What happens inside your brain during user onboarding?

Billy Reano
Dec 4, 2017 · 6 min read

The events within the brain that determine learning and adoption

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Think back to the last software you booted up and instantly loved. You glided through the tutorials of the application, imagining the different ways that this would change your work practices or even your life. That is, until you landed at the cluttered dashboard.

After a thud, you scope your new landscape and realize you don’t know where you are anymore. You click on strange icons just to see them animate. You dive into menus to see more menus. You’re lost.

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The creators of this software didn’t intend for this to happen. They developed a user onboarding strategy for you. Their communications plan was catered to fit your needs and help you adopt the product and its new features. But what happened?

Your brain didn’t get it. And it’s okay that you left the site soon after. Most do. That’s one contributor to the incredible bounce rates we see.

For marketers, building a successful user onboarding plan isn’t easy. Why is that? Often times we announce our product features in a similar tone of the advertising strategies that brought them in. But the communications within our platform requires a different strategy.

Instead of pointing out product features, our focus should be on navigating users to learning opportunities. Instructional design is all about that.

The role of instructional design

Instruction is a set list of external events specifically designed to guide internal learning processes. Think of the external events as the different components of our user onboarding. And the internal events are moments happening inside the brain.

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“If one has the intention of making learning occur, one must deliberately arrange these external and internal conditions of learning.”

By understanding how the brain learns new concepts, we can build better onboard strategies that help users learn to be successful with our products. And this could lead to consumer adoption. *fingers crossed

Learning and memory

In the book, Principles of Instructional Design, Robert Gagne, one of the pioneers of instructional (or learning) design, offers an interesting model of learning and memory. Typically information passes from one step to the next. Our product’s design will have a bigger impact with the user when we make our message’s journey easier.

I’ve detailed the steps below, along with learning tips that can influence the way we shape our onboarding experiences.

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information from R. M. Gagne, Essentials of learning for instruction, copyright 1975 by Dryden Press-Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY.

1. Brain’s receptors are stimulated

In the first step, activity from the environment activates receptors. They immediately send that information to the central nervous system.

Learning tip: Gain the user’s attention. Often events done through storytelling, animation, or teasers stimulate users and invite them to participate in the learning process.

2. Information is held by the sensory registers

This new information is held temporarily in sensory registers until it’s translated into short-term memory.

Learning tip: While you have their attention, inform the users of the learning objectives. This can be done in a few words to prepare the user for learning.

3. Information is passed to short-term memory

There’s a transformation that happens now called selective perception. This is where the brain attempts to recognize key parts of the message and store them away in short-term memory.

Learning tip: As you’re building your onboarding content, it is recommended to use an understood language, icons, and colors. This will help your help users grasp new concepts.

4. Short-term memory rehearsal

Obviously, short-term memory is temporary, living for less than 20 seconds. If information is to be remembered, it must be rehearsed.

Learning tip: When presenting the instructional material, do it in a meaningful way. Use demonstrations like GIFs and video along with explanations to aid in retention.

5. Information is stored in long-term memory

Information is transformed again using a process called semantic encoding. This sends the message from short-term memory to long-term memory.

Learning tip: In the presentation, be sure to provide visual examples that can guide users. It helps as well to use short phrases that can easily be remembered.

6. Retrieval from long-term memory to working memory

Information can be brought back to short-term memory through a process called retrieval. That information can then bring about new kinds of learning. That’s known as a working memory.

Learning tip: In an onboarding experience, activate their learning process by having them pick up new skills and knowledge from past learning.

7. Response generators activate the effectors

Information from the working memory or the long-term memory can be sent to the response effectors, which creates an action.

Learning tip: As the user interacts with your platform, use colors, animations, or feedback systems to provide feedback and facilitate learning.

8. Performance in the user’s environment

The performance is done externally, observed by the user. This allows them to visualize the expected effect of their internal stimulation.

Learning tip: In a broader sense, assess the user’s performance, giving them opportunities to see how their actions have a positive influence on their experience.

9. Executive strategies oversee additional learning

The executive strategies govern how information is encoded in long-term memory and how retrieval takes place.

Learning tip: Use methods to call out key processes that can enhance retention. For example, this can be done through the user interface, giving visual priority to those actions.

The next time you find yourself learning something new, maybe even reading this article, think of your brain passing around information like a hot potato. Successful user onboarding tends to follow these outlined tips, which can be summed up through Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction.

  1. Gain their attention
  2. Inform the user of the objective
  3. Stimulate recall of past learning
  4. Present the new material
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Invite the user to act
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess the performance
  9. Enhance retention

Instructional Design and the User

Instructional design should have a larger presence in the tech industry as we are building new solutions every day for generations of varying ages and backgrounds. Let’s understand how our users learn and use information. That way we can build products that are accessible, intuitive and allow individuals to exercise their wonderful talents.


Gagné, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design (4th ed.). Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

My name is Billy Reano, an interactive UX designer and ambitious learner of user onboard experiences. Check out some of the latest articles about UX design and maybe a dash of NBA culture and board game nerdry.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world.

Billy Reano

Written by

Sr. Designer @ Apple | Always searching for inspiration for my design and thriller novel writing.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.

Billy Reano

Written by

Sr. Designer @ Apple | Always searching for inspiration for my design and thriller novel writing.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.

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