Activation Barrier Analysis: A Methodology for Improving User Activation [Template Included]

In the book Hacking Growth, authors Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown talk about diving into your data to identify factors that influence each stage of a user's journey through the funnel. The purpose is to find low-hanging fruit where users can be nudged towards engaging with your product and thereby finding value in it. 

But if you are an early stage company without a great deal of users, there is a problem with this: you don’t yet have sufficient data.

In this article I’ll run through a framework designed for ‘pre-data’, early-stage startups that allows them to identify barriers for users on their journey to activation.

The ‘Activation Barrier Analysis’ is a methodology for startups to identify factors that inhibit early users from becoming active users of your product. This methodology will help you shape and refine the very nature of your product and how it delivers value for your users - something that is easily overlooked because startups often lack product marketing expertise in the early days.

What is ‘activation’?

Activation refers to the stage of the funnel where the user finds value in your product and transitions from exploring your product to being an active user. This usually happens at the moment the user realises your product could change their life for the better; commonly called the ‘aha moment’.

This moment is different for each product and may not be overtly obvious, particularly without access to an extended period of usage data.

Activation is usually expressed as a % rate in a given time period calculated as follows:

Activation rate = No. of users activated / no. of users acquired x 100 

Activation as a critical metric

The argument can be made that activation is the most important metric to SaaS success for two reasons. Firstly, Appcues demonstrated that a percentage increase in activation has the greatest impact on your bottom line than the same proportional increase in any other metric. 

Secondly, there is usually a substantial drop-off in high-quality users (i.e. they have already expressed interest in your product) at the activation stage after you have already sunk costs on acquisition and possibly on-boarding. This makes activation the lowest hanging fruit for converting interested prospects into long-term paying customers thereby improving LTV:CAC (lifetime value:customer acquisition cost). 

Improving your activation rate will see your customers more freely flow from the top of your funnel to the bottom, thereby increasing other important metrics downstream such as customer lifetime value, referral rate, brand salience and overall revenue growth. 

It’s therefore important to speculate, hypothesise, experiment and ultimately eliminate the barriers that present to users during the journey to activation.

Activation for ConstructionTech

It needs to be said that activation in ConstructionTech may look a lot different from other industries. The unique nuances of the construction industry must be considered when approaching and interpreting initiatives, testing and metrics related to activation.

Construction can be characterised by several unique traits that affect activation and, more broadly, the industry’s adoption and use of technology, including:

  • Disinterest and/or illiteracy in technology
  • Field workers with limited device access
  • Fast-paced, reactive working environment means limited user time and energy
  • Averse to change and adoption of new practices (inertia)
  • Lack of passion for the industry due to long hours and resentment
  • Sales heavy with manual customer onboarding and hand-holding required 

The consequence of these traits is often that in order to succeed in construction, the learning curve must be low, onboarding seamless, time-to-value quick, UX refined and technical support prompt.

Performing an Activation Barrier Analysis

Step 1 - Identify key tasks
Step 2 - Hypothesise the point of activation
Step 3 - Map out the user journey to activation
Step 4 - Brainstorm potential barriers at each step
Step 5 - Rank the biggest barriers
Step 6 - Develop solutions for each barrier

Step 1 - Identify key tasks

The first part of this step is to (if you haven’t already) identify the core UVP (unique value proposition) of your product. This is a one-liner that concisely articulates what value your product brings to your customer that they can’t achieve with any other product. 

Secondly, break up the UVP into each of the benefits that your product brings. This may be time savings, reduction of errors, etc.

Thirdly, break down the benefits into the product features that provide those benefits.

And finally, write down the key tasks or jobs (commonly referred to as ‘jobs-to-be-done’) that each feature allows users to perform that saves them time, cost, quality or any other desirable outcome. In other words, which tasks does your product help your users complete. Focus predominantly on the ones that will really make them say: “wow that is a lot easier than the old way I did things”.

The reason we do this from the top down (UVP > Tasks), is so the focus is on the core value that your product brings the user. We really want to focus on the benefits that bring about a step-change in users’ lives, rather than every small benefit that your product could provide.

Let’s use a 3D site imaging tool as an example:

Let’s say the tool is designed to capture photos of the entire construction site daily using cameras mounted onto workers’ hardhats. The output is a cloud-based web portal allowing the construction team, consultants and clients to log in and see a 3D photogrammetric model of the site from the day before.

There’s several benefits this product would provide such as site inspections that can be undertaken from the office. But it is not until a user completes a task using one of the product’s features, that they see any of this benefit. 

Say a project manager needs to sign off on work undertaken yesterday (task). The 3D imaging tool has already automatically synced (feature) the photos taken at 5pm yesterday ready for the project manager in the morning, so she doesn’t have to attend site for that sole purpose, saving them 2 hours of their day (benefit).

Step 2 - Hypothesise the point of activation

You don’t need to know exactly where the moment of activation is (or will be) to reduce barriers to guiding users to it. The whole point of this analysis is to ‘clear the path’ by eliminating unnecessary friction and drop-off points for your users so they can derive value from your product (either once or several times).

This will create a clearer picture in your product analytics (in future) by reducing obscurity around what factors actually lead users to activation. 

After we have identified the UVP, benefits, product features and user tasks, we are better placed to make an assumption on the aha moment. 

To do this, we need to speculate about how many times the user would need to experience (and what combination of) these value-adding moments to come to a realisation of how beneficial your product is to improve their life.

In the 3D imaging tool example, you may estimate the user would need to derive value 4 times that saves them a total of 5 hours labour before they come to the realisation that the tool can save them 20+ hours per month and therefore significantly change their life for the better (see below). 

Step 3  - Map out the user journey to activation

The third step in the activation barrier analysis is to map out the user journey from awareness/interest to the hypothesised point of activation you established in Step 2. You may need several user journeys depending on the complexity of your product and number of user personas.

Creating a user journey map is a whole topic on its own. In enterprise construction software, the steps may be non-linear and, therefore, not overtly clear. And if you haven’t yet got a large stream of customers so can’t rely on user analytics, you may need to conduct usability testing to confirm the extent of variations in user journeys. But you can also speculate for now.

Each step is a potential source of frustration or drop-off point so be sure to include every one that your user has to go through. And, in the next part we will need to identify/brainstorm friction-points at each.

For our 3D imaging tool example, the journey may look like the below.

Step 4 - Brainstorm potential barriers at each step

With your user journeys mapped out, now get into the minds of your users, think about what they are trying to achieve and start ideating the most likely or biggest obstacles, pain points and frustrations in the way. Let your imagination run a bit wild. 

Think about the times you have used a product for the first time. How easy was it to achieve your goals? What frustrated you about the experience? What did you wish was available but wasn’t? Why did you end up bouncing?

Consider several categories of potential problems including:

  1. UI and usability - consider Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 Usability Heuristics
  2. Technical errors
  3. User fatigue which may include factors such as no. of steps and logic of step sequence to derive value
  4. Friction
  5. Informational - lack of information
  6. Task accomplishment - what can’t they achieve that they wish they could?

Write down every possible barrier you can think of for each and every step on the user journey.

In the table below, I’ve outlined some potential barriers for each of the stages of the user journey identified for our 3D imaging tool in Step 3.

As you can see in this table, the potential barriers list can start to build up quickly. This is why in the next step we will rank them in order of highest priority.

Step 5 - Rank the biggest barriers 

Ranking the barriers identified in Step 4 in order of their impact on activation (i.e. those causing the most friction, usability problems or drop-offs) will allow you to target the highest impact barriers first.

Evaluate each barrier using a typical risk matrix such as:

Frequency/Probability x Consequence = Barrier Size


Frequency/Probability = how often or likely it is that users meet the barrier
Consequence = how severe is the result of a user meeting the barrier
Barrier Size = how detrimental the barrier is to activation

This will provide you with a score for each barrier that allows you to clearly see and prioritise the barriers that will pose the biggest threat to user activation.

Let’s look at an example from our 3D site imaging tool.


Once you do have access to user data, you can use it to confirm or debunk your hypothesised barriers identified in Step 4. For example, perhaps you identified a barrier as follows:

“Users may exit without saving their work, assuming changes are saved automatically leading to substantial frustration.”

To confirm whether this is actually a barrier, you may query your data to see if any users completed the exact same task twice. 

Qualitative user testing and quantitative data collected by analytics tools can also be used to unearth other barriers that weren’t identified during brainstorming, as per existing growth hacking frameworks. 

Depending on the nature of your product, some of the metrics you may need to collect include:

  • Drop-offs
  • Abandonment rate (i.e. Exits without task completion)
  • Rage clicks
  • Time to first value
  • Non-linear task completion
  • Usage time
  • Session intervals
  • App crashes/technical faults/network errors
  • App speed/load time/latency
  • Technical support tickets
  • Customer queries

Note: Many problems may be difficult to find if you analysed the data without first getting in the heads of your users and brainstorming potential activation barriers. It’s important to brainstorm ideas before looking at your data, as many things won’t be overtly noticeable unless you are specifically looking for them. In other words, looking at data alone can be restrictive so you should first get your creativity flowing through deeply empathising with user personas.

Step 6 - Develop solutions for each barrier

Step 6 is the fun part - getting creative to develop solutions for each barrier. 

These are what Wes Bush, author of Product-Led Growth, describes as ‘product bumpers’. Just like bumpers in a bowling alley to keep the ball from dropping into the gutter, these features keep your users on track so they achieve their goal (knocking over the pins).

For example, if a source of user frustration is accidental exit without saving, this could be easily solved with a pop-up notification that appears upon exiting (a feature Microsoft use to save users of Word & Excel a hell of a lot of heartache over the years).

But usually, the solution won’t be as simple as a ‘bumper’. At an early stage you are still constructing the bowling alley. You are still shaping your product to guide users to its true core value. 

At the early stage, solutions to activation are more likely to be substantial and require development teams to implement, adding to your already-backlogged roadmap. Furthermore, it may require a range of potential solutions to be tabled and experimented upon to test which one best minimises or eliminates the barrier. 

To prioritise which features you should be adding to your roadmap, you can implement an ICE matrix for feature prioritisation.

More to come...