagement in service of? Second, determine how the team will measure the success of engagement. This could mean measuring new user sign ups (if that’s the objective), or user retention (if that’s the objective). Or it could mean using a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

KPIs are particularly valuable for an objective like “increase the value users get out of the product.” Qualitative user interviews are one possible metric to measure this, but KPIs are far more useful. Possible KPIs for an app could be be:

  • Time spent on app
  • Time of day the app is used (e.g. is it used at the time it’s most likely to be useful?)
  • Completion of certain “valuable” actions in the app

These are considering KPIs because none of them are specifically “engagement”, but they all indicate increased value and user engagement.

User engagement is not a catch-all

The more I read about engagement, the more convinced I become that there is value in this goal. However, like so many popularized aspects of UX, it’s only valuable if we can measure it. My advice to all content and UX teams is to ask yourselves: what is engagement for my team? How do we measure it?

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