On-boarding lessons from the world’s best education scientists!

The typical approach to UX design when it comes to on-boarding is a 3 step process:


  1.  Design Hypothesis
  2.  Compare to competitors and current design standards
  3.  Then test and iterate based on user-feedback and data


However, one of the most fundamental elements of on-boarding is the learning process that users undertake.

Especially considering its (often) the first experience they’ll have with your product.

And in order to come up with the most optimal onboarding (learning) experience for your users, it helps if you have a good grasp of the actual science of how people learn.

Which Is Why Teaching And Psych Grads Would Make Great Onboarding VPs!

Fortunately though – for those that don’t have one of those degrees – there is a huge amount of hardcore research in the field of education science that’s already been done for you! – AND is largely freely available to you if you know where to look.


See the end of this post for a link to a huge list of resources! 


To give you a taste of how useful this resource is, we’ll explore just one subject within education science, and apply it to the case study of an App to see what conclusions can be made.


The Subject: Piaget’s research and theories on cognitive development.

The Case study: Uber’s mobile onboardingexperience

So Piaget – or Piiyarrrjay if you want to sound more French – was a brilliant pioneer in educational psychology – no really! You’ll see what I mean! – and after conducting a tonne of case studies and trials (very much in the same way we do cohort analysis today) he concluded that learning is an interaction between user and environment – and that when users enter into a learning activity, they do so with an existing way of thinking. ie. with schemas, expectations and predictions about what should happen during the learning experience.

(Note: Piaget defined Schema as a basic structure for organizing information)


With this in mind, the step-by-step process a user experiences during onboarding looks a bit like this:

  1. User downloads app, or visits platform with existing schemas, expectations and predictions.
  2. The App or platform, in turn, provides objects and events to be understood, problems to be solved, and/or solutions to problems. THEN…
  3. As learning activities – or onboarding processes in this case – unfold, the user observes what actually happens in reality. And something really cool occurs!…





What is Disequilibrium you ask?

I’ll give you an example.

A taxi user stumbles across – and uses – Uber’s mobile app for the first time. And they open it with a schema that booking a taxi is frustrating, takes too long, and can be unreliable.

The Uber experience however may be easy, takes hardly any time, and very reliable.

The resulting mismatch between what the user expected to happen versus what actually happened is known as cognitive conflict – or in other words – disequilibrium.

And when disequilibrium occurs, Piaget proposed there can only be 3 outcomes.






(see the infograph i prepared below)

So – before we get into those three outcomes, as you might imagine, disequilibrium is a big deal – and not necessarily in a negative way. In fact, it is the very engine of learning and adaptation. And understanding the type and level of disequilibrium your users may experience when they first use your product – or when you introduce a new feature – gives you a tremendous advantage when you’re optimizing your onboarding process.

Now RE those 3 outcomes mentioned above.



Assimilation Is Essentially An Incorporation Process In Which An Outside Event (Like A New Feature Or App) Is Brought Into A Person’s Way Of Thinking.

Assimilation involves adaptation to the extent that the user has to grow or expand an existing schema to make room for the new information.

(NOTE: Schema is a cool word. SCHEMA SCHEMA SCHEMA!)

For example, kids have schemas for a dog, we have schemas for billion dollar companies and Starwars fans have schemas for Gungans. Assimilation occurs when kids make sense of the neighbour’s four-legged creature by calling it a dog, we make sense of Uber by calling it a billion dollar company and Starwars fans make sense of poorly developed, and annoying characters by calling them Gungans. So essentially, through assimilation, schemas grow both in number and complexity. (Except in the case of Gungans – in which case they sometimes shrink).


Accommodation Is A Modification Process In Which Low-Level Schemas Are Transformed Into Higher Level Schemas.

And what Piaget means by that is that Accomodation is basically a process of change in which an existing schema is changed or modified to make sense of something that is new and different.

And accommodation occurs when a lower level schema is transformed into a higher level one, as might typically happen when our schemas for business models prove inadequate to make sense of a new business model encountered whilst reading techcrunch, or when a Starwars fan encounters a new character that’s even more annoying than a GunGan.

So what happens then? Well –

When a user’s existing schemas prove inadequate to categorize and process a new piece of information, one of two things must occur: the user can


  1.  modify the existing schemas into a new and better way of thinking




  1. create a whole new schema.


Sounds nice and positive doesn’t it?


There is a THIRD outcome. Avoidance



Avoidance Is When Users Respond To The Cognitive Conflict With Frustration, Avoidance And Abandonment Of The Effort To Think.

Hmmm. that sounds a bit miserable doesn’t it.

O But it gets worse!

With avoidance, the user does not profit from the learning (or onboarding) experience, and adaptation doesn’t occur.


negative emotions — such as anxiety, frustration, confusion – and in the case of Meow chat – sheer terror — overwhelm the wish to accommodate the information to be learned, and the user avoids the learning (onboarding) opportunity by ignoring it, physically or mentally walking away from it, throwing their phone into the river, being physically sick at the thought of your product, or reacting with a playful response that makes light of their inability to understand – like laughing nervously, with one eyebrow raised, whilst looking around to make sure no one actually saw what just happened.



All that considered – the most important part of that process to be aware of – for an onboarding virtuoso like yourself – is the second stage of the diagram above ie. the point at which the disequilibrium occurs.


As Piaget discovered when he “ethically” tested many students – PS I’m Sure He Was Perfectly Ethical In His Research. I Just Thought It’d Be Entertaining To Put Ethically In Inverted Commas…. I Don’t Know. It’s Getting Late… – typically yields an openness to experience on behalf of the user, as in ‘I want and need more information to make sense of this.’ However, disequilibrium has a counterpart – Equilibrium – which in contrast, follows after accommodation has produced a state of – wait for it – Cognitive Congruence – in which a person’s new way of thinking now adequately reflects a person’s experience. And this typically results in a closed way of thinking, such as “Ok, now I understand this; I’m satisfied’.

So if learning and adaptation occurs as the user advances from a state of disequilibrium to a state of equilibrium, then what you should be focussing on is:


  1.  Identifying where your users experience disequilibrium during onboarding




  1.  Find as many ways to help your users move from a state of disequilibrium to equilibrium, and reduce the outcome of avoidance (ie. slamming a road block ad to sign up for your blog half way in between showing your users around an app for the first time may well result in avoidance).


So now that you’ve effectively completed a crash course in one small subject of educational psychology. Let’s breakdown a case study and see what we can learn in light of Piaget’s research.

Case study: Uber’s Mobile onboarding experience


  1.  app store

Firstly, the line “Uber – better than a taxi” immediately addresses and capitalizes on users current negative schemas with regards to Taxis. At this point, even if the user is on the fence about installing the app, the messaging is attempting to instill the cognitive construct within the mind of the user that ‘although I haven’t experienced using Uber – it has to be at least better than using a taxi.



Identify and thoroughly explore the nearest competing product, service, or practice in relation to your product. Once identified, do an analysis to discover the major pain points where your product adds the most value, then capitalize on any aspects of your competitors towards which your users have developed a negative schema. That way you can let the users’ schema itself do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to converting the user.


2. Booking an Uber

Intuitive marker to set pickup location, as well as the time-of-arrival indicator, are both familiar stand alone features for the user, but unfamiliar in the context of booking a taxi (Uber). Thus the process of assimilation and accommodation is relatively quick.



Applying a widely adopted UX functionality (in this case live google maps) to an alternate and new application (such as booking a taxi) shortens the time-frame for potential assimilation to occur, and thus increases the likelihood of assimilation and accommodation occurring. So when you’re designing your onboarding UX, and UX in general, Instead of approaching the implementation of a new feature with “it would be cool if we did X”, start with “Users currently do Y, so it would be cool if we did X”. This approach aims to ensure you’re taking into account User’s previous schemas regarding UX design.



This next one may seem obvious – don’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to basic elements of UX design – such as basic app navigation – unless there is a functional reason behind it (such as Tinders ‘swipe right’). Piaget’s theory – and the way I react when I can’t find my maltesers in the sweets cupboard – highlights that the learning process itself comprises an inherent adversity to change. So the less your users have to learn during onboarding, the more they can focus on your product.



And so it is – on the shores of cognitive development – our brief fellowship of the onboarding cognitive development and education science club has come to an end… even if you didn’t realize you were part of such a club. That was the first time I mentioned it. So clearly you are. Or were. (but hopefully still are after reading this!)

We have only touched the surface of the iceberg when it comes to education science and psychology with regards to onboarding. And hopefully today I’ve inspired you to dig deeper, and strengthen your onboarding with the knowledge of how users learn.

(And my apologies to any star wars fans who were offended by my comments on Gungans. I don’t take them back though. They’re still pretty annoying.)

But before we finish! As promised, I have a huge list of all the readings you’ll ever need on educational psychology as an onboarder. Whilst the majority focus on general education and cognitive subjects, almost all of the concepts apply to onboarding as well! Please find the link below.

To access the link below, you’ll need to be signed in to leanstartup.chat first!


If you haven’t signed up to leanstartup.chat yet (our awesome slack community for entrepreneurs), then you can do so below. Its Free and takes 15 seconds.


So go forth and ONBOARD!

May the Piaget be with you!

Danny Baker

Danny has a wealth of experience in the start-up and technology sectors spanning over 10 years, and is the founder and co-founder of numerous companies and initiatives, such as Unudge, & Geartooth.

Danny's diverse skill set encompasses disruptive marketing strategy, business strategy, product design, audio production, data analysis (R, R Markdown, Python), graphics design (photoshop, Indesign, Illustrator), communications, social media marketing, project management, growth strategy, UX design, front-end web development (WP, Joomla, JS, Python, HTML, CSS), and corporate law.

Danny is also a spreadsheet expert and an online instructor, teaching at Udemy.com. His courses have amassed over 11,000 students to date.

He also blogs regularly – you can find his posts at www.dannyblaker.com/blog.

You can reach Danny on twitter @DannyBlaker