What Is Engagement, Exactly?

Jay Erickson

Partner | Chief Innovation Officer

Those of us who create digital experiences spend a lot of time thinking about, analyzing, and talking about engagement. An engaged set of users is often a—or the—measure of success, and companies who own or use digital products (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) invest a lot of resources trying to drive deeper engagement.

But let’s take a step back — what is engagement? When you spend some time to pull the notion apart, you find that there are distinct but highly interrelated layers of engagement. In addition, what engagement means for one set of stakeholders may be vastly different for another. Here’s a recent story to help illustrate the point.

A tale of two “E’s”

About a year ago, we began a collaboration with a team of behavioral scientists at a large pharmaceutical company. Our collective mandate was to create a set of prototypes focused on using specific behavior change techniques (BCT=s) to achieve a particular health goal (or “outcome,” as they say in health care).

With 40–50% of health outcomes attributed to behavior¹ (diet, exercise, alcohol/tobacco use, medication adherence, etc.), using digital platforms to drive better health outcomes is a field with enormous potential. As a recent article in Translational Behavioral Medicine outlining a collaborative framework for this work notes: “The rapid expansion of technology promises to transform the behavior science field by revolutionizing the ways in which individuals can monitor and improve their health behaviors.”²

As behavioral scientists, our collaborators had a keen interest in user engagement and are experts in knowing what makes people tick, what drives behaviors, and most importantly, how to instigate behavior change. As UX professionals, we were experts in how individuals interact with digital media, what makes for “sticky” experiences, how to make information readily digestible, and how to design interfaces that encourage users to take action quickly and easily.

Theoretically, we all had a really good sense of our respective areas of expertise. But here’s the rub: When it came to the prototypes themselves, it became murky pretty quickly, and it became apparent that we needed a clear conceptual separation of concerns. We drew a line between what we called “little e” and “Big E.”

Our focus, as UX professionals, was the “little e” — engagement with the experience itself. The behavioral scientists would be focused on the “Big E” — the desired effects of the experience, enacting a behavior change (exercising more, doing a group meditation, etc.). We used this distinction all the time throughout the project: “little e” = experience, “Big E” = effect.

The “little” was not intended to demean our work in any way, but rather to keep the focus and primacy on what we were really trying to accomplish with these prototypes: the “Big E” of positive, healthy behavior change. We also collectively acknowledged that good “little e” is a clear prerequisite for effective “Big E” — you can’t get to the behavior change with bad UX standing in the way.

Here are a few examples to help illustrate the distinction across industries:

little e vs big E

One “E” to rule them all

So what’s the “Easy E?” Well, it’s not the late “Godfather of Gangsta Rap,” Eric Wright (he was actually Eazy-E).

It’s empathy, and it’s the first step of any decent design thinking process.

It is “easy” in that we all have the muscle of empathy (with the exception of psychopaths and narcissists). Like any muscle, for some it may be in better shape than for others, but it’s part of what makes us human. But creating empathy that can be employed as the foundation for great product design is not easy.

Firstly, there are cultural barriers. How many times have you been involved in a project and team members jump straight from the goal/problem to solutioning and immediately begin talking about ideas and features? It’s natural — we think we are smart and have the answers, and we want to help. So we jump from the brief to the whiteboard without skipping a beat.

The second cultural barrier is that empathy is a word that seems a little soft for the boardroom. It sounds like feelings, and feelings are often seen as anathema to the hyperrational, data-driven, bottom-line corporate climate. So let’s clear that up. There are actually three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic (physical/corporal) empathy — and only one of those is about feelings. But, more importantly, why not create some more space for feelings? Turns out we all have them, they are important, and they often are actually driving decisions (see my colleague Abi’s piece on emotional design). We can humbly, and with care, slow down and create more opportunities for empathy.

So how do we do it? Well, we put space in the budget for time-tested tools and practices that are designed to help us empathize: interviews, field observation, shadowing, personas, and journey maps. We take time to read and watch stories that are relevant. We invite users to participate in the design process. We show early ideas to users and incorporate their feedback through validation testing.

And we make sure the entire team, from the bosses all the way down, have spent time with and internalized the research, personas, and journey maps. We name our personas, give them pictures, and really develop them so that when we put them up on the wall during meetings they are there with us. We can easily point to them and ask: “How would Sharon Slipsalot find this feature?” or “How would Danny Debilitated even be able to use a mouse at this point in his journey?”

Empathy is the root of all human-centered design, and when you invest in creating empathy, it serves as a strong foundation and touchstone for awesome “little e” and effective “Big E.”

We often say at Modus that in a world where customer engagement or patient engagement is increasingly happening through digital media, every organization is a digital company, and is in some way in the software business. The organizations that can master the three “E’s” of engagement will be the ones that thrive in our brave new digital world.



1. “The Relative Contribution of Multiple Determinants to Health,” Health Affairs Health Policy Brief, August 21, 2014. DOI: 10.1377/hpb20140821.404487

2. Madalina Sucala, Nnamdi Peter Ezeanochie, Heather Cole-Lewis, Jennifer Turgiss, “An iterative, interdisciplinary, collaborative framework for developing and evaluating digital behavior change interventions,” Translational Behavioral Medicine, ibz109, https://doi.org/10.1093/tbm/ibz109

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