User Psychology: How to Use UX Design Principles to Enhance The User Onboarding Experience

User Psychology: How to Use UX Design Principles to Enhance The User Onboarding Experience cover

Even though humans appear complex, our psychological patterns and behaviors are similar. With these patterns in mind, you can design your app in a way that will appeal to your users and make them take the actions you want.

In the following article, we will discuss several UX design principles, explaining why users behave the way they do and how you can use these principles to your advantage.


  • User psychology is a combination of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and human-computer interaction that approaches UX design through the lens of human behavior.
  • Every UX designer should have a deep understanding of human psychology. That’s the only way to design products that resonate with people.
  • To make the most out of the endowment effect, provide personalized experiences to make users feel like they “own” the product.
  • Make minimal options available (including buttons, tooltips, and images) so users don’t get stuck and anxious (Hick’s law).
  • Use progress bars to show users how close they are to finishing the task (Goal Gradient hypothesis).
  • Use simple design and clear microcopy to minimize the cognitive load of users.
  • Introduce your product to users progressively. Segment your customers; show new users the core features first, and expose the advanced ones after they’ve become comfortable with the app.
  • Implement the hook model, create investment loops and reward users with various incentives.
  • Provide emotional experiences at endpoints.
  • People get psychological tension from uncompleted tasks, making them want to finish as soon as possible (Zeigarnik Effect). Take advantage of this by using checklists to remind users of uncompleted tasks.
  • Users aren’t exactly good at verbalizing what they want. Use their behavioral data to make decisions instead.
  • Make essential elements like your CTA buttons stand out. Do this using colors, sizes, etc., that make the elements different from other items on the page.
  • People tend to prefer things that they are familiar with. Make sure to trigger in-app experiences and prompt users to engage with your app to increase the likelihood of being chosen over a competitor.

What is user psychology?

User psychology aims to understand the cognitive factors influencing how users interact with products. The end goal is to create products that users will love and naturally find easy to use.

Why is psychology important for UX designers?

User experiences that stand out are deeply rooted in cognitive and behavioral psychology.

Humans make decisions based on predictable psychological patterns. This applies to all areas of our lives, including the digital world. Understanding the psychology behind the users’ decisions will enable UX designers to build more engaging and effective user onboarding experiences.

The best part is that you don’t have to conduct new research to understand UX psychology. You can start by building on the existing principles, which we will discuss in this article!

UX design principles and how to leverage them to create a better user experience in SaaS

The UX psychological principles in this section explain user behavior in-app and on web design. Here’s a summary:

  • Endowment effect: People place more value on items they already own than those they don’t think belong to them.
  • Hick’s law: The more choices available, the more time it takes to decide.
  • Goal Gradient hypothesis: Motivation to accomplish a goal increases when people feel closer to the end.
  • Cognitive Load: This describes the mental effort required to get things done. You generally want to keep the cognitive load for your tasks low.
  • Progressive disclosure: This is about exposing users to the advanced features of your app gradually.
  • Investment loops: This is about using the hook model to build habit-forming products.
  • Peak-end rule: Creating emotional experiences at the end and through the process of completing tasks will make the event stick to your users.
  • Zeigarnik Effect: The tendency to remember uncompleted tasks and feel compelled to complete them.
  • Affective forecasting: Users don’t always know what they want, so it’s often better to base your decisions on data.
  • Von Restorff effect: When people see multiple items that look similar, they’re most likely to recall the ones that differ the most from the rest.
  • Familiarity principle: People prefer things they are familiar with.

Now let’s talk about these UX psychology principles and how to apply them.

Endowment effect

The endowment effect is the tendency to attribute value to products that people believe they own.

Make your tool emotionally appealing to your users and give them a sense of ownership to take advantage of the endowment effect. If done well, you can quickly turn mere users into paying customers.

How to use the endowment effect to personalize the onboarding process?

This can be achieved in SaaS by customizing the user experience and making users feel like they own their experience. Collect data with welcome screens when users sign up and personalize the user’s experience from the start.


Hick’s law:

Hick’s law, aka the Hick–Hyman law, describes that the time and effort required to make a decision increases with the number of options presented.

Providing multiple options will lead to a dilemma where users are unsure what to pick. In addition, they may feel anxious after making a decision, thinking there could have been a better option. For this reason, designers are encouraged to keep any options such as buttons, tooltips, and pages to a minimum.

How to apply Hick’s law in practice to improve user experience

One of your major goals during onboarding is to ensure that your users experience value as soon as possible. They won’t see a reason to stay if they don’t see value after a few interactions, at which point they will simply churn.

To do this, break up long and complex processes into screens with fewer options. Then highlight recommended options for your users in an effort to not overwhelm them.

Interactive walkthroughs work best here: instead of bombarding users with tooltips and other in-app prompts, they guide users step by step and eliminate the need to make a complex choice.


Goal Gradient hypothesis

Our motivation to complete tasks increases when we feel closer to achieving the goal.

We look at how far we’ve come and decide it’s best to pull through rather than give up. This psychological effect is called the goal gradient hypothesis, and it works even when the progress is artificially staged.

The goal gradient hypothesis was developed by American Psychologist Clark Hull while experimenting with rats. He observed that the rats were more motivated to run towards food when they could see it in sight. The hypothesis was later proven to be true in humans as well.

Keep users motivated with progress bars

Progress bars will help orient your users to where they are in a particular journey. It shows them how far they’ve come and how much is left before they’re done.

The fact that they see changes in correspondence to every action they take keeps them motivated to finish.

Here’s an example from Airtable. It gives users a headstart—an artificial advancement toward a goal and motivates users to complete the rest of the onboarding.


Cognitive Load

The amount of mental effort a person puts into their working memory is known as cognitive load. Simply put, it is the amount of effort you need to exert to complete a specific task.

Because memory is limited, it’s best to avoid overloading users with information that doesn’t contribute directly to the main goal. Due to a growing sense of distress, a user will be more likely to abandon a task in progress when faced with too much information.

Cognitive load is of three types:

  • Intrinsic Load: This is the inherent difficulty associated with the feature or subject matter. You can’t change it; the best you can do is use microcopy to guide the user.
  • Extraneous Load: The mental exertion here comes from how the information is presented to the user. The extraneous load can be avoided by testing different UI elements to see which works best for your audience.
  • Germane Load: This cognitive load results from the effort the user has to dedicate to processing information. Familiarity with the design helps to reduce germane load.

You can increase your users’ working memory capacity by utilizing audio and visual content to convey information. Micro-videos come in handy here. They are short, on point, and minimize the cognitive load for users.

Fill empty spaces with meaningful content to minimize the cognitive load

Empty states require a lot of activation energy because users are left on their own without any guidance. But adding tooltips with clear microcopy instantly solves the problem. See how Slack did it:


Progressive disclosure

Progressive disclosure entails gradually revealing your app to users based on their knowledge level. This means showing new users only the core features of your app, leaving the advanced ones for later.

Expose complex features only when the user is already familiar with your app’s core features and can use your app comfortably.

Trigger experience flows based on customer milestones

Implement progressive disclosure by segmenting users based on milestones completed in the app. Then, trigger different in-app experience flows for each user segment. In other words, the experience you design and expose users to should depend on where they are in their journey.

Advanced user segmentation in Userpilot.

Investment loops

Have you noticed that humans never do anything unless there’s some sort of potential reward, and the activities we turn into habits are those that seem to provide the highest compensation? It’s how our brains are wired.

Habits work this way: First, there’s a trigger, then an action that yields variable reward, and the investment—the time and effort spent on the activity. You want to give customers enough rewards to make them willing to continue investing their resources. Do this successfully, and you’d have built a habit-forming product that users want to keep using.

Keep users hooked with rewards

You should provide the user with a reward that is valuable to them. Your reward can be a discount coupon, a small monetary incentive, a gift card, etc.



Though the mind stores all the information it receives, not all memory points can be immediately retrieved.

Imagine you were asked to give a highlight of how you spent the previous year. You sure can’t recall every single event that happened. It is the events that have caused a lot of emotions in the end that you will remember most clearly.

The same is true for every user on your app. They won’t remember all experiences but are most likely to recall the final moments of an event. It’s called the peak-end rule. Take advantage of this effect during onboarding, offboarding, and every other event in-between.

Celebrate when users have completed a critical task

As the end is what users will remember, give them a boost of dopamine so they form positive associations and keep coming back. You can do this by using gamification to celebrate customer milestones.

Here’s an example from Asana: a colorful unicorn riding a rainbow flies across your screen whenever you complete a task in the app, giving you a sense of pride in your accomplishment.

This feel-good emotion makes us want to engage more with the product and get another dopamine dose.


Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect was named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. It refers to the natural tendency to recall and focus on uncompleted tasks more than the completed ones.

The tension to finish uncompleted tasks is similar to what you experience when a movie you’re watching ends with a cliffhanger. This psychological tension will push you to find ways to complete the task and get mental relief.

Use checklists to prompt users to come back to uncompleted tasks

Checklists are great for reminding users of uncompleted tasks. The idea of having just 20% or 10% of work not yet finished can be really motivating; you want to quickly get to a 100% and feel done.


Affective forecasting

It may seem like a good idea to ask users directly what they want from your product, but that alone is not enough. The truth is, most people are very bad at predicting what they will like in the future.

Imagine asking the people in the 1800s what they wanted for transportation. You bet no one would mention planes because flying seemed impossible then, but since its invention in the 1900s, aviation is widely used by everybody.

The fact that we can’t forecast effectively is not bad; it just shows we’re human. But it also means you don’t always have to listen to what your customers say they want. People can say they want one thing and really just need something else. It’s better to make product decisions based on behavioral analytics.

Conduct user research by analyzing user behavior

Observe your users rather than listen to their preferences. How do you do that? Conduct user behavior analytics to predict user needs, find friction points, and improve the product experience.

Goal tracking and product usage are two techniques that can help you with this.

Goal Tracking in Userpilot.

Von Restorff effect

The Von Restorff effect is another UX psychology principle named after the person that first discovered it.

This phenomenon was initially documented in 1933 by German psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff. She was working on a research project and discovered that people tend to recall an item faster when it stands out from a list of other things that are similar to each other. An example will be remembering an apple because it’s the only red apple among the other green ones.

UX or product designers can take advantage of this effect by altering the important elements’ color, size, shape, formatting, styles, etc. Doing this will quickly draw the user’s attention and prompt them to take the actions you want.

Make your important UI elements stand out

CTAs are one of the most important elements on your page and ultimately, your end goal is persuading users to click on them. But will users notice them if they look like must any other button on your page?

Design CTAs in a way that users can easily differentiate them from the rest of the page, and pay attention to their position, shape, and color.

Look at this example from Amplitude. CTA and header are extremely clear and concise.


Familiarity principle

The familiarity principle is also called the mere-exposure effect. This principle states that we’re more likely to develop a preference for something if we’re familiar with it.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize this is true. Just remember the last time you went shopping – did you pick an item whose brand you were familiar with, or did you buy from a brand you’ve never heard about?

It’s most likely the first option unless you were out to try new things that day.

Repeatedly engage users with your features

The more you expose your features to users and try to engage them, the more familiar users will get with your product, and the more likely they will choose you over a competitor.

You should use several in-app prompts to familiarize users with your app and repeatedly engage them.

One of the best tips for driving feature engagement is using tooltips.



Understanding user psychology will enable you to create the best product experiences and keep users engaged with your app. This will also enable you to boost your retention and customer satisfaction rates.

Our software Userpilot is a product growth and digital adoption platform that can help you to improve the user experience. Userpilot not only has an advanced user segmentation functionality, but also lets you track customer behavior and create in-app prompts to drive engagement. Book a demo today and see how to implement these on your app!

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