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Improve User Engagement with the BJ Fogg Behavior Model

This is an excerpt of a new book I’ve written with Wes Bush called Product-Led Onboarding™: How to Turn New Users into Lifelong Customers. You can buy it now!  

Do you remember a teacher who made a difference in your life?

For me, that was Mr. Drmanic, my physics teacher during high school. He cared about his students. At the start of the year, he’d always ask everyone what they wanted to be when they grew up. He then made a point to relate his lessons to the professions we announced to the class. He inspired me to major in math and computer science in university. 

Mr. Drmanic’s teaching approach is exactly what user onboarding needs – to educate, explain, and inspire users. It’s crucial to find the right balance so that users are not overwhelmed or bored.

Once you’ve created your Straight-Line Onboarding, the next step is to add “bumpers” so users remain engaged and eventually adopt the product into their life or workflow. 

So... how do you immerse new users into your product so they feel motivated and inspired?

This is where a useful framework called the BJ Fogg Behavior Model comes in.

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model is the key to unlocking behavior change and product adoption for new users. Dr. BJ Fogg, behavioral scientist and founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, created this model to facilitate behavior changes by adopting positive habits and letting go of unfavorable ones. It emphasizes three elements that must converge simultaneously for a behavioral switch to occur: 

  • Motivation (M): The desire or willingness to do the new behavior.
  • Ability (A): The ease in doing the new behavior.
  • Prompt (P): The cue or trigger to do the new behavior.

Together, these elements form the BJ Fogg Behavior Model:

The BJ Bogg Behavior Model is that Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Prompt

If you plot Motivation and Ability on a graph, you’ll see a curved smiling shape called the Action Line. 

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model action line on an graph

Behaviors that ultimately become habits will reliably fall above the Action Line.

For example, let’s say you’re training for a marathon and aim to wake up at 6 a.m. every morning. Even with no running experience, you set an unrealistic goal of running a 10-mile run that first morning. It’s a sure way to fail because this behavior falls below the Action Line.

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model action line on an graph

But, let’s say you sleep in your running shoes and reward yourself with a chocolate banana smoothie after the run, all while setting a realistic goal of running two miles on the first day. Since you’ve increased the motivation and made it easier to get started, you’re more likely to accomplish it. 

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model action line on an graph

Now, how does all this relate to user onboarding?

Ultimately, you’re not onboarding people to a product. You're onboarding them to a new way of accomplishing something; a new way of life. In essence, it’s a behavioral switch for users. They have to let go of their old habits and adopt new ones.

If users are falling off during the user onboarding, the BJ Fogg Behavior Model provides a framework to boost those numbers:

  1. Is the new behavior as easy to do?
  2. Are users motivated to perform the behavior?
  3. Are there prompts inside and outside the product to help users perform the desired behavior to complete the user onboarding?

In the Bowling Alley framework, the Product and Conversational Bumpers should contribute to one or more elements in the BJ Fogg Behavior Model to either make the onboarding experience easier, increase the motivation of new users, or prompt them to do something.

Wes Bush's Bowing Alley Framework

1. Make it easy

According to the BJ Fogg Behavior Mode, if you want to change the behaviors and habits of users, you need to make the behavior as easy as possible to do. 

One useful concept to measure how easy (or hard) user onboarding is for new users is cognitive load– the mental effort required to learn new information. You can think of cognitive load as the mental processing power needed to learn how to use and interact with a product. If the information exceeds the user’s ability to handle it, it results in a cognitive overload.

From my experience, most user onboarding overwhelms new users with signup fields, product tours, pop-ups, in-app messages, checklists, tooltips, and more. If users feel overwhelmed, they’ll experience cognitive overload and likely abandon the app altogether.

So, how do you avoid overloading users?

With Straight-Line Onboarding in place, you’re already halfway there. By now, you should have:

  • Removed or delayed any unnecessary steps that don’t lead to the First Strike.
  • Reorganized the onboarding steps from easiest to hardest.
  • Simplified the onboarding by showing fewer options, while breaking down complex signup and setup processes into multiple steps.

2. Increase Motivation 

Another element to building new habits according to the BJ Fogg Behavior Model is motivation. It’s a major driving force of behavioral change. With enough motivation, you can change anyone’s behavior, including your most critical users. You just have to find the right carrot to dangle in front of them, right?

It’s not that simple. External rewards like money, fame, and praise sometimes actually work against people completing a task. Since they’re only interested in the reward, they won’t complete the task on their own initiative if it isn’t there.

That’s why I typically don’t recommend incentives for users to complete the onboarding process. Rewards like trial extensions, badges, or branded stickers might encourage users to complete the onboarding, but those users might not be interested in the product itself; they’re apathetic to the product and end up leaving. 

What I do recommend is using content to increase a user’s intrinsic motivations. There are a few ways to do this.

Often, onboarding teams approach the content of signup screens and onboarding elements like tooltips and product tours as a low priority—and it shows. Even if it’s well-written, it’s usually focused on product features rather than communicating the benefits of these features. This is a mistake.

The ultimate motivation is to show users how the product can help improve their lives. Every word in the entire user onboarding experience is an opportunity to speak to users’ needs and desires. Use content to amplify the solution to their current pain points, calm their anxieties, and remind them they can overcome their existing habits. 

For example, the third step in the signup process with Wave reminds new users of the value of their invoicing software. The copy reads, “Send professional invoices. Designed to get you paid 3x faster, with over $24 billion in invoices sent each year.” 

Reminding users inside the Wave invoicing app

Wave’s team knows that new users are still skeptical, so they use social proof to convince them Wave is the right tool. After all, who doesn’t want to get paid three times faster? 

3. Add Prompts

Prompts (or triggers) are one of the most powerful forces that shape our lives. Chances are you’ve encountered hundreds of prompts already today. You’ve probably barely noticed them. 

  • Your alarm goes off. So you wake up, brush your teeth, and then make coffee (in the same order every day).
  • Your phone buzzes, so you check it for new notifications.
  • You’re hungry, so you eat lunch. 

Whether you realize it or not, most habits start with a Prompt. Another way to put it – no Prompt, no action. 

In the user onboarding experience, Prompts are critical during two moments:

  1. To help users achieve their desired outcome and experience the value of a product soon after signing up.
  2. To help users to continue to use a product until they adopt it into their life and workflow.
How to help users achieve their desired outcome with the BJ Fogg Behavior Model

During the user onboarding journey, prompts can occur inside the app (product tours, checklists, tooltips, and other Product Bumpers) or outside of it (emails, SMS, phone notifications, and old-school direct mail). They’re critical in creating an engaging environment for new users to learn how a product works and to decide if it’s the right fit for them.

Often, when onboarding is added on as an afterthought, Prompts become a crutch to mask poor UX design. Remember, the BJ Fogg Behavior Model states that Prompts only work if users have the necessary motivation and ability above the Action Line. 


To wrap it up, if users are falling off during the user onboarding, the BJ Fogg Behavior Model provides a framework to boost those numbers:

  1. Is the new behavior as easy to do?
  2. Are users motivated to perform the behavior?
  3. Are there prompts inside and outside the product to help users perform the desired behavior to complete the user onboarding?

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book EUREKA: Improve Your Product-Led Onboarding™ and Get More Lifelong Customers. Get the first chapter and join the waitlist now.

Ramli John
Ramli John
Ramli John is the Managing Director at ProductLed, where he works with companies to accelerate their growth using PLG strategies. He is the author of the upcoming book EUREKA: How to Onboard New Users and Turn Them Into Lifelong Customers.