Customer Experience

Getting Users Psych'd: User Psychology for Better Onboarding

5 minute read

A user just finished your onboarding flow, closed your app and went AWOL. 

Even though you've A/B tested the copy and design of your welcome screen, even though you've determined which 3 core features predict user engagement down the line, and even though you've iterated and tested your onboarding sequence dozens of times—your users aren't sticking around. What's going on? 

You're only focusing on half the problem: eliminating friction. Dropbox Growth Engineer, Darius Contractor says the other half is inspiring your users (getting them to your Aha Moment)—which is just as difficult. To help product and design teams create a more engaging and stimulating experience he came up with the psych framework.

What's the Psych Framework?

The Psych Framework has one principle at its core:

“ Every element on the page adds or subtracts emotional energy”

To keep track of the effect of each element, Darius assigned this emotional energy a unit: psych, measure from 0 to 100At 0, a user is distracted, disinterested or frustrated and leaves your app or site. At 100, a user is fully engaged, eager to learn more or do more with your product.

Keeping track of how much psych a user has at any given time will inform the way in which you nudge them along in a given user experience. If their psych is high, then they're in a position to take in more information. If their psych is low, then they need to be pointed to value, gaining immediate satisfaction from their engagement.

Most people fail to create an effective onboarding experience, because they don't consider how a user feels at each step of the onboarding process. They evaluate each step as either A) engaging, or B) not engaging. They don't think of each step as building or subtracting the emotional energy of the user.

But if we divide user onboarding into three stages: first touch, walkthrough, and first engagement, we might see this kind of psych fluctuation:

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  • Stage 1: A user arrives at the welcome page already excited about the product. The welcome screen they encounter reinforces the reason they signed up, increasing psych.
  • Stage 2: After the welcome screen, the onboarding walkthrough will inevitably decrease psych as they start getting into the weeds.
  • Stage 3: Finally, a positive first-time experience with a feature might raise that psych back up, getting them engaged in the app.

The psych framework helps you think about each step of the onboarding experience in context. You're not just thinking about eliminating friction generally—you're thinking about what they just experienced, how much energy and attention they have remaining, and how you can move them towards engagement and your aha moment. 

Here's how to apply the psych framework for each stage in the onboarding process.

Stage 1: The welcome screen

Starting Psych: Medium-High

Goal: Bump up psych with positive reinforcement

Your user just learned all about your product, thanks to your marketing efforts. They just perused your website, read reviews, maybe even looked through some of your help docs. Every experience they've had with your brand so far has been positive, so they decided to give your product a try. At this point, you need to make sure you increase psych to leave a positive first impression.

They first open up your app or website, full of anticipation. Their psych is high as they judge whether your product is as useful in practice as it is in theory. The first impression—your welcome screen—either delivers on or disappoints their expectation. And the follow-up, your welcome email, further reinforces the idea you've presented and (hopefully), nudges them back into the app.

Crayon, a suite of marketing intelligence tools, does precisely that by summing up the benefits of the product:


A user who recently signed up for the product gets a refresh on what they'll get out of it. They get a top-level overview before getting thrown into the weeds. Should they pop out of this, they'll get a gentle nudge back via their welcome email:


This email builds on what was said in the welcome email, and give users the opportunity to dive deeper and explore more features of the product.

Compare that experience with the one:

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Olark doesn't show any value in this welcome screen. Instead, they force the user to make a decision, first thing. This creates friction before the onboarding has even begun. Because a user doesn't know what “configure” means, there's an immediate concern that skipping straight to “chat” is depriving them of the opportunity to set up Olark in the best way.

How to increase psych first

To reinforce the value that users expect, you need to be confident that you know why they're signing up. As Sean Ellis mentions in his framework for organic growth: start by learning your product’s value from its most passionate users, then use that to inform future onboarding experiences.

Use email surveys to ask your existing customers about both their initial expectations, and whether the product fulfilled them. You can ask questions like:

  • Where did you hear about the product?
  • What particular feature did you expect to be most valuable?
  • Which feature do you use the most?
  • Why did you choose our product over the competitors?

Once you have your answers, you have data on both how to formulate your welcome message, and how to ensure that the messaging in your acquisition efforts is aligned with the service you're actually delivering your customers.

Your welcome message copy should succinctly state the value you promised in your marketing campaigns. Ideally, it'll state a high-level purpose (“keep your inbox clean”), and then one or two concrete ways in which your product helps accomplish that purpose (“by filtering and tagging,” and “setting up auto-sweep”).

Stage 2: The active walkthrough

Starting Psych: High

Goal: Minimize negative psych while briefing on product capabilities

Your user just got through the welcome screen and is feeling pretty good about their decision to sign up for your product. They're feeling ready and excited to start using the product, but to get there they need to learn how. Your goal is to minimize the amount of negative psych, by keeping the walkthrough short and effective. You need to provide enough information to get started, but not so much to overwhelm and frustrate.

At this point a user has a small amount of patience stored up to get through a walkthrough on the most critical features. This, inevitably is going decrease their psych, as it's prolonging how long it takes for the user to start actually implementing the product.

Take a look at how Slack accomplishes this:

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Slack has a ton of features that a new user might want to take advantage of: dozens of integrations, customizable preferences such as notifications and snooze options, private groups, themes for better personalization, etc. But in their mandatory walkthrough, they only mention the core features: channels and direct messages.

Now compare that to iTunes' 9-step mandatory walkthrough:

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iTunes' “quick” tour teaches a user how to play music, how to create a playlist, how to add a song to the queue, how to shop, and more. Not only will a user never be able to retain all of that information—but it's a waste of time. They're eager to get into iTunes to hear the newest J Cole album, not read through an instruction manual. 

The difference between iTunes and Slack's walkthrough isn't so much the steps—but the focus. Slack's onboarding guides users through one behavior that encourages further engagement: messaging your co-workers.

How to cut down negative psych in your walkthrough

There are a number of tools that can be used to put together an onboarding walkthrough—you can use progress bars and checklists, coach marks, modals, or Appcues' simple tooltips. But the tools will prove ineffective unless you determine a single focus of your onboarding that will kickstart user engagement and set them up for long-term success with your app.

For this, you need to look at user behavior and determine the single, biggest predictor of success.

Start by finding your most active daily users by looking at metrics like:

  • Average session interval.
  • Average session length. 
  • Overall time in app. 
  • Visits to screens.

Once you determine your most active users, compare their behaviors to those who churn. You should be able to find a correlation between the type of engagement of those you retain and those who leave—the Aha Moment. Then, build a short walkthrough that points users towards this Aha Moment in the minimum number of steps.

Stage 3: The first-time user experience

Starting Psych: Medium-Low

Goal: Bump up psych significantly by showing usefulness of product

Your user just finished your walkthrough and they're eager to start tinkering. This is the pivotal moment that all your acquisition efforts, your welcome screen copy and design, and your walkthrough have been preparing them for. Their psych is low, and they need to feel like the money and time spent setting up have been worth it. 

The first-time user experience needs to be immediately rewarding to bump that psych back up. This means that you have to nudge them towards a first action that will yield an immediately beneficial outcome.

Dropbox nudges users to drag-and-drop a folder right after their walkthrough:



Once you put a folder into your Dropbox account, you get a pop notification that alerts you that you've completed your first task, and then explains the benefits of this behavior.

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This immediate reward shows you the utility of the product and encourages investment and continued use.

Compare that to your first time experience with Trello:

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After your walkthrough, you're left with a laundry list of things to try. But whether you add a card, create a board, or drag a card, there's no immediate sense of satisfaction. No thank-goodness-I-got-this-product, Aha Moment. The psych isn't increased.

How to push psych back up for their first-time Experience

The first-time experience needs to excite and motivate in order to bump up the psych. In order to do this, you need to reward a users' first solo interaction with your product. This sets into motion what Nir Eyal calls the Hook Canvas:


Before the user got to this point, they were interested by an external trigger—a marketing campaign or a recommendation from a friend. They signed up or entered their information, and went through your onboarding sequence. Now is the time for the fulfilling, variable reward.

To make sure that the first action is rewarding, you can employ a number of different strategies:

  • Visual celebrations. A pop-up message or a tooltip that positively reinforces the first step. It can be as small as a “hurrah!” or a “congratulations!” that tells the user that they did everything right.
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  • Social connection. Connect them to the community to enable them to share their progress and learn more about what's possible. This helps them feel accountable to themselves and their connections to keep using your product.
  • An email follow up. A transactional email can mention the accomplishment of the first step and offer recommendations that build off of their existing engagement.

The reward doesn't need to be huge—a simple nudge of encouragement is all it takes for users to feel like they've done something right and they're on the right track.

Don't onboard in a vacuum

Many product teams think about onboarding as a way to teach a user everything they need to be engaged with the product. But few think about it from the user's perspective. They don't take into account all the touches a user already had with your brand, how much friction they've already gone through, and what they're eager to get started with.

The psych framework is a way of forcing yourself to think about the whole end-to-end experience with your product—what did the marketing promise, what did the onboarding teach, and how well is a user set up to find the Aha Moment, go deeper and get more engaged with the product? This framework will keep you in check and enable you to think about the experience from the user's perspective, so that your onboarding isn't just frictionless—it's inspiring.

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