Product Management

Leveraging User Psychology for User Onboarding, Part Two


On a high level, great user onboarding is an experience that delivers value to your new users swiftly. It educates them through action, relieves any of their anxieties toward change and gets them to your aha moment. This is what makes onboarding difficult to standardize. Every product delivers value in a different way, every user has different wants and needs.

Despite the differences in our desires, there are common links in the way our brains are hardwired to think. The consistency principle, as we covered in our last lesson, is a decision heuristic that the brain uses as a shortcut to make choices. When applied correctly, it can be a powerful force in getting users to adopt your product.

But consistency isn’t the only area of behavioral psychology that is an opportunity to improve user engagement. Here are three other opportunities, backed in scientific research, and applied by Quora, HelloBar and Ghost.

Show upfront progress

It’s probably not surprising to you that humans are more likely to achieve a goal after they’ve made progress against that goal. After all, we know getting started is often the hardest part. But researchers found that even the illusion of progress toward a goal can encourage us to reach the goal quicker.

This is known as the Goal Gradient Effect, and was observed when researchers set up and tested two versions of a coffee shop loyalty card that offered a free coffee after 10 purchases. The first was a standard 10-stamp card, and the second was a 12-stamp card with two preexisting “bonus” stamps already completed. The researchers found that customers who received the latter card completed the 10 purchases faster.

Quora User Onboarding

When Quora onboards new users, it briskly asks them to create an account and verify their email address. Once this is done, it shows them a progress bar that is already 40% completed (shown above). Considering the Goal Gradient Effect, users are far less likely to abandon the signup process when they see this upfront progress.

Give fewer options

In another study, psychologists set up two tasting booths for gourmet jams at a grocery store. One booth offered six flavors of jam, while the other one offered 24. Upon tasting the jams at the booth with six options, 40% of consumers chose to purchase one, while only 3% of those who were offered all 24 jams made a purchase. This is known as the Choice Paradox, and suggests that we should be more prescriptive with the choices we offer users.

HelloBar User Onboarding

HelloBar has a lot of permutations when you consider all of its options. Users can redirect traffic to any URL, choose one of eight social sharing options, or collect email addresses. Not to mention, they can set the style of the bar, selecting any color scheme and customizing the text.

Looking at all these options side by side could be intimidating and lead to indecision, just as it did to shoppers at the tasting booth with 24 jams. To avoid this indecision, HelloBar wisely architected an upstream choice in the onboarding process based on a user’s goal.

Emphasize an aha moment as an uncompleted task

Ever wonder how a waitress can perfectly recall a table of 12’s order without writing a single item down? Well it turns out that human brains focus more on uncompleted tasks than completed ones. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect, named for the soviet psychologist who studied the phenomenon.

When the blogging platform Ghost dug into own data it realized that new users who accomplish one specific task were 10x more likely to subscribe to a paid account than those who don’t. Surprisingly enough, that task was not publishing a blog post. It was adding a custom blog theme.

Ghost User Onboarding

When they discovered this data, Ghost created a getting started checklist that included adding a custom theme and showed users a video of how to select a theme. Ghost also sent a lifecycle email specifically to users who have not yet added a theme with the video.

They found that while only 7% of new users add a custom theme, 26% of those that watch the tutorial video do. By orienting this aha moment as an uncompleted task, and reminding users about it, Ghost can drive many more users to take action and therefore convert into paying accounts.

The Bottom Line

Understanding how the human brain makes decisions could help you design a user onboarding process that converts more users into enthusiastic customers. But these are just three areas of behavioral psychology that you could use. There are many more - some abstract and some tactical - that are worth exploring for advanced marketers, UX designers and product managers. Here are a few resources that have influenced our thoughts on the intersection of psychology and user experience design:

One part of psychology that we have not covered is the role it plays in your copywriting. In fact, copywriting is something we have barely covered in the onboarding academy. But the words you choose can have an astonishing impact on your user engagement and getting to the aha moment. More on that in our next lesson.

Want to become a User Onboarding Master? Check out our free User Onboarding Academy!

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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