5 Cognitive Biases to design for User Onboarding & Activation


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Did you know that ~75% of users who download an app or start using a product, drop-off in the first week itself?

Well, you did know that! Because most businesses have seen these numbers unfold in front of their very eyes!

So, what happens once you have painstakingly acquired users through multiple acquisition campaigns? The user lands on your product, toys around with a few features, completes a few actions within the app or decides to come back later and complete a transaction (or watch content or play a game).

Now, its highly likely that if you have not been able to ‘activate’ your new user after she has landed on your product, she is probably not going to be a repeat user.

Activation may sound straightforward like simply activating a user account, but it’s a lot more than just clicking a link in a confirmation email!

So what really constitutes User Activation?

It is a set of actions that a new user performs within a product that is as close as possible to the value proposition of the product.

After the acquisition, that is, the point at which users find you – they experience your product for the first time and then decide whether it is worth coming back. Basically, for a successful user activation, your product should solve the Job-To-be-Done (JTB) for the user and they should be able to derive value from it.

User activation steps are not same for every business. They can include a number of different actions, from clicking on content to creating a new file. For example, for a travel app – its flight/hotel bookings done by a user, for a fantasy gaming app it would be playing games and participating in contests, for a food-tech app, it would be placing food orders and so on.

And to put it very very simply, User Activation is (and should be) the ONLY goal for Onboarding.

The period where users achieve activation is usually when they are testing out your product and that is exactly when the onboarding experience provided to the user can either make or break the overall user experience.

One of the key factors to keep in mind while designing any onboarding experience is to play with the common cognitive biases humans have.

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. Cognitive biases tend to affect the decisions and judgments that humans make. These biases are often a result of our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing!

Now the question is how do we exploit these cognitive biases to design experiences within the product that lead to quick and effective user activation, improve conversion rates, increase users’ engagement level, and as a result, improve retention rates.

Below are the top 5 common cognitive biases that Product Managers can use (and have been using) to trigger behavioral changes amongst users:

1. Hick’s Law: The more the choices, the more time users take to make their decisions

I downloaded the Netflix app for my mother yesterday and we spent the first 15 minutes just scrolling through the hundreds of choices on display, after which my mother got completely overwhelmed and exited the app! The variety of choices was too overwhelming for her!

Cut to the “Top 10 in your country” widget right on the 1st fold of the screen and now Netflix has enabled my mother to make a decision somewhat faster!

Here are some more ways to overcome Hick’s law while designing onboarding experiences:

– Try navigation options in the menu to guide users through groups rather than individual products

– Reduce the time taken by the user to perform the 1st key action within the app – provide contextual nudges to the user to complete the 1st key app event which can help them derive value from your product and reach the AHA moment!

2. Progressive disclosure: Users are less overwhelmed if they are exposed to more complex features later

During the onboarding experience, show only the core features of your product, and as users get familiar, unveil new options. It keeps the interface simple for new users and progressively brings power to advanced users.

You may want to check out how Tinder uses the progressive disclosure technique rather effectively while onboarding new users 🙂

3. Momentum behavior: By nature, human beings like to stick to familiar things. This human characteristic is usually obstacle in new product feature adoption.

Momentum behavior occurs when people fail to choose an optimal path within a product because they’ve decided to stick with the path that they’re familiar with.

Information overload also causes momentum behaviour, especially in a digital environment. To cope with an abundance of choices and prevent decision fatigue, users typically repeat successful patterns based on previous interactions.

Today, product-led companies live and die by quick feature releases and no product team can afford to have 90% of its popularly requested features ignored.

Getting users to find, learn about, and then repeatedly use new features fundamentally requires users to change their existing behavior. Think about how you can create a new Habit Loop for the user so that she is able to use your new feature optimally!

Here’s an example: This ride hailing app had an ‘auto-confirm’ feature available for users to allow them to book rides more easily. But very few users would actually turn this feature on – they were more likely to just launch the app, search for rides and drop off if they were not able to find rides on the first go! This was their momentum behaviour!

The product manager at this company decided to use walkthroughs to guide the user to discover the ‘auto-confirm’ feature at the exit intent! And voila! Users were able to use this functionality to their advantage and were able to bypass their momentum behaviour to derive more value from the app!

4. Endowment effect: Users are more likely to retain something that they own than acquire that same thing when they don’t own it. They tend to overvalue the things they own, regardless of their objective market value.

Adding some simple yet meaningful user-owned tasks to the onboarding experience can drastically improve activation rates. Once users play around with some features, commit to a certain product and invest time in it (i.e. build their profile, add their favourites, set reminders etc.) it’s harder for them to let go and can lead to the user becoming a repeat user.

This is where Personalizing the product experience from the get-go also paves the way for Endowment effect to take over. Asking users to customize the product based on their likes/dislikes/goals/needs/priorities can create a sense of ownership and deep engagement within the user

5. Nudge: As per the nobel prize winning concept, if you give your users N no of different options, they are most likely to choose the option that’s highlighted.

Small cues or context changes can encourage users to make a certain decision without forcing them. Crafting these nudges to create a superlative user experience is the key. When nudges are tied with relevance & context , they are called Contextual Nudges and if nudges are not contextual, they are nothing but nags!

Summing it up

In The Elements of User Onboarding, Samuel Hulick describes user onboarding as “guiding the uninitiated all the way to their own personal promised lands”. But there is often an issue so many product teams face — we overestimate our new users and their knowledge about the product, its utility, and usability.

Right from sign-up, onboarding should be a comforting process, an assurance of delivering a promise. By borrowing from behavioral science, companies can focus on optimizing their products, right from onboarding, to maximize engagement and customer retention.

This article was originally published on the author’s blog and reprinted with permission.

Matthew Vernhout
Matthew Vernhout is VP of Deliverability at Netcore Cloud, a customer engagement and experience platform that helps brands create exceptional digital experiences


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