Peak Nag Part I – Observations from the Frontline of UCD

Apart from the ‘d’ word (dis**pt), is there a more overused term at the moment than ‘engagement’? Except maybe ‘pop-up’. Or ‘game changer’. Or perhaps ‘startup’… Never mind, you get the picture.

The word ‘engagement’ is such hot property it probably has paparazzi at the window when it opens the curtains every morning. And alongside ‘engagement’ the paps will inevitably find its constant companion and partner in crime – the word ‘increased’. Everyone is looking for increased engagement. And in an uncertain world one thing is for sure - brands are not looking for less of anything from their customers.

But let’s face it, our digital lives are pretty much full. Everyone got a bit carried away. Devices, apps and websites now cry out for engagement, requiring almost constant attention. Our devices and apps nag us; they require management, demand unwanted interaction that serve a brand’s needs and not our own. Software, once a trusty servant that needed updating every few years, can now expire unexpectedly within weeks. We’re asked to share large amounts of personal information before we even start using a service. Even when we try to do something good it triggers an avalanche of requests for more. Petitions ask you to sign more petitions. Crowdfunding asks you to fund more projects. Join the community. Join the conversation.

It’s exhausting.

When we do find something interesting we might start reading only to be interrupted by an ad or an attempt to get us to sign up to a newsletter before we have finished a paragraph. The upselling and cross-selling is sometimes so dominant we can barely see the content we came to see. Before we’ve even finished booking or buying we are implored to complete a survey about the service. Social media sites develop features specifically designed to grab our attention more often and hold it for even longer. Explore, like, share, watch your own content get played back to you. Our attention is pulled this way and that, with ever newer tricks to gather data and to attract our precious eyeballs and measurable clicks.

This is all before we even consider the engagement users were originally seeking.

Designing for a new context

We are now having to design for the attention span the digital industry is partially responsible for shattering. If you remember that at one time, a customer walked into a shop, decided they liked something, paid and left, and had no interaction until the next time they actually needed something, the shift in a brand's relationship with its customers has changed significantly.

And while some users may feel they have reached what must surely be ‘peak nag’, the problem is that we know there is lots more engagement to come. Our work at ustwo means we have the privilege of being let into the inner sanctum of many companies. We know what they are planning, how they work, how well they get on with each other, whether their public identity matches their private one. It’s a privilege we don’t take lightly. It means we are aware of and sometimes a big part of their future plans. In my role as Head of Product and Service Discovery, I get to support multiple projects and get insights into multiple industry verticals.


I am not sure we have encountered a single business that isn’t seeking more engagement – I am sure this is the same for other studios and agencies. And I know for a fact some studios encounter clients who have no clear goal with greater engagement, they just know they want it. They might also have no useful definition of engagement and no idea how to get it. It can take a while to bring an organisation around to finding something that’s truly valuable to both customers and the organisation creating a product or service.

The fact that we work across so many industries means we are able to do something our clients can find very hard - to bring insight from one industry to another. With user testing and interviews embedded in our process we also have the privilege of frequently listening to customers of all manner of products and services, not just one sector. Recently, in the London studio alone, we have been talking to the medical profession, patients, loyalty scheme customers, car drivers, fashionistas, financial service customers, holidaymakers, insurance buyers, users of public transport, grocery shoppers, convenience store staff, wine buyers, parents of young children, electronics product users, gardeners, startup investors, music fans, game fanatics, customer service teams and more.


Anecdotally, we have noticed some emerging mindsets that we need to be aware of, all based on adapting to the context they are now faced with.

Opt-out first

Users who are learning to opt out of communications as their first interaction with your product or service, choosing what they deem the minimum necessary to use it. Notifications, camera access, contacts access - all denied. No newsletters, no surveys. This is often when they don’t know what the value is or how it relates to the service. Sometime it shows users are judging your product or service based on previous bad experiences.

A common example is a customer buying something from a website. It might be a one-off or an infrequently bought item. But the website used a language trick to get the user to sign up to a newsletter they thought they were opting out of. In one case a user who buys one or two pairs of shoes a year bought a pair of shoes from a Dutch sneaker brand. Over the next week he received four different marketing emails. In Dutch. These experiences flow across channels, creating a wariness not just about other unwanted emails, but it trains users to be ever more careful and selective - or create workarounds such as the spam email account.

Disengaged engagement 

Some users are almost unconsciously following links, prompted by well-crafted, well-honed techniques designed to drive their behaviour. While that might be delivering proof of reaching engagement KPIs with the desired click, in reality the user is so distracted or half-engaged they barely remember what they saw or who the content provider was, never mind how to get back there. Users might only experience a brand for one ‘moment’, their main interaction being elsewhere.

Sometimes the disengagement appears to be fed by a kind of engagement fatigue brought about by Pavlovian responses, but there’s also a tranche of users who know exactly what they want, and are acutely aware that their interactions are driven by a brand’s agenda. Much like the ‘get in get out’ IKEA shopper who knows exactly how to avoid all the temptations and buy only what they need, they are learning to create their own minimal engagement led by a desire for convenience and an awareness of being manipulated.


Subconscious editing

People are excellent at pattern recognition. It’s innate. This means that users can become expert editors of experiences and content, sifting out what they don’t want. In the same way users learned that things on the right-hand side of a website were probably ads and they stopped paying attention, some users have learned to ignore notifications unless there is a certain pattern to the text, when they will read it. This does not mean that we should move things so people notice them – sometimes we want muscle memory to do its job.

The irony is that we also often find that users don’t see what they do want. It’s extremely common in user testing that we ask people how they might do or find something, and they don’t see a button, icon, or word. It would take some in-depth research to discover why, but I suspect it’s a form of subconscious editing, influenced by previous experiences.

Differentiation blindness 

After a few similar experiences with different brands, users are prone to assuming everything is the same. All loyalty schemes are the same, all online stores are the same, all banks are the same. They’ve already decided, and unless you really do something better in a different way that’s truly valuable and useful it is hard to shake this mindset. It then becomes about the seamlessness of your experience – are you the easiest option for the user to get to their goal? If your product or service is poorly differentiated, users simply seek the easiest option.

Disruption avoidance


Some users are becoming loyal to experiences or platforms more than the brands they serve. Often this seems to be because the platform focuses on doing one thing well and doesn’t get in the user’s way. Trainline is a good example. Users who simply want to travel to a city can bypass the complexity of trying to decipher competing rail brands and their varying sales funnels and focus on what they want. Instead of navigating multiple experiences with multiple interruptions and attempts at upselling, they can return to the same familiar experience wherever they want to go. Buy a ticket – job done. As soon as their experience starts to be interrupted by other agendas, they become annoyed. We see this often when, for instance, a previously ad-free experience seeks monetisation, and starts distracting the user from their original goal, trying to nudge them into a new behaviour or make them think about something else. If there is an alternative experience that does something similar without the interruptions, this type of user will head there.

What next?

All these patterns point to a greater need than ever to think about customers first, and the context you are designing for. No-one wants to launch digital products and services that are not valued - the app stores and the internet are laden with unloved products and content, like so much digital landfill.

Bringing true value to our users brings even better value to our clients. This could be something functional that lets users complete a task very quickly when and where they want to; it could be something that helps them navigate and understand the complexities of their own moods and learn better habits. Ironically, it could be something that’s completely absorbing – a distraction for all the other competing distractions of the day. A moment of peace.

At ustwo we embed talking to real people into our process, gaining feedback as we iteratively build a product or service. We constantly interrogate what we are doing and why we are doing it in order to reach a great quality experience. I believe other sectors of the creative industries could learn a lot from this approach. “Co-creation is the new solitary genius” should be a new catch-cry.

In part two of this post, I focus on how – together – brands, designers, and product teams can create meaningful interactions, rather than simply continuing to clamour for ‘more engagement’ – where there is none to be had.