How To Talk Nerdy And Influence People

 If you are a startup founder, product manager, user experience designer or otherwise playing any role that may influence a product in any way, shape, or form, you need to get familiar with BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model.

I have made it my mission at my startup Speek, where we are making conference calls fast and easy, to ensure every single employee at our company is aware of Fogg’s work. Most notably, M+A+T.

On every team I have ever led or been a part of – startup or not – there have been hours upon hours spent analyzing every single behavior by users in an attempt to better influence their actions. We’d pour over every web analytic and funnel. We’d do endless customer interviews. We’d analyze heat maps, do user testing, and study demographics. We’d employ clueless, wannabe “product guru’s” who had read the book The Social Network was based on, watched the Jobs movie, and subsequently decided they knew how to do products well.

Well let me school you on something real quick, young grasshoppers. Product, user experience, “growth hacking” (whatever that means), and conversions all really boil down to one thing: placing an effective trigger in the place of a motivated user.

Shit ain’t hard, son.

This is where BJ Fogg comes in. You see, BJ Fogg took this punch-in-the-face-obvious fact and created a repeatable model for influencing people’s behavior out of it. His model looks like this:

You will also hear Fogg’s behavior model referred to as “M plus A plus T” or “M+A+T.” This is my preferred way of looking at influencing people’s behavior. “M” stands for motivation (the users’ not yours, you selfish prick). “A” stands for ability. “T” for trigger. There are pluses, or “+” in between each letter because all must be present at the same time. So in other words, if you want to influence a user’s behavior, you must have motivation, ability and a trigger.

This part may not inherently make sense to us digital product geeks, so let me give a real world example.

If you are building a web application, then you most likely have a registration process. You have users coming to your website for some reason, and you want to get them to fill out your registration form so that you can store their email address and other pertinent information. Well, how do you get them to go from visiting your home page to filling out the registration form? Easy. You put a product or content on your website that requires a user to register to actually see. If you advertise this product or content on your home page, and the user wants badly enough to use the product or see the content, they will register. This is a very basic version of BJ Fogg’s behavior model, or M+A+T.

Let’s break it down.

If you’ll recall “M+A+T” from above, the “M” stands for “motivation,” the “A” stands for “ability,” and the “T” stands for “trigger. In order to get your users to do what you want them to do, you must have motivation, ability and a trigger present concurrently. In my example above, the “motivation” of the user consists of him/her wanting to use a product or view some content that you are advertising. Their “ability” is easy in that in web or mobile products, links and buttons are easy to implement (as compared to tangible goods for example). The “trigger” is a module explaining to the user that they must register before they can access this awesome product or content. So in essence, you placed a trigger (the module on the home page) along with the ability (a registration button or form) to act on it in front of a highly motivated visitor (someone who clicked some link or ad about your awesome product or widget to get to your home page).

I realize this is the simplest of examples, but the fact remains the same. If you understand the motivations of your users at every step of your website and/or product, then you will know where the relevant places are to put triggers to facilitate the actions you desire.

Let’s use an example related to the topic we all care most about: Growth.

In almost every web or native mobile product these days, startups attempt to get their users to invite their friends and colleagues. This makes perfect sense as user acquisition channels are hard to come by and customer acquisition can be expensive. If you can get your users to generate additional users just by using your product, then you have struck growth hacker gold, and all your SoMA friends will bow down to you in front of the Blue Bottle Coffee in Mint Plaza.

However, you’ll notice that many apps (especially in mobile) attempt to solicit referrals during the on-boarding process. In other words, they hit the user up right after he or she registers to tell their friends how awesome the app is. Does this make sense?

Let’s think about it BJ Fogg’s terms – is there motivation, ability and a trigger present concurrently?

Well, there is ability. Ability is the easiest of the three when you’re working in the digital space. Ability is nothing more than a button or link. Simple. So check “yes” for ability. What about a trigger? Yes, there is a trigger. Again, triggers are pretty simple as well since a trigger in a web or mobile app is typically just some content or a call to action. Check “yes” for the trigger as well. But what about motivation? Is the user truly motivated to essentially vouch for your app the very second after they have registered to use it? Before they have actually used it? Before that “AHA” or “Wow!” moment? I think not. MAYBE if you attempt to “create” motivation by offering the user some very strong incentive or bribe (like free credits or gamifying it somehow) but you’re not likely to have a very high success rate.

Another way of attempting to garner referrals from your users in the example above would be to go through your product and truly understand the places where a user may actually have an inherent motivator to share your product with their friends. If your product is a file sharing service, like Dropbox, then you may want to wait until the point after which they have uploaded a new file or created a new folder to place a trigger asking if they’d like to share that file or folder with any friends. If your product is a communications service, like Speek, then you may want to place a trigger in the interface that callers see asking if they’d like to add people to the call and then offering to do some address book integration to make this easier in the future. If your product is an online store, like Amazon, then perhaps you wait until the user has rated a product they purchased to give them a chance to tell all of their friends about their review so they can show off how cool they are.

Do you see a pattern emerging?

Unfortunately, when you’re building digital products, it is way too cheap and easy to haphazardly slap triggers with ability, all over the damn place. If you want to show off that you’re a true pro, then place those loaded triggers in places where your users are going to be most motivated.

Some Additional Resources:


Book: Designing for Behavior Change – O’Reilly

Book: Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do 

Event: Action Design DC

Event: BJ Fogg’s Boot Camps

What resources am I missing? Please comment below or post it on social media, and I’ll update my article or include it in a follow-on!

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Written by:
Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.
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