Good design starts with a good understanding of people. To design an effective onboarding process for your users, you first need to understand how people think and perform actions. What are the different biases that drive people? How do they make unconscious decisions and form judgments?

Before we talk about psychology, let’s define what it means for a user to be “onboarded.”

The definition of onboarded

Usually, onboarding is defined as “first-time usage.” When a user logs into your product for the first time, you’re trying to get them to understand the features of the app and take action. But, what if the user does not take any action and leaves the app? Are they still considered to be onboarded?

Onboarding needs to be an ongoing exercise, starting with first time usage to re-engaging with the app, then getting to know the features well enough to complete a series of pre-determined steps.

The psychology of onboarding

Reduce cognitive load

You want to make the onboarding workflow as simple and easy-to-follow as possible. So, how might you do that? 

First, allow options such as social sign-in or emails/text messages with magic links and one-time-use passwords. Why make the user remember yet another password?

Limit the number of steps or choices that need to be taken. This is also known as Hick’s law. Apps that show you all of the product’s features at this stage of onboarding are the ones you probably won’t use again. Don’t show your user this shiny feature and this add-on, and so on. They won’t know what to do first and will be left confused.

If you do want to show a few features, show the basic ones first. This is known as progressive disclosure. For instance, HEY, the new email service from Basecamp, has a few different features compared to existing email services. But, during their initial onboarding, you’ll notice that they focus only on one feature – The Screener, a way to screen emails from people or services that you don’t want to hear from.

Allow for the endowed progress effect

All apps should have some sort of progress bar that indicates the completion status of the onboarding flow. When you show the bar for the first time, instead of starting with 0 tasks completed, start with at least 1. For example, if the user has created an account, that is good enough to count as step number 1.

This works on a psychological level to indicate that you have already achieved something and have gained momentum while doing so.

Confirm the user’s decision

The choice-supportive bias tells us that our brains desperately want the decision of downloading this app to work out. It acts as a defense mechanism, making us look for evidence that proves we made the right choice.

This suggests that every part of an onboarding flow should be designed to increase the user’s confidence that they made the right decision. Using the app or the product might provide users benefits in the long term, but you have to bring some of the benefits into the short term. For example, you might reward the user with joy through clever visuals and animations.

Balance hand-holding vs. exploration

Knowing how humans work also means that you know that people like choices.

Certain apps, like free-to-play games, hand-hold you through each step. These apps are complex, with multiple elements like game objectives, gameplay, skill/weapon upgrades, in-game currency, and stores. There is a real monetary incentive for you to get to know the features of the app, some of which are not immediately easy to grasp.

However, this isn’t the case for all types of apps, and there are tradeoffs to each approach. But giving the user a choice is always a beneficial option.

Measuring onboarding success

Facebook and Twitter famously calculated their activation metrics very carefully. If a user were to add ten of their friends and post two photos, then their chances of churning would be significantly lower. For Twitter, users who followed 10-15 accounts were more likely to stick around.

Going back to the HEY example, the application sets a target of 15 emails to help you get used to the new classifications of Inbox, Feed, and Paper Trail.

So, you’ll have to find the metric that works best for your app. Keep things ongoing and track emails and notifications that are in sync with completed and pending user actions.

Keep users engaged

Know when a user is considered to be fully onboarded. When crafting your onboarding strategy, make use of human psychology by learning about cognitive biases that can be used to reduce confusion, give control, and boost confidence. All of these together will make for truly effective onboarding that keeps users coming back. 

About the Author

Hi! I’m Kavir. I’m a product manager by trade. In the past, I’ve been an entrepreneur, and have graduated from ISB. I enjoy writing about product, business, design, books, health, and anything else that interests me. Follow me on Twitter @KavirKaycee. If you like my work, buy me a coffee.