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Aug 23, 2011: A simple model for gradual engagement

Design is complex. And in the face of complex challenges, we often reach for the false comfort of black-and-white solutions. Lately, however, I've been reaching for onions.

onion-layer model
(This one was kindly created by the incomparable Eva-Lotta Lamm.)

Onion-layer models help make the case for and rather than or approaches to solving problems. They are a powerful visual way to communicate the shades of gray that invariably color the solutions required by complex design challenges.

Here's an example that came up during a recent client engagement. Their challenge: work in a variety of new features—many which would require some sort of authentication—into their commerce site. Part of the challenge was the disturbingly large number of features that needed to be integrated. The other part was the risk of hitting users with too many features too soon or, conversely, hiding too many behind a daunting, crocodile-infested registration moat.

Clearly some sort of framework was necessary to introduce those features at the right pace and at the right time. If successful, this framework would transform visiting lurkers into fully engaged, fully registered customers. If not, we would all be screwed.

I came up with this simple approach for the onion layers:

  • Layer 0: User visits the site (unauthenticated; no cookies, no nothing)
  • Layer 1: User asks the site a question (for example, a search query)
  • Layer 2: Site asks the user a question (would you like save this product to a wishlist?)
  • Layer 3: Site suggests something to the user (you might enjoy these products ordered by people like you)
  • Layer 4: Site acts on the user's behalf (we've gone ahead and saved these products to your account's list of frequently-ordered items)

There are lots of good models for this sort of dialogic approach, ranging from the reference librarian's interview and expert systems design to permission marketing and Luke Wroblewski's concept of gradual engagement. And my layers here shouldn't be taken too literally. In fact, the client team quickly came up with a smarter and more sophisticated version of this model.

But the onion-layered approach is useful nonetheless, because it underlines the importance of gradualism. And it forces us to answer some important questions:

  • How do we actually get user to move from one layer to another?
  • Have we demonstrated the next level's value?
  • Have we earned users' trust yet?

Design is rarely black-and-white, rarely a binary decision-making process. We need more models, even ones that are smelly and make us cry, to help demonstrate the power of and over or.

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Comment: Dorian Taylor (Aug 23, 2011)

Interesting. Hearkens Gregory Rader's value matrix: http://onthespiral.com/unifying-value-universe .

Comment: Loren Davie (Aug 23, 2011)

I like how your model shows the gradual increase in user engagement, indicating that features should roll out to the user in order as they demonstrate more engagement in the site.

However, I think it's important to distinguish this approach from a conversion funnel, which is connect to the goals of the site operator, and may be different from what's happening here. In fact, their may be multiple paths the user can take as their engagement increases, with the site providing responses (both with content and features) depending on the nature of the engagement the users have demonstrated.

We tend to break the universe of user engagement up into what we call behavioral context - which is essentially correlating individuals to distinct personas, user goals, affinities and environments, and then specifying how the system should respond in response to those contexts (we call it modal response).

- Loren

Comment: Patrick Quattlebaum (Aug 24, 2011)

Very useful, especially the "have we earned the user's trust?" lens. Interactions either strengthen or weaken a relationship between a person and another person/company/brand/etc, and the accumulation of these interactions - done well - should build trust and set the table for more meaningful, valuable interactions.

Comment: Daniel Szuc (Aug 28, 2011)


Made me think about engagement layers as it relates to the client who buys into UX. Where do we want to start and where do we want to take them?


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