Making Stuff People Love: A Framework to Design for Sustainable Engagement

The Ladder of Sustainable Engagement is a framework for crafting products & services that provide meaningful value, have a balanced rhythm, embody an emotional personality, and endure over time.

Design Is About Relationships

When we create something, we start a relationship with whomever uses it. As the ones starting these relationships, it’s our responsibility (and in our best interests) to make them healthy ones.

Healthy relationships are valuable, balanced, emotional, and satisfying.

Healthy relationships grow deeper over time.

A healthy relationship helps everyone involved in some meaningful way. The rhythm feels fluid, natural, and balanced. Interaction is personal, because participants listen actively and respond with emotion to each other. And the benefit endures, growing deeper over time.

These hallmarks of a healthy relationship are also the four key attributes of a sticky, i.e. sustainably engaging, product or service.

Design is about relationships, so designing for sustainable engagement is designing for healthy relationships.

But Design ≠ Design

I use the term design here for simplicity, but it’s not limited to designers. Like Alex Schleifer, I see product or service design as a collaborative effort between all problem solvers, from content strategists to engineers to the end-user.

So This Is Part of My Playbook

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to fit my process into a coherent structure, to create a playbook for myself. However, I quickly realized that I was doing it backwards: the process should follow the challenge, not the other way around.

My work for the past couple of years has revolved around helping people make healthy choices. In my eyes, the biggest challenge there is keeping people engaged in the relationship once we’ve started it.

So this is my answer to that challenge, an attempt to understand what a product or service needs to be to sustainably engage people. I don’t intend this to be exhaustive, nor to be perfect. But I do hope it’s useful for you, dear reader, and for myself 😁

The Ladder of Sustainable Engagement

When crafting something that needs to inspire people’s interest and keep them engaged, we can view it as being somewhere on this ladder of having four attributes: meaning, rhythm, personality, and endurance.

Ladder of Sustainable Engagement @brianpagan
Inspired by David Rose’s Ladder of Enchanted Objects

Design Tools

For each step in the ladder, there are certain design tools that help us with infusing the relevant attribute into our product or service. This overview isn’t exhaustive, and there is some healthy overlap between steps.

Step 1: Meaning

Understand what people really need and give it to them.

If your creation isn’t meaningful for people, no amount of “great design” will make it successful.

Design Research provides the starting point. We can anticipate what people might consider valuable by interviewing people, observing them, and immersing ourselves in the worlds they inhabit.

Lean Startup and frameworks like it provide us with a powerful methodology to test assumptions and evaluate just how meaningful our value propositions really are.

Step 2: Rhythm

Make the interaction fit the organic ebb and flow of human behavior.

The more natural something’s rhythm feels, the more easily it fits into our lives.

Conversational UI mimics aspects of person-to-person communication, so interacting with a product or service can feel more natural. Chat is one way, but there are many more.

The HOOK Habit Model by Nir Eyal shows us that every sticky habit includes a Trigger, an Action, a Variable Reward, and a way to Invest. This gives us a blueprint for designing for lasting habits.

Step 3: Personality

Delight people and help them connect emotionally to your product or service.

Giving things personality lets us relate to them on a deep, visceral level.

A System Character gives your product or service human traits, making it easier for people to relate to it as if it were another person.

Emotional Data Visualization helps people intuitively understand abstract patterns in ways that inspire action. For example, Mindbloom’s Life Game app visualizes a person’s life as a tree. If the “My Relationships” leaf withers and turns brown, it should inspire me to spend more time with my family.

Mindbloom Life Game

Step 4: Endurance

Keep people interested by increasing your value over time.

Enduring relationships are the most meaningful ones.

Narrative Mapping gives us a way to plot a story around a long-term experience. Then, we can design things to enable that story.

Continuous Analytics tells us if we’re still giving people meaningful value, so we can decide whether to continue or change the relationship.


These aspects of the framework aren’t limited to one step. They serve to enable us along our entire design journey.


These guide decision-making and keep people working towards the same vision. They come from applying your core values to the specific needs of the domain.

For example, applying ethics as a core value to the domain of personal health, we get the principle: People have full control of their data at all times.


The process follows the challenge, so as the challenge changes, the process must adapt. Whatever the process though, teams work best when people collaborate tightly, have creative freedom, and focus on value.


Show always beats tell. Make an artifact that represents your concept and provoke your stakeholders with it. This lets you test assumptions and make sure your idea creates the value it needs to.

Show always beats tell.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is a scenario to role-play, a sketch on paper, or a clay model. Create a prototype and show it to the people who need to build it, the people who need to buy it, the people who need to sell it, and most importantly, the people who need to use it.

This Is Just The Beginning

The Ladder of Sustainable Engagement represents the foundation of my design playbook. It’s part of a larger quest to articulate my own design vision, mission, and process. If you’re on a similar quest, or if you’re looking to develop your UX superpowers, stop by The Greatness Studio and see if we can help!


Special thanks to Hester Bruikman! This post also appears on Medium.

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