essay 1

Supercharge your Product using Principles of Psychology – Essay 129 min read

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on how principles of human psychology impact product design and how you can leverage these principles today to supercharge your product.

There are usually two types of product managers – One who believes that people choose and use the products in a rational, deliberate, conscious manner. And the other, who believes that people use products without much conscious deliberation, in a causal, semi-conscious way.

If you are the former, well, all the best to you and may your products win. But if you are the latter, you will find this essay of tremendous interest. You have understood the single biggest reason why many products fail and what you can do to save your product from the sinkhole of product failures.

🧠 Impact of Cognitive Biases on Products

It has been established beyond doubt that human psychology or cognitive biases have a tremendous impact on the way we make decisions. These decisions include buying a product, clicking a button, checking out from an e-commerce store, listening to a song, and many more. These biases can actually make-or-break your product.

But you don’t have to trust me on this. Google came out with a report recently (link at the end of the post) which highlights how six cognitive biases impact our purchase journey. Here’s one experiment from the report that is particularly interesting.

Google researchers created a fictional brand in each of the 31 categories they were studying and supercharged the brand with features that appeal to 6 cognitive biases they were studying (such as social proof, power of free, category heuristics, etc.). Then they put this brand next to the No. 1 preferred brand of subjects in each of the 31 categories and asked them to select the preferred brand. The result is shown below.

Image Copyright: Google

In almost all cases, 50% or more users opted for the cognitively supercharged fictional brand instead of their no.1 preferred brand. Even in the most sticky category (breakfast cereals), 1/3rd users opted for the fictional brand. This type of user switching is sufficient to break an existing brand and give a significant boost to any new entrant even in a highly competitive category.

In this essay, we will look at 4 rules of psychology that impact how we make decisions. We will also look at examples of companies/apps which have successfully used these in their products to supercharge their user engagement and end with an Ideation Sheet which you can use to evaluate the Product Design choices of your app based on these 4 rules.

Here’s how the essay is structured:

1. Peak-End Rule

2. Serial Position Effect

3. Zeigarnik Efffect

4. IKEA effect

5. Use cases of these Psychology principles (37 use cases in total)

6. Ideation sheet (Download as pdf)

Two Yellow Emoji on Yellow Case

😃 Peak-End Rule

What is it?

People judge and remember an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, rather than the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.

Peak is when people are at an emotional high which could be triggered by anxiety, pleasure, happiness, sadness, etc. For an e-commerce app it could be searching for a product from thousands of options, for a hotel it could be trying to check-in after a long journey, or for a payment app, it could be trying to complete a payment transaction.

End is the last experience with the product. This could be check-out from a hotel, bill payment completion for a power utilities company, unsubscribing from a digital newspaper, etc.

Behavior Science explanation

In a study done in 1993, researchers Danny Kahneman, Barbara Fredrickson, Charles Schreiber, and Donald Redelmeier discovered the peak-end rule.

In this study, the participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience.

  • In the first trial, participants submerged a hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds. In the second trial, participants submerged the other hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds, but then kept their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15 °C
  • Participants were then offered the option of which trial to repeat. Participants were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a longer exposure to uncomfortable temperatures.
  • Thus the researchers concluded that the participants liked the memory of the second trial more than the first trial and hence chose to repeat it again

Post this, several studies have re-confirmed the presence of Peak-End bias in our minds.

This effect can be explained by the Snapshot Model of Remembered Utility. When we are evaluating a past episode, we do not look at all the different components of that episode. Instead, we create a representative moment (a snapshot) of the episode, which may draw different attributes from different moments of the actual experience. The moments which stand out in this evaluation are the most extreme emotions experienced during the episode and the most recent one. Hence, the rule: Peak-End.

It is important to remember here that this rule says that people tend to ‘remember’ only the peak and end experience. Hence, the applications of these rule impacts how people ‘remember’ your product or how they recall their experience with your product from memory. It does not change how they feel ‘in-the-moment’ when they are using your product.

Key takeaways for product design

  • You need to know which are the moments of anxiety/emotional high of your users so that you can convert these to peaks and improve user experience. Do remember that users remember negative moments more than positive ones and you need to identify both negative and positive moments
  • You can alter how a negative moment is recalled by the user from memory by carefully addressing the negative peak through humor, brand personality, etc.
  • Different users will have different points of heightened experience with your product, which need to be captured in the user persona before designing the product
  • Don’t spend resources on making the entire experience with your product memorable. Instead, focus on the high-intensity moments and exit moments. This will save precious resources while achieving the same (or better) memory recall about your product
White Graphing Paper

📝 Serial Position Effect

What is it?

This term was coined by legendary German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus and describes how the position of an item in a sequence affects its recall accuracy. It says that users have a propensity to best remember the first and last items in a sequence and the items in the middle have least recall.

Behavior Science explanation

The Serial Position Effect consists of two different effects – Primacy Effect and Recency Effect.

Primacy Effect

The primacy effect is a cognitive bias that leads to a user recalling the first set of information presented better than information presented later on. This happens because the initial items in a list are stored in the long-term memory more efficiently than items later in the list.

Recency Effect

The recency effect depends on short-term memory. Short-term memory is the ability to hold a relatively small amount of information in the mind for a brief period of time. This information is held and kept active for use, but it is not changed. Thus, these items in short-term memory are readily available for recall.

It is important to note here that the Recency effect decays at a much faster rate than the Primacy effect. As shown above, if a recall is attempted immediately after the presentation of the list, the primacy effect and recency effect are roughly equal in strength. If a recall is attempted more than 30 seconds after the presentation of the list, the primacy effect is still there but the recency effect quickly diminishes.

Key takeaways for product design

  • When designing a Landing Page, display the most important information at the beginning and at the end of the page
  • If your product is designed in a way where the user is expected to take a quick selection decision soon after the last piece of information is shown, the recency effect is going to be the strongest. Hence, the star USP should be the last piece of information shown
  • When selling multiple products (such as e-commerce store), always lead with your start product or best-seller product as that product will have a much higher chance of getting selected
  • Repeating information or CTA at the beginning and at the end of a landing page will help in building better recall
Man With Hand on Temple Looking at Laptop

🏃‍♀️ Zeigarnik Effect

What is it?

People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Once the task has been completed, people cannot recall the task accurately.

Behavior Science explanation

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist. She discovered the Zeigarnik Effect (named after her) when she and her professor noticed that a waiter had better recollection of unpaid orders, compared to the orders which were already paid. Interestingly, this effect was discovered in 1927, almost 100 years ago.

The effect can be explained by Lewin’s field theory. It states that a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves the cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task but persists if it is interrupted.

Things like the motivation to successfully complete a task, how fatigued an individual is, and how difficult they believe a task is, impacts the recall of an unfinished task. This effect is strongest when people are motivated to complete a task.

Key takeaways for product design

  • Provide the users with a perceived sense of progress that invokes a feeling of uncompleted tasks. Using visual indicators (progress bars, circles, etc.) to show progress helps
  • Identify if it is possible to align user to a goal inside your product (through gamification). Goals work better when users create these rather than when goals are assigned to them
  • Show progress as ‘steps to be completed’ rather than ‘completed steps’ to show a perceived sense of how much is left to be done
  • Use ‘Open Loops’ in the copy for your product’s information (Landing Page, newsletter, etc.) which creates an initial excitement in the reader’s mind without revealing the full information and without providing closure
Man in Gray Long Sleeve Shirt Sitting on Chair

👷 IKEA effect

When you put effort into something, it becomes more valuable to you than its objective value. It’s named after furniture and furnishings giant IKEA which started the DIY revolution by selling read-to-assemble furniture kits.

This effect also partly explains the trouble one has when they have to move on from a task after devoting significant time to it (for instance writing a 3000 words essay, realizing that it is crap but still not being able to start a new essay).

Behavior Science explanation

The IKEA effect was identified and named by researchers Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale, and Dan Ariely of Duke University. They published their research in a paper titled ‘The IKEA Effect : When Labor Leads to Love’ in 2011.

They described the IKEA effect as “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardized bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.”

In their research, they observed that people were willing to charge much higher price for a product they had built, compared to the price other people, who had not worked on the product, were willing to pay for it. The price expected was way higher than the objective value of components used to make the product. The product in this research was an Origami creation, a frog or a crane.

Image copyright: Harvard Business School

The researchers also observed that when participants spent too much time building or deconstructing their creations, or failed to complete the task, their willingness to pay for the item declined, as shown below.

Image copyright: Harvard Business School

Key takeaways for Product Design

  • Provide users opportunities to put effort into the product early on in their journeys. This allows the IKEA effect to kick-in
  • These opportunities can start right from the acquisition stage by allowing users to access a full-scale demo of the product before they sign-up rather than telling them about the features
  • Identify opportunities for your users to customize/personalize the product during onboarding to make it more valuable for them
  • Allow users to set-up something (a quick win) immediately after onboarding so that they have a perceived sense of putting in effort in the product
  • When a user lands at the main screen after sign-up, don’t show a blank screen. Provide templates, editable graphics, editable videos, etc. so that the user can straightaway try out the product’s features

🔔 Use cases of these Psychology principles

These psychology principles do make an interesting read and if you narrate this to your friends, they will be impressed by the eclectic nature of your knowledge. But do these actually work?

Fortunately, we don’t have to go into reams of research to check the impact of these principles. I am sharing below different ‘design prompts’ which you can incorporate in your product. Most of these ‘design prompts’ have examples on how other apps/digital products are using it.

This section is arranged as per the user funnel:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Onboarding and Activation
  3. Engagement and Referral
User Funnel


Peak-End Rule
  1. Customers are anxious when buying a product from an untested brand. If you are a new brand trying to sell a new product, provide a money-back or easy return offer to your prospects to convert this anxiety to peak experience
Teachable provides a 30 days money back guarantee on all courses
Serial Position Effect

2. Lead with the star USP for your product as the first thing on your landing page

Apple leads with its strongest USP as the first thing on the iPad Pro landing page

3. Add a powerful USP immediately before the last sign-up CTA button

Convertkit moved to a freemium model recently and the most powerful push (power of free) is mentioned right at the end of the Landing Page

4. Insert your upsell CTA both at the start of the communication and at the end of the communication

Morning Brew provides a clearly highlighted button to subscribe at the top…
… and also at the end of the page

5. Ensure your sign-up process makes it easy for the user to take action within 30 seconds of reading the last USP

Zeigarnik Effect

6. Use Open Loops in mailer subject lines to stoke user’s interest and curiosity

Morning Brew uses Open Loops to great effect for subject line and preview line in its emailers

7. Provide users with a reminder during trial period in terms of how many days are left for them to continue to use the service

Mailbrew provides a regular reminder right at the top in terms of how many days are left in the trial period

8. Provide a timer on the landing page to show how much time is left before the deal expires

LearnDash provides a timer on its pricing page to show how much time is left before the deal expires

9. Provide an exit intent pop-up or reminder notifications showing that only 1 or 2 steps are left before the user starts using the product

Pop Up Confirmation Screen by Thiago Vaccaro on Dribbble
Copyright: Thiago Vaccaro

IKEA Effect

10. Showing is better than telling. Let the user play with the product with all its features without buying it

Bubble allows users to straightaway see how it works by allowing users to edit Bubble’s homepage using Bubble’s platform
user onboarding best practices buzzsumo
Buzzsumo allows users to start searching for a topic or domain straightaway without any registration

11. Crowdsource user inputs for the product features before going into development

Threadless crowdsources designs from its user community through design challenges

12. Do a Beta releases to community of users before rolling out the final release

Microsoft allows its user community to download beta versions of its apps to get feedback

Onboarding and activation

Peak-End Rule

13. New users are anxious/excited when they start using a new product. This is the right time to create a strong peak experience for them by using animation, humor, brand personality to relax the user when signing-up

Animated login form avatar by Darin on Dribbble

14. Provide a guided onboarding experience to the user, like the way an experienced server helps in selecting the right menu options from a complex French cuisine menu

woman in black long sleeve shirt holding smartphone
Thanks to Mateus Campos Felipe for sharing their work on Unsplash.

15. If guided onboarding experience is not possible, then use progressive onboarding flow where each step asks for a specific piece of information and then guides the user to the next step

Flipboard User Onboarding Flow
Flipboard uses a progressive disclosure based onboarding flow to not overload the user during onboarding

16. Provide different onboarding experience to different tiers of users and provide a higher level experience to users who have higher level of engagement

Holiday Inn Express Zhabei Shanghai, China - Photos, Room Rates ...
Hotel chains offer different check-in experience to their premium customers
Convertkit provides it’s paid subscribers a free migration to their tool

17. Make sure the onboarding process results in a better understanding of the product to reduce anxiety – Using splash screens, product tour, automated onboarding emailers, etc.

Trello sends 7 onboarding support mails to its new users after the welcome mail over a 5 weeks period
Employee scheduling tool Humanity uses an interactive product tour to walk users through a complex workflow

18. Create a unique experience for your users during onboarding that is not replicated by the competing products

Email productivity app Superhuman insists on one-on-one onboarding for all their users during which they help them achieve inbox zero
Serial Position Effect

No significant use of Serial Position Effect at this stage

Zeigarnik Effect

19. Clearly show to the user how few steps they are away from completing the onboarding

Mailchimp uses progress dots to show users how close they are to complete the onboarding
StoryChief is using Zeigranik Effect i.e. A Psychological Effect
Content Marketing tool StoryChief uses both progress bar and a checklist to indicate to users that there are uncompleted items in the onboarding flow

20. Instead of showing how many steps user has completed, show how many steps are left

21. Help users pick-up a goal during onboarding process so that they can focus on working towards it

duolingo mobile app screenshot of account setup and language learning goals screen.
Duolingo asks users to pick-up a goal during onboarding to stoke an arousal state of aiming to achieve the goal
IKEA Effect

22. Provide users the opportunity to personalize the app during onboarding

Drift allows the users to customize the look & feel of the product while onboarding

23. Provide an initial set of values such as templates, free to use editable graphics, etc. so that user is not faced with a blank slate and can get to work immediately

Grammarly provides users with a draft document at the end of the onboarding process on which they can work and learn more about its features

24. Include a quick-win scenario in the sign-up process to ensure user gets the feeling of having created something

screenshot image of duolingo mobile app's user onboarding experience. this mobile screen shows a korean language placement test. this is a great example of user onboarding for mobile
Duolingo starts with simpler words and sounds during onboarding to give the users quick wins and ensure they continue to use the product

Engagement and Referral

Peak- End Rule

25. Manage the negative peaks (such as 404 errors) using humor and brand personality to avoid having a negative peak experience

Convertkit uses brand personality-based communication when a page goes missing
Mailchimp uses humor to handle a situation when a link points to a page that doesn’t exist

26. Re-enforce a positive peak experience using visual cues and animation to make it memory-worthy for the user

A mini oral history of the Mailchimp high five | Inside Design Blog
Mailchimp gives you an animated high five every time you send an email campaign

27. Use loading screens to your advantage and avoid creating a negative peak for the users

What can 15 minutes of social media do? : memes
Duolingo uses cheeky copy on the loading screen to avoid users being bored while the next screen loads

28. Have a way for the users to quickly access help when they need it to create a positive peak

Slack has a slackbot in its app which can help in answering simple questions

29. Ask users to refer your product or give you ratings on app stores immediately post the peak experience

Serial Position Effect

30. Put Referral CTA just before the end of the mailer or communication to prompt the user to share

Morning Brew
Morning Brew puts an animated image at the end of its mailer to promote its referral program
Zeigarnik Effect

31. Provide users with visual information on how close they are to completing their goals

Box provides a visual nudge to its users to complete tasks and earn free trial days

32. Use streaks to record the performance of the users and show how close they are to next level
Strava lets users join various challenges and visually show how close they are to completing the challenge

33. Ask the user to refer the product as soon as she completes a streak to increase referral rates

34. Provide a perceived value to the user when they complete a streak to nudge them to achieve a goal

Unacademy (Education App) provides its users with points credit when they continue a learning streak

35. Provide reminders for users to complete the streak by showing goals and uncompleted steps

Duolingo provides visual reminders to users to continue their streaks
IKEA Effect

36. Provide users opportunities to invest effort in customizing the app using avatars, custom feed, custom screens, etc.

BBC app asks users to add topics of their choice to the feed to make it more useful
Ted-Ed let’s you customize any lesson as per your preference just by click of a button

37. Ask users to customize the app by providing regular prompts

Tuesday Tips: How to be an All Star With Your LinkedIn Profile ...
LinkedIn provides regular reminders to users to complete their profiles by adding additional information

📥 Download Ideation Sheet

Click on the image below to download the Ideation Sheet.

That’s all folks.

If you have made it till here, it means that both of us have a deep interest in using Behavioral Sciences to make better products. Do pause and reflect on what you have read in this essay.

It took me ~2 weeks of writing and many months of research to complete this essay and the ideation sheet. If you liked what you read, please do take a moment to share this with your friends, through mail, Twitter or Linkedin by using the buttons below.



PS: All images, logos, screenshots, product screens, etc. used are copyrights of the respective Intellectual Property owners. These are used only for illustrative purpose here.

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