In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande says that “under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.”
Checklists break complex systems into steps in ways that help even expert practitioners avoid mistakes. For processes where execution is too big a task to commit to memory, checklists are invaluable—like in user onboarding.
Using a new product is intimidating. It can be frustrating. A great checklist can not only help new users through your product but also get them to their “Aha!” moment faster and more reliably.
Checklists can hook into powerful psychological principles, motivating new users to complete—and even enjoy—the crucial setup tasks required to get your product up and running. The lists turn complex, multistep processes, such as scheduling out a month of social media content, into simple, achievable tasks: Choose five posting times, import your RSS feed, and hit “schedule.”
To help you improve product adoption, we'll look at five different in-app implementations of onboarding checklists and explore the psychology that makes them so effective.
1. The quick-win checklist
Evernote's onboarding checklist kicks off with a simple, easy-to-complete task: Create a new note. Within seconds of launching the app, new users can click a single button and tick off the first step in the onboarding process, unlocking the “feel good” factor that comes from a job well done.
But this quick win does more than offer a rush of dopamine; it also builds on the psychological principle of commitment and consistency. When we commit to a course of action, we become psychologically invested in seeing our decision through to the end. Evernote's checklist sucks us in with a quick and simple first step and, in doing so, gives an incentive to continue through the setup process.
The “Quick Win” checklist works particularly well for Evernote because that first step demonstrates a lot of the product's value: creating a note shows how quick and easy it is to get your ideas out of your head and into a notebook that's accessible from anywhere in the world. In a single step, new users have both committed to the onboarding process and reached a valuable Aha! moment.
Best used by: Products with an easy-to-reach Aha! moment—an in-app action that demonstrates immediate value
2. The partially completed checklist
Many products require a bit of input before you can reach the meat of the experience. Case in point: Quora's onboarding process consists of several steps, many of which aren't compelling in their own right: “Follow more topics” or “Add 3 credentials.”
If left to their own devices, most users would ignore these setup steps and jump straight into the product. But without engaging in the onboarding process, their Quora feed would be empty and impersonal—and their chances of sticking around long enough to get value from the product would be next to zero.
Quora overcomes this hurdle by autocompleting the first step in the onboarding checklist: “Visit your feed.” Instead of greeting new users with a long to-do list, Quora presents them with a partially completed list: the simple act of visiting the home page already netted an achievement.
In doing so, Quora has harnessed the Zeigarnik Effect: We find it extremely difficult to ignore unfinished or incomplete objects, from a cliff-hanger in a TV soap opera to our own partially completed checklist. By adding a simple strike-through to the list, Quora has created an incentive for new users to work through the onboarding checklist: They want to see it finished.
Best used by: Products with lots of small, unengaging setup tasks
3. The expectation-setting checklist
GoDaddy's website builder is a big, complicated tool. It needs to be—it's designed as an all-in-one site builder, containing all of the functionality needed to design, customize, and launch a brand new website.
By necessity, this type of product needs a long and detailed onboarding process. There's a lot of hand-holding and explanation required to help users—especially tech novices—reach the end goal of launching a site. To get value from the product, new users need to be willing to spend significant time coming to grips with the tool.
To help ensure a decent level of commitment from its users, GoDaddy presents a simple onboarding checklist that provides a clear indication of the time required—“Lots of people finish in under an hour!”—and the steps needed to launch a finished website.
By being up-front about the time commitment, GoDaddy increases engagement and minimizes abandonment: Only users who have set aside a chunk of time will start the onboarding process.
Best used by: Products that require an extensive setup process and time commitment
4. The incentivized checklist
Few things are better motivators than cold, hard cash, so why not reward your users for completing the onboarding process? Coupon-hunting app Honey offers new users 50 Gold—an in-app currency, which can be redeemed for cash or gift cards—in exchange for completing each stage of the onboarding checklist.
In doing so, the checklist serves a dual purpose: New users are encouraged to explore the product's functionality, allowing them to receive rewards that further encourage in-app engagement; it's only possible to cash out your reward when you've reached 1,000 Gold, a feat that would require hours of time spent using the product.
This approach works well for companies that have a ready supply of discount codes or their own proprietary currency, but it's also viable for products that tie usage directly to price. If you charge per GB of storage used, it's relatively easy to offer extra storage for each completed step of your onboarding checklist.
Best used by: Companies that operate on a usage pricing model or offer their own in-app currency
5. The interactive-tutorial checklist
Airtable is a powerful tool that's used in thousands of different ways, from managing UX research to categorizing cheeses. But the more flexible a product, the harder it is to create a one-size-fits-all onboarding process. Even if you can cater to the most common use cases, you still risk alienating users who have a different vision.
Airtable sidesteps the traditionally prescriptive onboarding process by using a simple six-step checklist to launch short, visual tutorials. Instead of requiring new users to engage in complex tasks that might not be relevant, the company highlights a handful of key product features, such as creating custom views to sort data and adding collaborators to a project.
New users are free to engage with each tutorial as much as they like, effectively personalizing the onboarding process to focus only on the parts of the tool that match interests.
Best used by: Powerful products with dozens of different use cases
6. The progress-first checklist
Acorn is an app that lets you automate investing your spare change. There are at least 8 steps to become a fully activated user, so Acorns created this checklist to see exactly what's left to do.
Instead of completing when a user becomes activated (account is $10), this checklist continues until the user becomes more engaged in the product (increasing their account value to $100.) The big progress bar at the top nudges the user to continue on. The first threshold of getting your account to $10 is achievable, giving users a feeling of success before embarking on the the more challenging task of getting to $100.
Best used by: Products that have levels of engagement and want to get activated users to become power users.
Set customers up for success
The onboarding checklist brings a much-needed dose of simplicity to products that are growing more complex by the day. It provides a clear structure to help users navigate even the most convoluted setup processes and taps into potent psychological principles to make the tedious process of onboarding a bit more enjoyable.
Most importantly, it clears the way for a great customer experience. It provides new users with the knowledge they need to use your product to its full potential, setting them up for months and years of success, long after the onboarding process is finished.