onboarding, product psychology, behavioral science



A week ago, we decided to take a closer look at a few apps. As product enthusiasts, we are always keen to spot how web and mobile apps deploy nudges, and why they do it. Nudges are easy product interventions that alter people’s behavior in a predictable way - to make users think or do something they might not instinctively do. There is a science at play here - that of behavior.

In this blog, we highlight some key behavioral science principles that we spotted during the onboarding process of our apps. The apps in question? Strava (Fitness), Canva (Design), Yummly (Food & Beverage), and Flo (Period-Tracker). Here are four principles we spotted during our teardown:

#1 Priming

Priming is an interesting principle of psychology that has long been part of advertising, marketing, and product design.

“When exposure to a stimulus influences your behavior in a subsequent, possibly unrelated task, that is priming”

The folks at the UX research and consulting firm, Nielson Norman Group, believe that elements on an app interface can prime user behavior and expectations. This is why priming is key during onboarding.

This part of the product funnel focuses on

  • educating the user on the problem they are trying to solve
  • highlights the features of the product that help solve the problem
  • nudges them to take the right action (to their aha! moment)

A well-primed user understands your product value (OR) is in course of understanding it.

The end goal here is activation - one where the user knows how the product works and when to use it. Generally, apps deploy swipe cards and empty states. These are visual with value-driven content that prepares users for what they can expect.

Let us take the example of Flo and its onboarding screens.

Visual, value-driven content helps users quickly understand what they are signing up for, priming their expectations

In just three swipes, users are told about the app’s predictive algorithm, its educative content that helps understand their bodies better, and the support groups they can be part of. With this expectation set, users know what they are getting into, and will be primed about the features the app will offer them.

Taking the user from “what do I do?” to “wow, this is useful!” is what your onboarding should achieve. This is where priming is an effective tool.

#2 Hick’s Law

Hick’s law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with complexity and number of choices. Complex onboardings are victims of indecisiveness - long, countless screens and endless decision pits can tire the user out.

“Always try to make it short and engaging. The onboarding is like an unboxing experience. Nobody wants to get stuck in the unboxing experience forever. They want to start using the product!”

A question then arises - how long an onboarding process should be? This would largely depend on the kind of application it is and the category it serves. A tax-filing app is expected to ask questions; a photo app, not so much!

What are the users saying though?

If your users become impatient during a key moment like onboarding, they’re more likely to “churn,” or to stop using your app - Clutch, 2017.

Hick’s is in agreement! Longer the onboarding, longer the frustration. Canva saved us the anger, as it allowed us to dive right into designing a graphic (the value we were seeking in the app) within two screens of onboarding.

Two screens is all it takes for us to get started.

By nudging us to get started straight away, Canva does a great job of guiding us to our aha! moment. 

It is also important to note how Canva nails permission priming in their onboarding process. Rather than overwhelming users with a blitzkrieg of permission grants during the first few seconds of the app launch, Canva establishes trust by asking for the camera access only when it becomes relevant.

This blitzkrieg approach that apps deploy not only frustrates users but also lengthens their onboarding process (cue Hick’s Law). Instead of communicating everything your product does in one single go, it is advisable to unravel each feature in parts. 

And along the way, place permission prompts for features that are relevant to the app, with context communicated to the user.

Sidenote: Some apps prefer the soft onboarding route, by delivering value to their new user first before onboarding them - Duolingo is a great example of this. We could kick start a lesson in French, with a learning goal, before signing up onto the app.

#3 Investment and Sunken Costs

Soon after we were done designing our business card, Canva prompted us to sign up for Canva Pro, their premium service. A number of apps make use of this approach - on completion of the first task or the entire activation checklist, users are nudged to sign up for premium. If we peer into the books of Behavioral Economics, it won’t be long when we come across the principle of Investment & Sunk Cost Effect.

“Right after a reward is the best moment to ask your user to invest a few of their resources in anticipation of future benefits.”

The reward here is the aha! moment. Users see the value of the product and are asked to break the bank (invest) to access better and more advanced features (benefits).

Most apps nudge users to opt for their free trial. This is to give them premium access for a limited time after which the app (aggressively or subtly) upsells through pop-ups, notifications and later, termination of premium service.

Flo (left) and Strava (right)

Before we move on to the next principle, we would like to highlight two important psychological tools used in the screens above:
  • Free Trial - Flo anchors its free trial alongside its paid service. This encourages users to sign up for the program, as it is free and requires no investment. As consumers, we are all familiar with anchors. A well-placed anchor is what convinces you to buy the larger tub of popcorn, because it is only a couple of dollars more than the medium-sized option. 
  • Cancel anytime - Strava is trying to get rid of any mental barrier that should hinder my decision-making. The likelihood of conversions can be increased just by reducing the uncertainties in people's mind before they ask the questions. Canva also uses the “No Commitment, Cancel Anytime” for the same reason.

#4 Momentum Behavior

Momentum behavior occurs when people look at but do not choose an option that could help them because they have already selected a course and are sticking to it.

We get it. All apps ask for permissions. But what if you deny a particular feature that could effectively come in way of your user experience? We had this scenario play out with Yummly. During onboarding, we jumped straight into our Yummly recipes, without granting storage access to the app.

Yummly's snackbar prompt reminds users that they can better the image viewing experience.

Researchers at Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) believe that because of Momentum Behavior, “within moments, users can become loyal to the route they have chosen and oblivious to other interface elements.”

In Yummly’s case, without storage access, a user’s experience with their recipe images wouldn’t be optimized. So the app tackles this by using a snack-bar prompt, that reminds users to grant access. Product teams must remember that their users will not necessarily act the way they expect them to. They might adopt a path which does not guarantee flawless product experience, and be loyal to it. In such instance, apps have to deploy nudges as a failsafe to remind users, and direct them to the perfect or ideal user flow.

The nudge economy is here. Today, retail stores and digital brands are placing nudges to drive consumer/user engagement, retention, and conversion. And upon close inspection, you will find the fundamental science that they are trying to leverage - behavioral science!

Want to bring the power of the nudge to your product? Drop us an email or request a demo. Like the pebbles that guided Gretel, we at Hansel believe in dropping subtle, intuitive nudges across the product funnel that direct your users to the right action. Get in touch today!

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