The Psychology Behind Successful User Onboarding: Leveraging Cognitive Biases

April 8, 2024

Have you ever wondered why some apps and Web sites captivate users from the moment they sign up, while users quickly forget others? The reason is effective user onboarding. You can use your understanding of the human mind to improve user retention and product adoption.

The magic behind compelling user-onboarding experiences is no accident; it’s the result of meticulous design strategies that tap into the underlying principles of human behavior. By understanding and harnessing people’s cognitive biases—those inherent quirks in our decision-making processes—developers and designers can craft experiences that resonate deeply with users.

In this article, I’ll delve into the science of user engagement, revealing how the astute application of psychological insights can elevate a digital product from being routinely functional to becoming an essential part of users’ daily lives. We’ll discover the secrets of creating user-onboarding processes that not only captivate but also foster a connection that users find hard to let go, which marks the transition from casual browsing to committed usage.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Why Do We Need to Understand Psychology When Implementing User Onboarding?

Psychology provides a wealth of insights into the human mind, offering a window into how people perceive, think, and make decisions. At the heart of UX design—especially when designing an onboarding process—understanding these psychological underpinnings is crucial and allows designers to craft experiences that not only meet users’ functional needs but also connect with them on an emotional level, thereby enhancing engagement and retention.

Cognitive Load Theory

One key psychological concept is cognitive load theory, which suggests that people have a limited capacity for processing information. Effective onboarding processes minimize unnecessary complexity and present information in digestible chunks. By reducing cognitive load, apps and Web sites can help users learn new systems more efficiently, making their initial user experience easier and less overwhelming.

Emotional Design

Another area where psychology plays a pivotal role is in emotional design. People’s emotional reactions to a product can profoundly affect their user satisfaction and loyalty. Positive emotions such as delight or surprise during an onboarding experience can create a memorable first impression, making it more likely that users would continue using the product. Incorporating elements that evoke joy—such as humor, playful interactions, or aesthetically pleasing designs—can significantly impact the user’s emotional engagement with the product.

Social Proof and Commitment

You can also leverage psychological principles such as social proof and commitment in designing more effective onboarding processes. Seeing that others have successfully used an app or Web site can reassure new users, encouraging them to continue the onboarding process. Similarly, persuading new users to make small commitments early in the onboarding process—such as customizing their profile or setting personal preferences—can increase the likelihood of their investing further time and effort into learning the platform by leveraging their commitment and consistency bias.

Personalization and Choice Architecture

Personalization plays a crucial role in making the onboarding process more engaging. By tailoring the experience to meet individual users’ needs and preferences, products can create a more relatable, useful experience. Choice architecture, the way in which you present choices to users, can also guide them toward making certain decisions without overwhelming them with complexity, enhancing the onboarding experience by simplifying it and highlighting beneficial features or actions.

Feedback Loops

Finally, incorporating feedback loops into the onboarding process can enhance users’ learning and motivation. Immediate, constructive feedback helps users to perceive their progress and understand any areas that need improvement. This fosters a sense of achievement and encourages continued engagement. Positive reinforcement can motivate users to more deeply explore what an app or Web site has to offer, solidifying the initial connection that they’ve formed during onboarding.

By integrating these psychological principles into the design of onboarding processes, products can create more engaging, satisfying experiences for users. This not only helps retain users but also helps users build a positive relationship with the product from the very first interaction.

What Are Cognitive Biases and How Do They Affect User Onboarding?

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from the norm or rationality in judgment, whereby someone may draw inferences about other people or situations in an illogical fashion. These biases are not just abstract psychological concepts; they play a significant role in users’ day-to-day decisions and behaviors, particularly during the onboarding process for new apps or Web sites.

When users first encounter a new technology platform, their existing biases heavily influence their decisions and behaviors. Biases can significantly impact new users’ engagement levels. These biases arise from the presentation of information, or framing effect; the desire to complete a set, or completion bias; or the tendency to overvalue the first information one receives, or anchoring bias. Cognitive biases can lead users to prefer certain designs, navigation flows, or content presentations over others, often in ways that are not entirely conscious.

What Cognitive Biases Can You Leverage in User Onboarding

Leveraging users’ cognitive biases can be useful in creating successful onboarding experiences.

Social Proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon in which people mirror the actions and behaviors of others in an attempt to behave correctly within a specific context. This bias is particularly influential in the digital realm, where the vast array of choices can often feel overwhelming.

For example, when users are navigating a new app or Web site, seeing that thousands of others have already signed up or reading users’ positive testimonials can significantly impact new users’ confidence in the platform. This is why incorporating elements of social proof during the onboarding process—such as user testimonials, success stories, or counters that display the number of current users—can be incredibly effective. These social proofs reassure new users that they are making a good decision by joining a platform or community, encouraging them to engage more deeply with it.

By presenting evidence of widespread user acceptance and satisfaction, platforms can leverage social proof to reduce uncertainty and foster a sense of trust and community among new users.

Loss Aversion

Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains, with the pain of losing often felt more acutely than the pleasure of gaining, as Figure 1 shows. You can strategically apply this cognitive bias during user onboarding to motivate new users to engage more fully with a platform.

Figure 1—The power of loss aversion
The power of loss aversion

Image source: FQMom

For instance, highlighting what new users stand to lose by not completing certain steps—such as access to exclusive features, content, or time-sensitive offers—can create a sense of urgency and importance around the onboarding process.

An example of this could be a message that appears during the sign-up process, emphasizing a benefit the user would not want to lose: “Complete your profile now so you won’t miss out on personalized recommendations.” By framing certain actions in terms of potential loss rather than gain, platforms can tap into users’ natural desire to avoid missing out on valuable opportunities, driving them to engage more fully.

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information on offer—the anchor—when making decisions. During an onboarding process, this effect can influence users’ perceptions of value, especially in relation to pricing plans. Introducing the most expensive option first sets a high anchor point, making all subsequent pricing options appear more reasonable by comparison. Figure 2 provides an example.

Figure 2—Example of the anchoring effect
Example of the anchoring effect

Image source: Creativeo

Leveraging the anchoring effect by presenting the cheaper options first can lead to a higher likelihood of users’ selecting a premium plan that they might have otherwise overlooked.

For example, a cloud-storage service might display its pricing tiers starting with the most comprehensive, expensive plan, followed by more basic, affordable plans. This strategy not only highlights the best value proposition but also makes other plans seem more accessible, potentially increasing conversion rates.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people do something primarily because other people are doing it, regardless of their own beliefs, which they might ignore or override. In user onboarding, indicating the most popular choices or settings can guide new users toward these preferred options. Since many others have already made these choices, this suggests that they are trustworthy and desirable.

For instance, a software application might highlight its most popular subscription package as “the choice of 80% of our users,” suggesting a collective endorsement of its value. This not only simplifies decision-making for new users but also leverages peer influence to encourage adoption of certain features or plans, enhancing the onboarding experience by aligning it with the perceived preferences of the majority.

Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik effect, which is depicted in Figure 3, posits that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. This phenomenon can be particularly useful in designing an engaging onboarding process. By creating a checklist of steps for new users that includes several unchecked items, platforms can encourage users to return and complete their onboarding process. This approach not only helps keep the platform at the forefront of users’ minds but also instills a sense of progress and achievement as the user checks off items.

Figure 3—The Zeigarnik effect
The Zeigarnik effect

Image source: Medium

An example might be an app that shows a progress bar during setup, indicating that the user has completed three out of five essential steps, with reminders to complete the remaining steps to finish the full setup. This tactic leverages users’ natural inclination to finish what they’ve started, driving engagement and ensuring a more thorough exploration of the platform.

Framing Effect

The framing effect shows how the way in which you present information to people influences their decision-making rather than just the information itself. In user onboarding, the way you frame features or steps can significantly impact how users perceive them. For instance, emphasizing the benefits of an action rather than the action itself can motivate users to engage.

Instead of saying, “Use our time management tool,” saying “Save 30 minutes every day” frames the tool in terms of its direct benefit to users, making it seem more appealing. This approach shifts the focus from what users need to do to what they stand to gain, making the onboarding process more about achieving personal outcomes than merely completing mundane tasks.

Curiosity Gap

The curiosity gap plays a pivotal role in driving user engagement, especially during the onboarding process for new apps or Web sites. This psychological phenomenon taps into our innate desire for knowledge and discovery, compelling us to seek out information that fills the gap between what we currently know and what we want to learn. Leveraging this bias can significantly enhance the effectiveness of user onboarding by sparking interest and motivating users to explore further.

For instance, an app might introduce its features through tantalizing hints rather than exhaustive explanations, enticing users with the promise of valuable functionalities waiting just beyond the next click. This approach can be particularly effective when presenting users with a partial list of benefits or teasing them with glimpses of premium features that become fully accessible only upon completing the onboarding process. By strategically withholding information, a platform can create a sense of mystery and anticipation, compelling users to continue their journey to uncover the hidden value.

Wrapping Up

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of user behaviors is not only beneficial but also essential in creating captivating digital experiences.

What should be your next step? Integrate these insights into your design and development process. Begin by observing your current onboarding flow through the lens of these biases and identify opportunities for enhancement. Experiment with strategies that align with your users’ psychological tendencies, measure their impact, and refine your approach.

The path to mastering user onboarding is ongoing and ever evolving, but by leveraging the power of cognitive biases, you can equip yourself to design experiences that not only attract but also deeply engage and retain users.

Founder & CEO at Inturact

Houston, Texas, USA

Trevor HatfieldTrevor founded Inturact, a company that provides business-to-business (B2B), software-as-a-service (SaaS) user-onboarding and customer-onboarding solutions. These products help SaaS companies identify and solve actual product-onboarding problems, reduce risk, and provide a clear path to increases in paid conversions and better customer retention.  Read More

Other Articles on Human Factors Research

New on UXmatters