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Using Psychology to Improve User Onboarding
How psychology research can help us design better onboarding experiences
Designing an effective onboarding experience is crucial for ensuring that new users fully understand and engage with a product or service. By leveraging insights from psychology, we can create onboarding experiences that are not only informative but also enjoyable and memorable. Here’s how you can use psychology research to improve user onboarding (and not only)!
The Zeigarnik effect refers to the tendency to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. It is named after Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who was the first to notice this phenomenon. TV show writers use this effect to make us keep watching a show by often ending stories in cliffhangers.
Here are some ways you can use the Zeigarnik effect in onboarding:
Show a progress meter to users once they start onboarding or a checklist.
If users haven’t confirmed their email, send them a reminder.
Allow users to get started or use the app before completing their full profile. Needing to fill in more information, will result in them returning to complete the tasks.
It is named after the psychologist William Edmund who, together with Ray Hyman in 1952, started to examine the relationship between the number of choices presented and a person’s reaction time to a specific stimulus. They found that the more options a user has, the longer they need to make decisions and the harder that is. In UX, reducing the number of choice results in faster and easier decision making for the users and (usually) a better experience.
In the case of onboarding we can do this by categorising the choices users have, reducing complexity, and giving users “easy” options by highlighting them. Doing this reduces the user’s cognitive load. An example of this is progressive onboarding.
Goal Gradient effect (and the endowed progress effect)
The Goal Gradient Effect was first described by Clark Hull in 1932 and it states that as people get closer to a reward, they speed up their behaviour to get to their goal faster. This phenomenon suggests that people are motivated by how much is left to reach their target, not by how far they’ve come.
This effect relates to the endowed progress effect; the idea that if you provide some type of artificial advancement toward a goal, a person will be more motivated to complete the goal. For example, if you’ve ever been to a coffee shop where the barista gave you two stamps instead of one, you’ve been the victim of the endowed progress effect.
The endowed progress effect shows that although both require ten steps to get to the goal. People tend to work harder and faster when they feel they have been given a head start.
When it comes to onboarding you can use this effect by checking off the first onboarding task once users sign up to your app/website. This will make them more likely to want to carry on and complete the process.
The peak-end rule is a cognitive bias that affects how people remember past events. It was first described by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues in a 1993 study.
In their experiment they exposed participants to two uncomfortable (but not dangerous) experiences:
A short trial in which they immersed one hand in water at 14 °C (57.2°F) for 60 s
in the long trial, they immersed the other hand at 14 °C for 60 s, then kept the hand in the water 30s longer as the temperature of the water was gradually raised to 15 °C (59°F), still painful but distinctly less so for most people.
Participants were then given a choice to repeat one of the above trials. Contrary to what one would expect, the majority of the participants (80%) chose to repeat the long trial, apparently preferring more pain over less. Why is that? It looks like the slightly less uncomfortable final 30 seconds of the experiment in the long trial changed the way participants perceived the entirety of the long trial. These findings suggest that duration plays a small role in the way we evaluate past negative experiences; such evaluations are often dominated by the discomfort we experience at the worst and at the final moments of episodes. In other words, a small improvement near the end of an experience can shift people’s perception of the entire event.
The peak-end rule states that people tend to judge their overall experience based on the peak (most intense) and end of the experience, rather than its overall duration. In the context of user onboarding, the peak-end rule can be used to improve the experience by creating positive and memorable moments that users will associate with the product.
Here are a few ways to use the peak-end rule to improve user onboarding:
Highlight key benefits: By highlighting the key benefits of the product early on in the onboarding process, you can create a positive and memorable moment that users will associate with the product.
Create an enjoyable experience: Incorporating elements of fun or humour into the onboarding process can create a positive and memorable experience that users will associate with the product.
Provide immediate value: Providing users with immediate value, such as access to premium features, can create a positive and memorable moment that users will associate with the product.
End on a high note: By ending the onboarding process with a positive and memorable moment, such as a final summary of all the features and benefits, you can create a lasting impression that users will associate with the product.
Social proof refers to the phenomenon where people are influenced by the behaviour of others and are more likely to adopt a behaviour if they see that others are also doing it. In the context of user onboarding, social proof can be used to improve the experience by showing new users that others have successfully completed the onboarding process and are actively using the product.
Here are a few ways to use social proof to improve user onboarding:
Showcase customer testimonials: Sharing real-life success stories from satisfied customers can help to build trust and provide new users with an example of what they can achieve by using the product.
Display user numbers: Showing the number of users who have signed up for the product can create a sense of community and demonstrate that others have found value in using the product.
Highlight the most popular features: By showcasing the features that are most popular among users, you can demonstrate the value of the product and encourage new users to explore these features.
Share user-generated content: Sharing photos, videos, and other content created by users can help to create a sense of community and show new users what they can achieve with the product.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and many other social media channels are a fine example of using social proof during onboarding. More recently, that was one of the main techniques used by Threads. If most of your friends or coworkers are using a new apps, it’s very likely that you’ll start using it too!
One of the famous growth hacks of all time is Dropbox’s referral program. Dropbox encourages people to use its product and grow space by inviting their peers to use Dropbox too.
Choice-supportive bias is a psychological principle indicating that individuals generally view their own decisions in a more positive light over time. This phenomenon is equally relevant even when such decisions are identical to others' choices in an objective light. This principle becomes particularly meaningful in the context of user onboarding, where it can significantly improve user experience by instilling a sense of control and ownership in the users.
In essence, people have an inherent predisposition towards being satisfied with their decisions, regardless of any contrary evidence that suggests they may have chosen poorly. This bias often causes us to downplay the drawbacks of our choices while accentuating their advantages.
Moreover, choice-supportive bias doesn't only impact our perception of decisions made, it can also influence our memory of the decision-making process, occasionally attributing positive traits to our chosen options that were not initially considered.
Here are some strategies for leveraging choice-supportive bias in user onboarding:
Encouraging User Control: Granting users the autonomy to tailor their onboarding experience, such as determining the order in which they explore features, enhances their perceived control and ownership.
Offering Clear Options: Providing users with well-defined options, like different paths during onboarding, bolsters their confidence in their decisions and encourages greater engagement with the product.
Highlighting Choice Benefits: Emphasising the advantages of the users' decisions during onboarding can further reinforce their sense of control and incentivise continued product usage.
The Ambiguity Effect
The ambiguity effect refers to the tendency of individuals to choose options with known outcomes over those with unknown or ambiguous outcomes. This bias stems from the human preference for certainty and the desire to avoid potential risks associated with uncertainty. When applied to user onboarding, this can significantly influence the decisions that users make during their initial interaction with a product or a service.
Understanding the ambiguity effect can help us optimise onboarding by reducing uncertainty and providing clarity to users. Here are some ways it can be applied:
Provide clear information and instructions: Reducing ambiguity starts with delivering straightforward and comprehensive information about the product and its features. It is essential to ensure users understand what the product does, how it benefits them, and how they can utilise it to its full potential. Using clear and concise copy can also help with this.
User-guided walkthroughs: To reduce uncertainty, consider implementing interactive walkthroughs during the initial stages of product use. These should guide the user through the core features of the product in a step-by-step manner, clarifying functionality and reducing uncertainty. An example is provided below; Evernote shows a guided interactive walkthrough to introduce new users to its key features.
Provide default settings: Users often feel overwhelmed by the number of decisions to make during onboarding. Offering preset configurations or recommended settings can help reduce uncertainty and provide a starting point for users to customise their experience.
Highlight the most common tasks: By highlighting the most common tasks that users need to complete during the onboarding process, you can reduce uncertainty and help users feel more confident in their ability to use the product.
Consistent and intuitive design: A consistent, user-friendly interface is essential in reducing ambiguity. The design should intuitively guide users through the necessary processes, reducing the cognitive load and associated uncertainties.
Live support: Quick, helpful customer support can reduce ambiguity by promptly addressing any questions or concerns a user may have during onboarding.
Are there any other psychology insights you use to improve user onboarding?