Understanding the “aha” moments in your product

Main illustration: Sidney Sue Howard

Whenever I conduct research with customers on how they onboard users to their product, I’m always fascinated by how often the term “aha” moment comes up.

Customers consistently say they want their users to get to their product’s “aha” moment, the interaction that fills their users with a feeling of delight and reveals the true value of the product to them.

While we know that every company wants their users to experience an “aha” moment during their onboarding, making them more likely to stick around, it got me thinking about all the questions they raise. As a researcher, I’m curious about the anatomy of an “aha” moment. How can you identify your product’s “aha” moment? Is it possible to guide a user to experience a feeling of “aha”? Can a user experience more than one “aha” moment? Are “aha” moments the same for every user? If a user experiences an “aha” moment, will that lead them to be “activated” on your product?

What is an “aha” moment?

“Aha” moments can be tricky to define, but most of us know them when we see them. For instance, there is a common example of an “aha” moment that most people can identify with. Do you recall the first time you participated in a group message in WhatsApp and you suddenly realized this was nigh-on impossible to achieve in your phone’s native SMS app? While WhatsApp might have seemed to be a like-for-like replacement of SMS when you first heard of it, this moment of discovery reveals it to be something far more powerful and transformative. “Aha,” you say to yourself as you realize you now have an entirely new medium for communicating with groups of friends.

“These ‘aha’ moments are an emotional reaction to discovery of a feature”

As the phrase implies, “aha” moments are an emotional reaction to discovery of a feature. From a research perspective, user behaviors are easy to measure and track, but “aha” moments are more elusive, because they are actually the positive emotions behind the user behavior. But just because they are somewhat elusive doesn’t mean they can’t be identified, measured, and tracked.

Identifying “aha” moments in user onboarding

During the course of our research, we became aware of a few factors that are worth bearing in mind when trying to identify a product’s “aha” moment. Most obviously, the “aha” moment may be directly prompted by experiencing a product’s value proposition. What can a product do that other product’s can’t, or what can it do better? Why would people use this product rather than another? Does discovering that value spark delight in users?

Listen to how customers experience the product

Here at Intercom, we’ve conducted research to identify the “aha” moments in our Messages product. We spoke to customers who had just signed up, and asked them to talk through their first experiences with the product. Throughout the conversation, we looked out for moments when the participant had a lot of positive emotional energy behind what they said. Looking for this emotion led us to identify “aha” moments for various customers. An example of an “aha” moment we found was when customers see the performance stats of the first message they send – they experience a sensation of delight as they see the demonstration of value that can be achieved.

First welcome message stats

Understand user intent and how it varies

It is important to consider whether “aha” moments are the same for every user, or how and why they differ. The predictability of your “aha” moments across users will really depend on why any individual user has signed up for your product. That’s because the sensation is tightly related to the discovery of value, and value is dependent on whatever job the user is trying to achieve.

For instance, think about the reasons someone may sign-up to Dropbox – one person may need to access documents from multiple devices, while another may want to share folders with others. For these two users with such different jobs to be done, it’s inevitable that they’ll experience different “aha” moments.

“I hypothesized that if we knew our product’s ‘aha’ moments, they could form the basis of our activation metrics”

But while the “aha” moments prompted by your product will differ from person to person and from use case to use case, it is possible to spot patterns or themes, and thus to anticipate when people might encounter them.

Crucially, once a product’s “aha” moment has been identified, you can then guide users to it in user onboarding or other engagement activities.

Timing can be surprising

There are also some misconceptions about when an “aha” moment occurs in the customer lifecycle. It’s commonly thought that “aha” moments occur during the first use of a product – you start using the product, then boom, you realize the value if offers.

However, “aha” moments can happen before you even sign-up to a product, or sometimes after you have been using them for quite a while. The moment of value discovery is what triggers the “aha” sensation, and whenever that discovery can happen, so can an “aha” moment. In this sense, it’s important to note that “aha” moments can be distinct from the onboarding process.

How do “aha” moments and activation relate?

As part of my research, I wanted to test the degree to which “aha” moments are related to user activation. Activation is the point when a customer has reached a defined level of engagement with the product after which they are seen as extracting enough value that they are deemed to be successful and are statistically likely to retain. Activation is measured by a defined set of actions completed in the product.

Thus, activation is intrinsically defined by your ability to measure it. In defining your own activation points, you will be looking at the patterns of usage of your most successful customers and identifying the commonalities.

“Activation is a business metric that suggests retention, but is not a reflection of the user’s experience”

Before starting our research into “aha” moments, I hypothesized that if we knew our product’s “aha” moments, they could form the basis of our activation metrics. However, I quickly discovered this isn’t necessarily true. For example, Slack cites that when a team send 2,000 messages that they are 93% more likely to stick around, which is effectively their activation metric. Pinterest’s activation, on the other hand, is when a user saves weekly, for four weeks after signup.

Plainly, you don’t need to talk to many Slack or Pinterest users to discover that their “aha” moments are unrelated to how many thousands of messages they sent, or how many consecutive months they saved pins. Activation is a business metric that suggests retention, but is not a reflection of the user’s experience.

I developed a model for understanding “aha” moments across a customer journey. It shows that “aha” moments can happen before or after activation and there can be multiple versions of “aha”/activation depending on a user’s intent/use case.

Irresistible moments of emotion

In understanding the relationship between “aha” moments and activation, then, it became clear that they differ in one fundamental respect: “aha” moments are when the user discovers value in your product; activation is when you see value in that user.

But as a researcher who strives to identify and measure the tangible, there is something irresistible about “aha” moments. Their beauty is their very subjectivity – they show how software can elicit an emotional reaction. Sure, apps may not forge as visceral an emotional connection as that prompted by the average Oscar-winning tearjerker or Broadway musical, but the delight and connection is there all the same.

In that sense, learning about “aha” moments, and the emotional resonance they are evidence of, can create its own kind of delightful “aha” moment for me – that fleeting delight when I discover a new layer of understanding and perspective.

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