7 tips how to use psychology for user onboarding

13.9.2020, 5 minutes read

We live in a world in which 2.5 nonillion data are produced a day. Android users have two and a half million apps available for download.

The amount of information is so astronomical the chance to catch the user’s attention is extremely low. According to Microsoft’s recent study, the attention span for people is shorter than for the goldfish. The average attention span dropped from twelve to eight seconds since 2000.

If you want to keep your customers’ attention on your website, online store, or app as long as possible, use psychology. This article will demonstrate how the human mind can be used for customer onboarding.

Need for closure

A Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was the first to explain the need for (cognitive) closure. In 1927 Bluma observed that waiters had better recollections of still unpaid orders. As soon as the customer paid they were unable to remember any details of the order.

These observations laid the foundation for her hypothesis that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed tasks. She then designed a series of lab experiments with a total of 164 subjects who were given easy tasks, some of which were intentionally interrupted.

She observed that unfinished tasks create a feeling of discomfort. Therefore, we tend to pay more attention to them. TV series writers use this phenomenon when they write their cliffhanger endings in order for the viewers to eagerly await the next episode.

The same principle can be applied to the user customer by introducing a checklist (i.e. a list of unfinished tasks) in an app or on a website, just like the Appcues app developers did..

Ambiguity effect

The ambiguity effect implies that people tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known, over an option for which the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown. The effect was first described by Daniel Ellsberg in 1961.

At the early stage of evolution people were surrounded by many unknown threats. It was this instinct what helped them survive. It was reasonable for our ancestors to prefer fruit, which they’ve already tried, over the yet unknown fruit.

The ambiguity effect is rooted in us and reflected in our behaviour in the modern world as well, as proved by the fact that people prefer known, even though not the shortest routes in Google Maps.

When it comes to onboarding, this effect can be put in practice by explaining to the people what they can expect, such as why you need their email address, if asked for.

We also advise you to reduce the number of links to new, unknown websites or apps of third parties to as low as possible.


People like games and competition, and they also like to win. Popular principles and entertaining game design can be used for education or work.

Waze serves as a good example of gamification. As you advance to higher leves, you receive new avatars and features.

Duolingo, a language learning app, is another great example. Here you collect points and badges for completing easy tasks every day, and climb up the leaderboard.

Paradox of choice

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by too many options? It is one of the basic paradoxes of the Western society. According to the psychologist Barry Schwartz, people who have too many options are often unhappy.

There are two reasons behind. Firstly, we are paralyzed by the wide range of options, feel overwhelmed, and often unable to make a decision. Secondly, even if we finally make a decision, there are so many alternatives that it leaves us in doubt whether we chose the right one.

Less is sometimes more. Don't overdo it with plenty of links, buttons, and form fields.

At Unbounce, for instance, only one easy step raised the number of registrations for the company’s webinar by almost 17%: removing a single button on its landing page.


It's natural that you get along better with someone who knows you, knows what you like, and speaks your language.

And that’s why it is crucial to personalize your onboarding. The data collected, such as customer's behaviour and history of orders, allow the recommendation algorithms to pinpoint an offer which might be interesting for the customer.

Netflix is a great example of a service which, after signing up, offers customized selection of series and movies you might like. Netflix's algorithms are so accurate it might get scary.

However, the fact is that a personalized offer provides immediately available content of your interest so you do not have to go through hundreds of movies.

IKEA effect

IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.

The name refers to Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many items of furniture that require assembly.

The IKEA effect was identified by three researchers: Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely who, based on a series of studies, proved that the more effort people put into something, the more they will value it. 

This effect can be applied in digital onboarding by allowing the user to create something of his or her own.

You can also follow Spotify's example, which allows you to create your own playlists, or Twitter where you can select the topics you are interested in after you sign in for the first time.

Endowment effect

Similar to IKEA effect is the endowment effect, first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

It suggests that people are more likely to value an object they own than that same object when they do not own it due to our divestiture aversion.

Such behaviour dates back to the evolution stage. When our ancestors lost their food, tool, or shelter, it meant their lives were in danger. Therefore, they were more sensitive to losses.

The long-time application of this phenomenon when it comes to customer relations is represented by offering a free sample of your product to the customers to try it out. Afterwards, they do not want to lose it.

In a digital world this principle means providing a free trial for a specific period of time.

Improved customer onboarding

There are a number of ways to improve customer experience. In this article we selected only a few of them. If you want to improve the onboarding process on your website, in your app or online store, get in touch with our team and get a free, personalized trial version of our onboarding platform.

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