Four Questions Towards Understanding User Adoption of Your Product

Josh Elman
3 min readAug 4, 2015


Pretty much every new app has the following problem: lots of people sign up but don’t stick around.

I frequently get asked what are benchmarks for retention after one day or one week. My answer tends to be the same for products in the early days:

Ignore the benchmarks. Find the patterns in the stories of people who do get your product. Figure out what converted them and got them so excited to keep using your product every day or every week. In the early days, your main focus should be to attract and create more and more of those “core users” who deeply use your product. Over time you can try to increase averages, but first, you just need a core and strong base.

Most people look too much at the “big data” and try to draw conclusions. In the early days of a product you have to talk to people. You need anecdotes much more than data. You could say The plural of anecdote is data.

Talking to actual users

To collect anecdotes, you have to talk to actual users. The best users to call are ones who can help you understand why they tried your product and what hooked them. I like to look for bouncebacks. Bouncebacks are users that have tried your product, bailed immediately and didn’t find it useful, came back to try again for some reason (at least 1 week later, or even better, 1 month later), and then got hooked.

The first step is to identify some bounceback users to call. Select users who you now consider highly active users, but had a specific gap between the time of first signup, and getting into habitual use. Look for different ranges of time between their first attempt to use the product, and when they returned and got hooked. Reach out to them and ask if they would be willing to chat with you about their experiences with your product. It is good to target having around 10 conversations. It is ok to divide the conversations up among different team members.

Ask the following four questions:

1) What prompted you to sign up and try out our product in the first place?

2) What did not meet your expectations or what was hard to figure out?

3) Why did you come back to give the product another try?

4) What worked the second time that got you using it more frequently?

Try to find patterns in their answers to help you understand:

  • the reasons people were interested to try out your product in the first place
  • what your product did not deliver upon first experience
  • better messages that caused the user to come back and still be interested a second time
  • what they did to convert to become an active user

From these patterns, you can invest in revising your marketing and improving your product and onboarding. Revamp your messaging to focus more on the messages that brought people back and got them engaged. Update your product and onboarding to simplify whatever the users did the second time to get fully engaged.

A lot of this I learned from a project that Twitter ran with Adaptive Path in 2009 to start understanding our user growth challenges. @stop, @trammell and @ladylexy were instrumental in putting together that first set of user research and learnings that led to a lot of the growth work Twitter invested in over the subsequent years.

We learned from early users that many of them signed up for Twitter and thought it was just a megaphone. When they had nothing to say, and didn’t otherwise understand the product they bailed. When they later heard about how valuable Twitter could be if they followed their reverend or the food truck that broadcasts its location every day, they came back and tried again. But this second time they specifically sought out people to follow and had a good experience. We rapidly rebuilt our onboarding to focus much more on following and finding the right people which caused significant increases in how many users were activated after signing up. We revised our messaging to talk much more about finding and following the right people on Twitter instead of talking about tweeting and broadcasting.

I recommend doing this exercise of interviewing new bounceback users every 6 months. You’ll learn a lot about how to keep improving your adoption and activation.



Josh Elman

I love building products that people use. I‘ve helped build Twitter, Facebook Connect, LinkedIn, Robinhood. Investor in Medium, Tiktok/, Discord