Product Management

Leveraging User Psychology for User Onboarding, Part One


Here are the test results:

  • Group A: 17% conversion
  • Group B: 76% conversion

Long before A/B testing became commonplace in user onboarding for digital marketers, Jonathan Freeman and Scott Fraser observed these astonishingly different patterns of behavior among the two groups in their experiment.

In the mid 1960s, the two psychologists sent researchers posing as volunteers door to door in California neighborhoods. They requested homeowners put a sign in their yard – a particularly large and unsightly sign that read “DRIVE CAREFULLY”. Both of the groups received this request in exactly the same manner, with the volunteer showing homeowners a photograph of an otherwise attractive house obscured by the ugly sign. Yet while only 17% of Group A agreed to do so, 76% of Group B did. So why was there such a dramatic variance in their compliance with the request?

There was one notable difference between Group A and Group B. Two weeks earlier, a different volunteer asked homeowners in Group B to display a far less ostentatious 3”x3” sign that read “BE A SAFE DRIVER” in their window. Nearly all of those asked agreed to it.

But why did accepting the first sign mean someone had nearly a 5x higher likelihood of accepting the second sign? And how is this relevant to building software companies half a century later?

Leveraging Psychology During User Onboarding

Dr. Robert Cialdini covered these findings in his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In it, Cialdini presents the 6 Key Principles of Influence. Each of these principles is worth further exploration, and when well applied, could help you attract and retain more users.

But it’s only one principle that lead to Freeman and Fraser’s dramatic findings. And it’s so important to user onboarding that this entire post is dedicated to it. It’s the principle that underlies the onboarding experience for outstanding tech products like Twitter, Netflix and Slack: The Principle of Commitment and Consistency.

What is Consistency?

Consistency is one of many shortcuts that humans use to make decisions. As part of human nature, we have a desire to act consistently with our self-image. And this self-image is shaped primarily by actions we’ve taken in the past.

Go to CrossFit a few times? Now you may identify as a CrossFitter and make lifestyle choices that are consistent with that self-image.

Grow up rooting for a specific baseball team? That’s part of your self-image, too. Consider even if you now live 1,000 miles away and your favorite team hasn’t had a winning season in 20 years. There are countless reasons why realigning your baseball allegiance could benefit you, including:

  • Derive higher satisfaction rooting for a more successful team
  • Watch your new team’s games on TV on a regular basis
  • Not feel left out of the common bond your friends share in your new city

But despite all the benefits of changing, consistency with your self-image remains the easiest path forward. After all, you created that self-image through previous actions. You watched dozens of games a year with your dad, went to a few in person, and may have even bought a jersey and a hat to showcase your team pride.

Consistency puts your decision making process on auto pilot.

How we can trigger consistency

The key to consistency is commitment. In the yard sign example, the researchers were able to get homeowners in Group B to commit to something that shaped their self-image. They then likely saw themselves as people who stand for safe driving, or people who take action on community issues.

And it was this commitment that allowed for the staggering compliance with the much more substantial ask later on. Cialdini writes, “…[We have a] nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment.”

Getting users to make commitments can be an incredibly powerful technique in user onboarding. Here are four helpful techniques of driving users to commitments that will encourage consistent product usage over time.

Start with a small commitment

Just as Freeman and Fraser learned with the 3x3 sign, you want to create consistency among your users by first asking for small, reasonable commitments before your bigger asks. Your goal, of course, is to get a commitment that alters your user’s self-image enough to then create consistency. A good example of this in many SaaS businesses is offering free trials or freemium products.

Moz User Onboarding

In order to use Moz’s Open Site Explorer, all you have to do is type in a URL. You don’t even need to provide an email address, making the ask for the user quite reasonable.

But by using Open Site Explorer, marketers new to SEO are making a small commitment that adjusts their self-image. They may now say, “SEO is important to our growth” or “I am a SEO guru”, or even better “I am a Moz user”. And while this service is free, when the time is right for them to make a larger commitment to SEO, they have already created a self-image that will work in Moz’s favor.

Ask users to think about themselves

A powerful method of evoking consistency is to drive commitments that naturally allow users to reflect on, and adjust, their current self-image. This technique is commonly used in sales organizations, when salespeople ask prospects to tell them about their goals. The idea is to get the prospect to take a stand and admit to a problem or ambition they have.

When Lumosity wanted to learn more about their diverse set of users that were signing up, they decided to incorporate a survey as part of the new user signup process. The survey asked users about their goals and some demographic information. The team knew the survey would add more friction to the signup process, but we’re willing to make a temporary sacrifice to collect the valuable information.

Lumosity User Onboarding

To the surprise of the Lumosity team, those who saw the survey during the signup process actually subscribed at a 10% higher rate. But how? Didn’t they just add friction?

Despite making their singup process longer, Lumosity also created a one-two punch of commitment and consistency. As seen above, the survey asks users to make commitments about themselves and their goals. Then Lumosity presents users a solution, a platform for brain training, to be consistent with these commitments shortly afterwards.

Small commitments shouldn’t necessarily be effortless. The best commitments require people to think, make decisions, and take a real, meaningful stand.

BONUS: Check out Lumosity product designer Sushmita Subramanian’s awesome talk from the Design+Startup event.

Avoid narrowly contextual commitments

Many products have a very specific usage pattern. A music app may have heavy usage during morning commutes, while accounting software may be almost exclusively used at the end of the month.

But just because someone just signed up for your service doesn’t mean she’s ready to hop on the subway or close the monthly books. When driving action during new user onboarding, you want to ensure that the commitments users are asked to make are contextual independent of steady-state usage of your product.

Netflix User Onboarding

When users sign up for Netflix, the first ask after signing up is to personalize their viewing preferences. No matter the context of why the user is signing up, they should be able to commit to this during user onboarding. If Netflix rather tried to drive users to commit by watching their first movie, many new users wouldn’t follow through with the commitment. Not every user is sitting casually on the couch with a fresh bowl of popcorn on their lap.

Netflix could do even more to make this ask a smaller commitment. Right now users have to start a free trial and input their credit card to get to this point. Instead, Netflix may want to test making this the first action in the signup process, with the idea that it could drive more users to make the commitment and improve overall conversion.

Make the commitment public

As Cialdini writes, “the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.” One of the reasons we strive to appear consistent with our self-image is consistency is a desirable trait. Just think of how you perceive flip-flopping politicians or fair weather fans.

Duolingo User Onboarding

For software, this means actions taken in public can create more than just a viral loop. They can also encourage high engagement levels through social pressure of appearing consistent.

Duolingo has a great user onboarding process that drives users to action almost immediately. As part of it, the app encourages each new user to sign up with their Facebook account and invite their friends. Duolingo then gives you a leaderboard of your progress compared to that of other people you know. When your commitments are public like this, it’s much more difficult to fall back on them. 

The Bottom Line

Getting a user to become an enthusiastic promoter of your product has little to do with your product itself, and much more to do with your user. The adjustment in self-image that stands between “I went to CrossFit” and “I am a CrossFitter” allows the value of your product to become an extension of that person’s identity.

When thinking about your product’s commitments, here are four questions to ask yourself in relation to your new user onboarding:

  • How should a new user’s self-image change by using my product?
  • Of all the commitments I’m asking users to make, which are the smallest? Largest?
  • Which commitments can I make even smaller without making them easier to access? (Move in front of the pay wall or even the signup process)
  • Which commitments allow users to naturally reflect on their current situation?

While commitment and consistency is highly relevant to user onboarding, it is of course, just one principle in one field of psychology. There are many other observations and findings that can help you attract and retain more users, and that’s what we’ll cover in our next lesson.

Building @appcues, startup that will improve your user #onboarding | Learned @BucknellU & @HarvardHBS | Proud St. Louis native | Explorer | Made in the 80s

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