Have you ever wondered why your users don’t continue to use your app after their initial contact with the onboarding or after the sign-up?

There are various reasons why that might happen, but, be honest, have you thought about implementing some psychological concepts in your app’s user onboarding?

Psychology doesn’t merely help us to create better marketing campaigns or user interfaces. Whether you are a manufacturer or a SaaS business, psychology should be present in any department or field of your company. Implementing different psychological concepts will help any product to acquire and retain more users.

Understanding users’ behaviour and how their brain work is crucial in order to create greater user onboarding processes, and if you want to understand user behaviour and to decide which psychological concepts to implement, we will first need to understand what motivates and guides them to take action.

As Plato once said:

“Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”

In order for behaviour to occur, the user needs all of the three sources.

Let’s see an example of how this can be implemented in user onboarding:

Your target audience’s biggest pain point is the impossibility to publish all posts for their clients on time, so you’re developing a scheduling tool for social media.

The desire for your users would be to publish and maintain every post for their clients without losing the quality of the copy and image.

The emotion which will then occur is actually a feeling of relief, lowering pressure and feeling of satisfaction because of the increase in the user’s time to do other stuff.

The knowledge (trigger) is actually an “Aha moment”: when your user sees and understands the value you’re providing for him, they will start developing behaviour (in our case – they will start using the product).

Marketing and Sales are here to unleash desire and emotion with the potential user, but the final goal of user onboarding experience is to actually create the trigger or the “Aha moment” for users.

In this article, we will take a lot at different psychological concepts, behaviours, effects and successful examples with the aim to provide more value with the app onboarding, create “aha moment” and convert the trial users to premium ones.

Unleash the “aha moment” with uncompleted task in your app onboarding

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik discovered that people tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. This later became known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Take copywriting or content for example.

When you see an article where everything important is mentioned right at the beginning or enough value is provided in the very first few paragraphs, you will not read the entire article.


However, if you tease your readers just a little bit at the beginning, they tend to dive deeper in the article. It’s the same with your app onboarding.

In order to unleash the “aha moment” in your app onboarding with Zeigarnik effect, try adding different missions, steps or a progress bar for your users.

This is a widely used tactic not only for SaaS tools and products, but also for different online and video games!

For example, one very popular online browser game called Travian developed different missions and steps for all newbies:

app onboarding

You can see different missions on the right side of the interface.

I’ve had the opportunity to see how effective this psychological trick is: I have been addicted to the game myself!

Uncompleted tasks and progress bars force us to move forward and get closer to the “aha moment”. In the example below, on the left side of UI, you can see the perfect and nice looking implementation of Zeigarnik effect by using steps and a progress bar by StoryChief

app onboarding

Another great example of implementing the Zeigarnik psychological phenomenon is actually Ghost – online blogging platform.

Team members behind Ghost realized that users who executed one particular task were ten times more likely to subscribe to the paid version. On top of that, that task wasn’t even publishing a blog post, it was merely changing the blog theme.

app onboarding

After discovering this interesting data, they created a Getting Started checklist which included adding a custom theme and a video tutorial on how to do it. For those who haven’t added a theme yet, they sent an e-mail to them with the video tutorial.

They realized that while only 7% of new users added a custom theme, 26% of them watched the video tutorial. Using the Zeigarnik effect, Ghost created the “aha moment” as an uncompleted task. Reminding their users to add a theme, they converted a greater number of trial users into premium ones.


Entice the user with peer pressure in your app onboarding

Peer pressure or social pressure is the direct influence on people by peers. In other words, social pressure encourages people to follow their peers and change attitudes, behaviours or values.

Have you ever wondered what the secret sauce behind the growth of every social media product is?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and many other Social Media channels are a fine example of using peer pressure in user onboarding. None of them would exist without achieving a critical mass for growing their products.

If your close friends circle consists of ten people, and six of them are using some new tool for achieving their goals, it’s very likely for you to start using it too.

Let’s take a look at some more different products for examples:

One of the famous growth hacks of all time is certainly Dropbox’s referral program. Dropbox encourages people to use its product and grow space by inviting their peers to use Dropbox too.

app onboarding

This case is also an illustrative example of the Zeigarnik effect! Dropbox used two psychological concepts to create their outstanding 3900% growth in a few months.

Giving their users more space by inviting their peers didn’t just grow their user base – it also forced people to continue using product because their peers are using it too.

Focus on success oriented achievement for users

In one study, participants who got two free stamps (out of ten) before winning a free sandwich as a reward were more motivated to collect the rest of the stamps than participants who collected two made a purchase for the first two stamps.

This is known as the Endowed Progress effect – when people’s tendency to accomplish their goals is greater if you provide them with some symbolic reward.

Kickstarter is a great example of Endowed Progress effect – under every project, there is a progress bar showing the percentage of money which is pledged and funded at the moment.

When people see that there isn’t much donated money left, they are likely to provide projects with some more.

When talking about products, PayPal depicts another way of encouraging users to achieve goals with the Endowed Progress effect.

app onboarding

When you sign up to Paypal, the “account created” step will already be checked. It’s the same as in the example with stamps and sandwiches: the users will be more likely to complete tasks if you’ve already given them one “completed for free” – or with no efforts.

Gamify your app’s user onboarding

Do you want to know the truth?

Everyone likes games! It’s the same with your users too!

Gamification will not only make your app onboarding funnier or more engaging but it will also help you improve your conversions and convert more trial users into premium ones.

Gamifying processes will encourage your users to take action and compete with themselves and others.

The company that set standards of user onboarding is certainly Duolingo.

Duolingo uses various psychological concepts to improve app onboarding, and one of them is certainly gamification and offering rewards to their users.

By reaching daily goals, Duolingo offers its users XP points and achievement badges. The more XP points and achievements you gain – the more you upgrade in levels.

Do you remember Foursquare?

Foursquare is another platform that uses gamification in their app onboarding processes to drive growth, achieve critical mass and earn more money.

By using gamification and a rewarding system, Foursquare managed to reach more than 10 million users, which enabled them to raise $50M in 2011. with evaluation of $600M. Foursquare was a hit.

Foursquare gamified check-ins, which allowed the users get points for particular activities (like checking in some new venue).

Seamless AI is another example of using rewarding and gamification in-app onboarding.


After testing this method, they said that they were able to see better results and bigger traction.

Give your customers fewer choices

“Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less” is a book by an American psychologist Barry Schwartz, who discovered that people who have fewer options and choices are more likely to buy something than people who have more.

According to Schwartz, people usually choose what items or products they should buy in 6 steps:

  • Figuring out what their goals are
  • Evaluating the importance of each goal
  • Arraying the options
  • Evaluating how likely it is that each of the options will meet their goals
  • Picking the winning option
  • Modifying the goals

Step number 3, or arraying the options is the most important step in every decision making. The more choices we have to operate on, the more indecisive we become and the more time it takes to come to a decision.

If we have fewer options, we will be more confident and we’ll make decisions faster.

Ryan Engley from Unbounce tested this technique by reducing the number of options for his webinar sessions.

After he A/B tested two landing pages – first with four options and second with three options – he realized that the second landing page’s number of conversions increased by 16,93%.

Another way of using the Paradox of Choice in User Onboarding is HelloBar.

HelloBar is a WordPress plugin for improving your conversions and converting visitors into customers.

app onboarding

HelloBar has a lot of functions, you can choose to drive traffic, collect emails, to point your visitors to your social media channels, and other functionalities like bar customization – changing themes, the text, etc.

By enabling their customers to select their goals and reducing the number of choices they were given increased HelloBar’s conversions significantly.

Familiarization as a psychological concept in your app onboarding

To explain this better, let’s take investing and the economy as an example:

You have the opportunity to invest money in one of two companies or funds. The first one is familiar to you (you have already heard or read about it), and you know absolutely nothing about the second one.

In which company will you invest the money? A lot of people would choose the first option, simply because of its familiarity.

This is called familiarity bias. People have a tendency to prefer more familiar products then unfamiliar ones.

LinkedIn takes advantage of this bias in its app onboarding. When signing up for the first time, or when adding new connections, they offer you the option to connect with your e-mail contacts.

app onboarding

This also significantly decreased the time the users need to set up their LinkedIn accounts.

Another company that uses many psychological concepts to improve its app onboarding (with familiarity bias among them) is Pinterest, another booming social network.

app onboarding

When you create your account, Pinterest offers you various subjects to choose from based on your interests, knowledge and familiarity.

As was the case with LinkedIn, this significantly reduced the time users need to set up their account and also unleashed the trigger and the “aha moment” with the users.

Let your customers feel great experiences

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that what we remember from our experiences is mostly determined by two things:

  • How the experiences felt when they were at their emotional peak (best or worst)
  • How they felt in the very end

This became known as the Peak-End rule.

Let’s illustrate this through an example:

Your family is preparing dinner for your new neighbours. If the neighbours left your home smiling, they will probably remember that dinner as a pleasant experience and they will have joyful memories of that evening. But if they left your home angry or bored, chances are huge that they will avoid you next time.

The Peak-End rule is certainly most widely used in games.

app onboarding

League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world (I’m a fan too).

It uses different events in the game to indicate various peaks while playing, such as:

  • First blood, Double Kill, Triple Kill, Quadra kill, Penta kill
  • Killing spree, Rampage, Unstoppable, Godlike, Legendary
  • An enemy has been slained, You have slain an enemy

These events reflect the stages of the gameplay, and they motivate you to move towards your self-improving and victory.

Within the SaaS industry, MailChimp did a great job with their famous “High five” illustration.

mailchim high-five app onboarding

You can even see a tweet as a Social Proof of Peak-End rule effectiveness in User Onboarding.

This High Fives illustration motivates you to push forward and continue with your next e-mail campaigns.

Proposify – an online tool for quicker creation of Sales Proposals – also uses the peak-end rule in their user onboarding.

In their demo tour, Proposify’s users are able to create demo versions of proposals. After various step-by-step guides, when their user finishes creating the proposal and when it is signed, the user is asked to check their e-mail.

When they do, they are greeted with Proposify’s “accepted” e-mail.

proposal app onboarding

As they say, this e-mail is a “Holy Grail” of their user onboarding process. Once the customer opens this email, they have finished their user onboarding and they are considered to be “active”.

There are various examples of using the Peak-End rule in user onboarding. For example, you have probably seen different pop-ups like: “Congratulations on your first email campaign!” or “Congratulations on your first 100 subscribers!” numerous times.

Those are all examples of using the Peak-End rule in user onboarding.

Improve your customer’s performance with social facilitation

Social Facilitation or Audience Effect is a psychological concept which is based on the assumption that people who collaborate with other team members have a tendency to perform better.

In 1897, Tripplet tested cyclist’s performance when riding a bike alone and when riding a bike against another cyclist. The cyclist who rode the bike against the clock had a tendency to be slower than cyclists who rode against each other.

When working with other people, we want to prove ourselves by accomplishing our tasks better.

Social Media networks are generally based on the audience effect as their core psycholigcal concept. Networking forces people to chat, work and accomplish tasks together why simultaneously improving their progress and performance.

Slack, another team collaboration and chatting platform, also uses social facilitation in their user onboarding processes with their famous Slack bot!

Although Slack bot isn’t a real person, it helps people to set up their accounts and channels faster. In a funny and interactive way – Slack uses social facilitation to easily and effectively onboard its users.

The ambiguity effect found its purpose in app onboarding

The Ambiguity effect is a cognitive bias that explains how decision making is affected by a lack of information. That means that people have a tendency to select options with a more probable favorable income.

The Ambiguity effect was present even back in the old days when people were still primitive creatures. If we needed to choose between black and red berries (even if the probability that both of them are poisoned is high), we would pick the option we knew the most about.

The Ambiguity effect has a significant influence on the decisions we make every day.

If you want to include the ambiguity bias in your app onboarding, here are some tips for you:

  • Be as clear as you can about every step of your app onboarding process
  • Try reducing navigation outside the app as much as possible

ProdPad, an online tool for Project Management, perfectly implemented the Ambiguity effect in its app onboarding flow.

Short, catchy and informative descriptions beneath each step helped them to acquire more users and teach them better about the product itself.

Discretely showing to their users why they need more information about them and why should they complete each step, helped ProdPad to build trust with their users at the very beginning.

Completing those steps, ProdPad’s user will extend their trial version of the product. Knowing what’s waiting for them on the other side, users were more likely to complete the app onboarding process than to explore the product on their own.


Let’s summarize!

If you want your users to build the behaviour which would lead to using your product, the main thing you should focus on when it comes to your user onboarding process is unleashing the “aha moment” and triggering your trial users, so that they become premium users.

The “Aha moment” can occur for various reasons, and some of them can certainly be explained by a couple of psychological processes and phenomena.

Those worth mentioning and using in user onboarding processes are:

  • Zeigarnik effect
  • Peer pressure
  • Endowed Progress Effect
  • Gamification and offering rewards
  • Paradox of Choice
  • Familiarity bias
  • Peak-End rule
  • Social Facilitation
  • Ambiguity effect

Whichever psychological concept you implement in your user onboarding flow, one thing is certain – your customer journey will be easier, more efficient, and most importantly – it will bring you more conversions!

About the Author

Aazar Ali Shad

Aazar Ali Shad is the VP of Growth at Userpilot, and has more than 5 years of SaaS Experience. He is currently helping 200+ SaaS companies improve user onboarding and increase product adoption.