[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018, but has been updated with fresh content and examples for 2020.]
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 can be intimidating or even 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 tap into powerful psychological principles, motivating new users to complete—and even enjoy—the crucial setup tasks required to get your product up and running. Checklists turn complex, multistep processes—like scheduling out a month of social media content for the first time—into simple, achievable tasks: choose 3 posting times, import your RSS feed, hit “schedule,” et voila!
To help you improve product adoption, we'll look at 6 different in-app implementations of onboarding checklists and explore the psychology that makes them so effective.
Let's dive in!
✅ 1. A quick-win checklist to keep motivation high
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 highlights the product’s core value—simple, organized note taking. It demonstrates 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 a simple, easy-to-reach aha moment—an in-app action that demonstrates immediate value.
✅ 2. A partially completed checklist to drive feature adoption
Getting users to explore and adopt new features is an important part of creating product stickiness and improving retention. But it’s easier said than done.
Asana’s project board onboarding process, for example, consists of several steps that are essential to getting a user up and running with the feature.
But if left to their own devices, there is a strong likelihood that users would bypass the onboarding and jump right into using the feature without understanding the fundamentals. As a result, there’s a much higher likelihood users miss the “aha moment” and drop the feature—or even the entire product—itself..
To motivate more users to adopt the feature, Asana used a punchy onboarding checklist that opens up with the first task already marked off as complete.
The checklist sits on top of the main dashboard, acting as a persistent reminder of where users are in the process. A combination of visual cues like faded and bolded text alongside “On the right track!” copy, emphasizes incomplete tasks. Since the list is of to-dos is short, that incompleteness is motivating, rather than discouraging.
That’s because Asana’s checklist harnesses the principles of the Zeigarnik Effect, which states objectives left incomplete will overwhelm a person’s thoughts overtime and drive them to complete them. If you’ve ever ended an episode or book chapter on a cliff-hanger, you know the feeling all too well. Just like the viewer that clicks “next episode” or the reader that turns the page, users want to see a checklist finished.
Best used by: Products that require lots of small tasks to get set up.
✅ 3. The subtle checklist that lets users go at their own pace
Tandem is a language exchange app that lets users practice their language skills with native speakers.
The app opts for a more subtle approach to the onboarding checklist. Tandem uses a progress bar just above the navigation bar to alert new users to the fact that they have unfinished tasks but that the finish line is in sight.
Tapping on the banner opens up the full onboarding checklist, while scrolling up hides the progress bar. This tactic is effective because it reminds users that they’ve left something incomplete without disrupting their in-app experience.
Tandem’s approach to the classic onboarding checklist is effective because it lets the user drive the pace at which they explore the app’s various features without letting important tasks fall by the wayside.
Best used by: Apps that have onboarding tasks that are non-essential for functionality but still important to getting users to experience maximum value.
✅ 4. A "network effect" checklist that kickstarts engagement
For unfamiliar with the term , let’s quickly define what a network effect is:
Network effect = similar to virality, but defined by team-led growth that is primarily contained within an organization and usually driven by the pursuit of productivity and efficiency
GrowthHackers understands that a network effect, which begins by inviting and interacting with other users, can drive up adoption and retention within a product. They use their onboarding checklist to kickstart the network effect and get new users active in the GH community as quickly as possible.
The milestones set by the checklist center around connection and contribution. GrowthHackers aims to inspire user engagement by creating connections amongst like-minded peers and colleagues.
We like that this checklist example uses deep-links for easy task completion and updates in real-time. The side-bar onboarding experience follows users along on their journey without being overly intrusive.
✅ 5. An interactive tutorial checklist for flexible onboarding
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 is, the harder it can be 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 to their needs, the Airtable 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. Each tutorial minimizes down to a color-coded icon, with a friendly little check mark appearing as users complete each lesson.
Best used by: Powerful products with dozens of different use cases that require a flexible, opt-in approach to onboarding.
✅ 6. An "account strength" checklist that fast-tracks power usage
Acorn is a popular mobile app that lets you automatically invest your spare change. There are at least 8 steps to become a fully activated user, so Acorns created a straight-forward onboarding checklist to let users see exactly what's left in the process.
The nice thing about this checklist is that it indicates a long-term vision for user success. The first threshold (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. But until that goalpost is reached, the prominent progress bar at the top nudges the user to continue on.
Best used by: Products that have high 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 involved 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.
👉Want to add an onboarding checklist to your own product? Appcues Checklists lets you build, publish, and iterate on checklists—no coding needed. Check it out!