How to Get Users to Use Your Product

This is Part 14/18 in the series “How to Build an Innovative New Product or Company” on the topic of engaging your users’ “slow systems” to encourage usage of your product

How the brain makes decisions

As entrepreneurs and/or product owners, it’s our job to reach out to a potential user, excite them about the concept of what we’re doing, get them to use the product and like it, and then use it enough in the first few months so it becomes a habit they no longer have to think about it.

Sound easy? The challenge is that even if our product is amazing, users’ time and ability to learn new behaviors are limited. And it matters: companies are increasingly aware that the likelihood of a SaaS contract renewal two years in the future is most heavily influenced by the user adoption rate of the product in its first few weeks.

The next two articles are about the process of crossing this bridge.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow about how the brain alternates between two systems. One is the involuntary system that acts without us asking or even wanting it to. This is the brain’s fast system. It handles the vast majority of actions we take on a daily basis.

The contrasting system, the slow system, allows your brain to address situations it hasn’t seen before. It lets you learn new skills, such as playing the piano. After many hours of practice, much of your playing then moves into the subconscious/fast system so you can play without thinking about it.

Your goal: get users to adopt your product with their “slow system” first (through the simplest set of steps) and then move those actions into the “fast system” as a subconscious routine rooted in muscle memory.

In his book “What the Dog Saw”, Malcolm Gladwell tells the example of the VCR as a case study where this was not done well. When it came out in the early 1980s, it was a revolutionary product. You no longer had to be sitting in front of your TV at the moment a show was being aired; instead, you could record it and watch it again when you wanted. But users struggled with it for many years. In short, no one explained to the users what it did and showed them how to work it.

What Napoleon, Woodrow Wilson, and One Laptop Per Child Program have in common: A similar root cause of their failures

The original story behind the One Laptop Per Child program was compelling: just by airdropping laptops into underprivileged parts of the world, kids’ lives and futures would be shaped by the pure force of the technology. This simply didn’t happen; the kids preferred their own lives to the ones we thought they should have. Napoleon and Woodrow Wilson ultimately failed because they were so focused on rebuilding a world entirely in their own image that they neglected to see the constraints of the world that already existed.

Napoleon ignored the existing landscape and its constraints and as entrepreneurs, we cannot afford to get the wrong lesson about why change management is needed with technology to have an impact.

Strategy is a mechanism to force us to balance our aspirations, ambitions, and desire to change an audience with the realities of finite capabilities, existing cultural norms, ingrained user habits, and all of the other elements of the existing topography around us. A technology product alone cannot fully mobilize this change; it has to be supported with social interventions. Luckily, as business builders, we can create those interventions.

A 9-step process for using client service teams and product onboarding tools to engage the users’ slow system on your product

The steps are based in part on Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Owain Service and Rory Gallagher’s Think Small. Neither book is specifically about how to get users to use a product, so I’ve adopted, added to, and interpreted their ideas. They also fit into McKinsey & Company’s 4-part “Influence Model” that underpins any behavioral change. I’ve put their model components as subheadings under each of the 9 steps. The 9 steps have a bit of a chronology to them; the 4-parts are not necessarily chronological.

If you believe the results of the studies they reference, and believe the results are additive, doing these steps in the first few months of a product deployment would increase by about three times—a valuable head start on the path to developing ongoing routine usage.

This step applies in B2B contexts where we have to win over users. This assumes we’ve sold our product to a corporate-level buyer and now need to get the users to adopt it. In a pure B2C context, this section may or may not apply. The next article on converting usage into habits applies in both contexts.

A precondition for all of this is that the product works for the users. That it helps them, raises insights to them in the language that they use, and in way and time that is actionable.

Earlier in my career I investigated building a product that would help reduce patient falls in a hospital. I decided not to pursue it, but it makes a good case study. In this article, I’ll refer to it as ‘Fall Safe’.

(1) Share a top-down goal and align own their goals to it
McKinsey 1/4: “Fostering understanding and conviction: I understand what is being asked of me and it makes sense.” People seek congruence between their beliefs and actions– believing in the ‘why’ inspires them the behave in support of a change.

Start with an overall (e.g., facility-wide or social) goal, if possible. Think Small doesn’t propose this step, but they share the story of President John F. Kennedy asking a janitor what he was up to during a 1962 visit to the NASA Space Center. “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon,” was the supposed famous reply.

In an example specific to B2B SaaS companies, there has been a lot written about EHR implementations in hospitals and the myriad of non-technology work that is required to gain physician and nurse adoption of these complex systems. The research has shown that EHR implementations are most effective when they start with a “Tone at the Top”. This is where hospital leadership can articulate a simple message of how the technology will impact patients.

All stakeholders should reinforce this message throughout the deployment and for years following via internal branding. As a product owner, talk to the buyer and determine if there’s already an overarching goal you can connect your product to. If not, can we create a new one? For example, in the ‘Fall Safe’ example, …

  • “Together, we can reduce patient falls in the hospital by 40% by this time next year. This directly supports our overall goal of making patient safety a top priority.”

Any user needs to be able to say: “I know what the organization’s goal is and why it’s important. I know what’s expected of me. I agree with it. I want to do it.” Communicating what the goal is and why we’re working on the goal is important. And communicating how the product we’re deploying will help us with that goal.

As a customer success leader, if you’re onboarding and training new users, connect the training to their managers’, or managers’ managers’ (e.g. the CEO’s) goals. For example, “Your CEO invited us in to introduce this product to you because she really thought it could help you achieve the safety goals that the organization has set for every department.”

You can cascade goals down to users if you want, but most important is to create a simple milestone. Target an aspirational end goal, but focus on what users should do: what actions or steps should I take today? Tomorrow?

  • “Use ‘Fall Safe’ on at least ten patients a week who are a fall risk over the next six months.”

Focus on a single specific goal with a clear target. The user should not have to spend any time or energy thinking about what they’re trying to accomplish, or why, or why it matters, or how they will get there. Keep it focused and precise.

Make sure that the goal you align on with your users is a goal they are trying to achieve and that your product can help them achieve that goal 2x, 3x, 5x, or 10x faster, cheaper, or more effectively. Why should they adopt a product that helps them do something they’re not trying to do, or only helps them only marginally better?

Lessons from Simple Bank
A similar approach is to ask the user for a specific instance of the goal identified above and encourage them to use the features of your product first that allow them to reach that goal. As the co-founder of Simple Bank, Shamir Kharkal, explained to me recently, they did this by asking their users what they were saving for. Then their product helped those users reach those savings goals. By doing this, users would later tweet how Simple helped them, for example, save for a wedding they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to save for. By aligning your product to your users’ own individual goals, you can create an emotional connection with them that is very powerful. (Note that Simple Bank didn’t ask a blanket question about what the users’ financial goals were; they asked for a specific instance they had to make the single goal of achieving saving money more real.)

(2) Onboard them so they have used it at least once… and help them transition from their current systems to your product
McKinsey 3/4: “Developing talent and skills: I have the skills and opportunities to behave in the new way.” You can teach an old dog new tricks–our brains remain plastic into adulthood.

The initial screens with a product that the user sees (and/or the initial discussions the user has with a client care team) should focus them on one goal: the activation event. The user may have to take a few steps in the product, but the steps all move towards a single goal—a goal which is already important to the user. This is called the “onboarding process”: getting the user to complete a single, important goal on your product as quickly as possible.

In my current company, I believe the best method we’ve found for increasing user engagement and usage levels was to insist that we digitize the users’ current paper files and put them on our platform. It took time to do it, but once it was done, the user didn’t have a choice to go back to their prior ways of doing things. I say “insist” because the user will often say it’s not needed or not want to burden you or themselves with that moment of transition. But once you’ve done it, it makes a major difference to them. If you’re able to automate that transition moment and build it into the product, all the better. Firefox, for example, on first opening, will offer to copy over and import any bookmarks you may have saved in your current internet browser. This is sometimes called the cold start effect.

Lessons from AppCues and Weight Watchers
A user experience company, AppCues, recommends mapping this journey out, step-by-step. How many actions (e.g., creating a profile page or username/password) do you require your user to do before they can complete a goal? How does your user get to an emotional “Wow!” moment after the activation event? Is the “Wow!” moment the activation event (e.g., they completed an action) or days later when they’ve completed a few such actions or seen some response from the initial action?

By analyzing data or talking to your users, you can see where in the onboarding process users drop off. Do we give them enough quick wins? Do we overwhelm them with choices? Do we ask for too much upfront to get started? Do we make the to-do steps clear? Is there a lack of a clear progress bar (or checklist) showing the user where they are in the onboarding steps? Is the product design too unusual such that the user doesn’t have immediate familiarity with it? Do we follow up by email with users who don’t complete their onboarding?

If the onboarding process is a mix of product and client care team, they should both reinforce each other. Onboarding inside your product is a powerful approach. If your product is smart enough to know where the individual user is in their journey and inject tips and small just-in-time training as overlays to your website, for example, you can completely personalize the experience.

As Shamir explained, based on his experience at Simple Bank, “it takes some people weeks and other months, but once people start using your product as their core transactional platform, they start to discover the other features and benefits that you offer.”

Can you set a goal for a user for a product they’ve never used before? Perhaps not. But by setting a realistic overall goal for the organization, we can set aspirations for each user and adjust over time based on what’s realistic. In contrast, if there’s no goal, we lose out on the value that pressure from the top and the inspirational value of rallying around a shared goal has.

On the initial step of working as a team on a goal, Weight Watchers has found that individuals lose twice as much weight when they are working together on their own individual goals. AppCues has analyzed hundreds of user onboarding experiences and found good onboarding increases long-term user retention by 2.6x.

(3) Leverage the power of “Habit stacking”; Create a personalized plan with the user about how + when + where they will use the product each week; set up notifications to help them meet their process milestones
McKinsey 2/4: “Reinforcing with formal mechanisms: I see that our structures, processes, and systems support the changes I am being asked to make.” Associations and consequences shape behavior–though all too often organizations reinforce the wrong things.

To achieve their goal, the user will have to change their daily routines. Once the personalized plan is in place, you can help remind them, at a time and place that fits them best, of the daily changes needed.

Ask your users when, where, and how they plan to use your product to achieve the goals they committed to. What will happen right before you act? Where will you be? (For example, do they imagine using it over breakfast or look at it every morning when they open their email?) Thinking in this way creates a causal link in their brain between that event and using your product. Call it habit-stacking: tacking on a new habit onto an existing one is easier than building a habit anew. In President Obama’s campaign, they saw much great voter turnout when they asked potential voters to visualize when/where/how they would vote, such as “I will vote at the polling place on Main Street on Tuesday morning after breakfast.”

For example,

  • Ask the user to schedule on their calendar an appointment with themselves, for example, “every Friday at 12:30, after lunch, when you’re back at your desk, you spend thirty minutes checking on the usage and patient feedback for ‘Fall Safe’.”—based on their feedback of where and when works best for them.
  • Every morning, ‘Fall Safe’ texts the nurse leader the number of patients it is being used by. This will help the leader of the nursing floor make sure he/she is staying on top of their goal of using it on ten patients a week. “What time of the day would be best for ‘Fall Safe’ to reach out to you? Is there a time in your day when this would be most helpful to receive?”


Lessons from the Vietnam War and the movies
Habits are a function of environmental triggers. Service and Gallagher share a study of opioid-addicted veterans upon returning from Vietnam, according to the study; with no explicit treatment, the vast majority of returning veterans never used opioids again. Their usage of opium was connected to a particular time and place and once that was removed from their lives, so too went the habit it was connected to. Moviegoers eat popcorn in a movie theater because of the environment. Watching a movie at home, for example, will not fire the same trigger.

As with setting goals, keep the plan and its rules simple and predictable. Your brain doesn’t have the time to figure out complexities. Don’t make the plan complex such as, “log in on the weekend if your overall product usage has dropped in the prior week.”

The overall goal is to establish repeated behaviors early on that allow the brain’s fast system to take over.

Research has shown this step alone to increase adherence to a goal by 15-100%, depending on the study.

(4) Build in commitment mechanisms, such as a 1-1 coach and a personal desire to be consistent
McKinsey 2/4: “Reinforcing with formal mechanisms: I see that our structures, processes, and systems support the changes I am being asked to make.” Associations and consequences shape behavior–though all too often organizations reinforce the wrong things.

For example,

  • Very early in the implementation process, identify a “peer coach” for each nursing floor. Let the coach test out ‘Fall Safe’ as early as possible. Have them trained on all the features. Let them give any configuration feedback. Ask them to check-in with other nurses on how things are going, especially for those nurses with low usage.
  • Early on, have each manager pledge that they will make falls a priority. If falls are a priority for them and ‘Fall Safe’ is the easiest way for them to manage falls, then usage will follow. When they take actions that are consistent with their pledge, recognize it to continue to build the sense in themselves that they have “taken a stand” on this topic.
  • Every week, ‘Fall Safe’ will email each nurse leader their usage numbers. It will show them their usage versus the top quartile. Celebrate if they’re in the top quartile of usage. If not, give them social proof to convince them they’re falling behind others.


Introduce them to a “coach” from your client service team. Someone who will check-in as needed to help them achieve their goals. Technology products, especially B2B ones that require behavior change, rarely exist on their own. Such products need a client care team, to help users make the most of the product.

Cialdini underscores the principle of consistency, that we “…desire to be consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” This is most powerful when the commitment has been made for others to hear. It’s one reason very few people change political party affiliations.

People with a “commitment referee” are 70% more likely to stick with their goals, according to one study.

(5) Add in scarce rewards along-the-way for achieving process milestones
McKinsey 2/4: “Reinforcing with formal mechanisms: I see that our structures, processes, and systems support the changes I am being asked to make.” Associations and consequences shape behavior–though all too often organizations reinforce the wrong things.

For example,

  • Send users a note of recognition from their manager when they get halfway to their goal?


Rewards should focus on the users’ effort and progress against their process milestones—not their impact on the ultimate goal. There have been studies that show rewarding your children for high test scores is less effective than rewarding them for working hard. The latter implants the idea that even if they don’t do well sometimes, continuing to work hard will give them a shot at doing better next time.

Cialdini discusses the power of reciprocation. If you email a user saying, “I found this insight for you” or give them some other item of value, the user will often repay it, such as by using your product.

Be careful with rewards. Offering rewards, especially making a big deal about rewards (e.g., large cash prizes) can crowd out a user’s intrinsic motivation to succeed, thus backfiring. If you do it, make the reward a small private event.

Professor Cialdini notes that scarcity is a major form of influence. If the rewards you offer appear scarce, they will be more valued. Scarcity can create (friendly) rivalries. It also provides creative approaches to rewards such as “offer only available today” that create a sense of urgency in your product purchase or usage.

(6) Make seeing and discussing progress a social activity
McKinsey 4/4: “Role modeling: I see my leaders, colleagues, and staff behaving differently.” People mimic individuals and groups who surround them–sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

For example,

  • Build a discussion about group progress into a monthly meeting with all the users. With ‘Fall Safe’, usage could be discussed monthly among all the nurses on a unit. But perhaps more powerfully, all the nurse leaders could discuss their own units’ progress when they get together as a team once a month. Or share audio clips from other managers discussing stories of impact.
  • Identify power users. Who is using the product the most? Get them to talk and share success stories.
  • Another approach to social proof is one like what Venmo does: you can see all of your activity on one tab and certain activity from your friends (or everyone in the world) on another tab—filtered only to actions that those users have allowed to be made public.


Think Small has a quote which they attribute to Richard Thaler, “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.” In other words, classical economists who believe the world operates by logic and pure cycles of supply and demand is blind to the real source of motivations and shortcomings of humans: the influence of those around us who inform our behaviors and habits.

User adherence has been shown to increase 11% by this step alone.

(7) Give users feedback on their progress and leverage sources of authority, if possible
McKinsey 2/4: “Reinforcing with formal mechanisms: I see that our structures, processes, and systems support the changes I am being asked to make.” Associations and consequences shape behavior–though all too often organizations reinforce the wrong things.

Tell users what their progress is in relation to their goals. The most compelling example given in Think Small was about the “Your Speed” signs that tell you how fast you are going (and that blink if you are over the speed limit). There is no penalty associated with them, but they are they are one of simplest and most effective speed control mechanisms. The reason: they are easy to understand and actionable. You can do something immediately to course-correct.

Another feature of the signs that the authors don’t mention, but I think relevant to goal-setting for product users, is that the sign allows you to immediately get back in compliance with your goals. They don’t say “you’ve been going too fast for the last five minutes, even if you slow down now, it’s too late to meet your goal”. The goal it measures is reachable in the moment. For product users, consider measuring, reporting, and rewarding usage based on actions taken in the past week—not the cumulative actions taken over a six-month window where a change in short-term behavior will have little observable effect.

Dr. Cialdini includes sources of authority as one of his six force of influence. Obviously having a manager hold their team members accountable to a certain type of action or product usage is a very powerful motivator, but other sources of authority exist. Who is the source of authority on the topic that your users look up to? Are they celebrities or well-known researchers in a field?

Lessons from Fitbit
Fitbit is a well-known pioneer in this space as well, with an app that shows you the number of steps you’ve taken relative to your friends. This creates a transparent public forum for healthy competition. The authors warn, though, of creating too much transparency if overall product usage is low. Showing the individual user their progress against their goal for the week plus their progress against the top quartile is one way to avoid socializing low progress as a social norm.

Adherence to goals has been shown to increase by 10% in studies, such ones looking at the efficacy of the “Your Speed” sign.

(8) Make it stick by showing them the long-term impact of their efforts—and reminding them of how far invested they already are
McKinsey 1/4: “Fostering understanding and conviction: I understand what is being asked of me and it makes sense.” People seek congruence between their beliefs and actions– believing in the ‘why’ inspires them the behave in support of a change.

For example,

  • Remind users of the investment they made and celebrate their progress. Send a paper letter of that progress to them or a photo of the impact they collectively made, if possible. A physical document will make this “reward” feel different from the rewards-along-the-way and perhaps something they will pin on their wall—which will then keep reminding them of the investment made.


Show users the long-term impact of their efforts—something people rarely get to see. Celebrate success on the initial goal. Move them into a steady state (hopefully habit-forming behaviors have been established in these initial few months). Test new ideas and learn; no one knows in advance what will work best for a specific set of users in a specific context.

Users, once they’ve invested a lot of time into doing something, are less likely to abandon it. This is because of a cognitive bias in the brain: to make a lot of investment in something implies you found it valuable and the brain doesn’t like to admit it was wrong. Thus, in our minds, if a product was valuable then, it is still valuable now.

(9) Role model the behaviors you want your users to do themselves
McKinsey 4/4: “Role modeling: I see my leaders, colleagues, and staff behaving differently.” People mimic individuals and groups who surround them–sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

For example,

  • “As you can see, I’m using this product and have been for some time. I really find it valuable. Let’s get you on it too!”—your manager


This step also isn’t explicitly called out in Owain and Gallagher’s book but there’s a lot of other research on behavior change that highlights the importance of users seeing role-modeling by peers and their managers.

In a B2C environment, having a celebrity role model product usage is a standard marketing approach.

In a B2B environment, why would a nurse use our ‘Fall Safe’ product when their supervisor doesn’t use it? It’s not unheard of for users to “wait it out” assuming that, over time, this initiative will be replaced with another priority. If they see that their managers and managers’ manager are not only using it, but have been for a while, the impression is instead that there is a lasting investment which will help them overcome the initial hurdles to adoption.

Lessons from the high seas

For this last point, we can turn to Captain James Cook from the mid-1700s for inspiration [emphasis mine]:

The sauerkraut the men at first would not eat until I put in practice a method I never once knew to fail with seamen, and this was to have some of it dress’d every day for the cabin table, and permitted all the officers without exception to make use of it and left it to the option of the men either to take as much as they pleased or none at all; but this practice was not continued above a week before I found it necessary to put everyone on board to an allowance, for such are the tempers and dispositions of seamen in general that whatever you give them out of the common way, although it be ever so much for their good yet it will not go down with them and you will hear nothing but murmuring against the man that first invented it; but the moment they see their superiors set a value upon it, it becomes the finest stuff in the world and the inventor a damned honest fellow.

. . .

All books and other resources referenced in this article