A good onboarding journey is not a single flow that happens all during first run. It’s made up of multiple actions that bridge the gap between a user’s entry state and an end state of core use. Mapping these actions by working backward from the end ensures we’re thinking about guiding new users to a clear destination, even if their paths to get there are different. Scoping and prioritizing actions means you know which key moments you should invest your onboarding efforts in.
Find reasonable, contextually relevant places to remind users of something you want to show at first run.
Create a better experience for everyone by weaving support into the context of a user’s interaction with a product.
What is Onboarding
Onboarding is your first impression with your customer. Don't make it the last!
New users haven't come to hear the story of your product—they want to get things done.
Use guided interaction rather than linear storytelling to help users follow their own path to success.
Onboarding is NOT a single moment, or a single feature, or a single flow.
We have to think beyond day one if we want to help users in their most critical stages of acclimation.
Viewing onboarding as a process over time doesn't diminish the improtance of making a good first impression on day one.
Passive instructional techniques like videos, tutorials, and slideshows often fail to onboard newcomers effectively.
Problems with front-loaded instruction as an onboarding strategy:
- It tries to predict the future
- It's hard to remember
- It's overwhelming
- It can make a product seem overly complex
- It's a lot of work to maintain and scale
- It's out of context
- It's focused on awareness, not follow through.
You need an approach that figures out the happy medium between providing support to new users and offering flexibility for those who want to just jump in.
Guided interaction is the happy medium between front-loaded instruction and unsupported immersion.
Guided interaction helps users understand a product more than an approach that replies only on explaining the product up front.
- Connects the information to the meaningful actions that education enables, instead of explaining things out of context.
- Decouples the important actions of our onboarding experience so new users in different situations can encounter them at the time and in the order that suits them, using guidance to lead to next steps that build toward a long-term goal
- Uses types of guidance that are an authentic extension of our baseline product experience, instead of something tacked on or disruptive
Get your team and product ready to welcome new users.
- Align your team
- Avoid using short-term measures in isolation, a.k.a. vanity metrics: short-term metrics like completion rate, free trials started, and app installs can measure the reach of your marketing channels or the optimization of your signup flow, they aren’t reliable indicators that new users will stick around
- Connect to longer-term goals
- Onboarding design efforts should be focused on improving retention (how many people stick around to use the product over days, weeks, or months) and engagement (the extent to which they use the product’s key features). According to one study, customers who reported having a good onboarding experience were more likely to pay for a subscription than those who didn’t (http://bkaprt.com/bo/02-02).
- Any findings should be put into the larger context of studying long-term comprehension and measuring retention and engagement.
- Align with the extended team (Copywriters; QA; Marketing; Customer Service; Legal, privacy, security, and other compliance teams)
- Incorporate new users into research
- Keep the new-user mindset fresh in your team
How and why did they find your product? Are they being directed from web search links, advertisements, referrals from friends, or other sources? Are they looking to switch from another product, or is yours the first they’ve used? What are their expectations? What products or similar concepts have new users engaged with that might influence their thought process? What kinds of assumptions do they have? How have they approached trying other new products? Understanding the different methods people might use when trying your product can help you understand how they might tackle yours. What’s worked or hasn’t worked with other new products? Understanding the barriers that people have encountered in other products can help you to convince your team to remove or prevent barriers from existing in yours. What common routines do established users lean on in and outside of your product that new users need to be guided to doing? Understanding the different ways your established users have sustained their success can help you determine how to guide new users. What workarounds have your existing users developed? Seeing the kinds of hacks your steadfast, existing users have developed can help you understand what you’ll need to address for new users.
- Set up multiple channels for people to access insights about new users. Invite colleagues to observe research sessions. Enable your teammates to shadow customer service calls or view anonymized customer service chat transcripts. Set up a system for your team to keep regular tabs on user research and onboarding feedback, such as a shared document or a dedicated channel using Slack collaboration software.
- Ask teammates to journal their onboarding experiences with other products. Paying attention to and sharing first-time experiences should be an ongoing touchpoint. Rotate team members through a list of assigned projects or have lunch sessions where they share a recent experience. Ask new hires to spend their first week or month journaling their experience with your product before they become embedded in the company mindset.
- Explore your product in “new user mode. Ensure that everyone on your team can access your product in exactly the same way that new users do. For apps, wipe any local data, account data, and system permissions from the app, and clear any stored system permissions granted from the device it’s running on. Use a private browsing mode for web products, which will often clear stored user information. For devices, reset them to their factory default settings to get back to the setup experience all new users face. If your product involves creating an account or paying for a subscription, set up test accounts to understand the initial flows new users encounter as they sign up for your product.
- Roleplay your new user experience as a team. This will build a visceral understanding of the frustrations or confusions new users might encounter. Ask a colleague to play the role of the product, and another to play the role of the new user, with the rest of your team as audience. Set up a device to run as a new user would experience it, or display mockups or screenshots of your onboarding experience. Then, the person playing the role of the product will narrate or act out what they see, and the person playing the role of the user will react by articulating their thoughts or taking an action. It’s a fun ad-lib experience, but you’ll quickly see if you’re welcoming, frustrating, or confusing new users.
Playthroughs and user-guided tutorials are some examples of guided interaction. Guided interaction allows users to start playing with a new product quickly in an authentic context (instead of wading through abstracted coachmarks, instructions or intro tours), but also gives them enough coaching so that they’ll be motivated by an early success.
To help teams explore the right cadence of guided interaction for their product’s new user experience, I created a template to help with judging that interaction between a product and a new user. I’ve been calling it the coaching cadence worksheet. This can be used to audit an existing experience, or to explore variations for a revision or completely new first time ux. The worksheet follows.
- The first run and onboarding flows of a product must load quickly, respond to interaction quickly, and be free of bugs.
- At the very least, have an experience that supports those with accessibility needs, who speak different languages, and who otherwise might not fit into a binary bucket.
- Support assistive technology settings.
- Provide localization options.
- Offer non-binary options (such as "seller" vs "buyer"; or gender)
- Within your product, provide clear access points to content like your organization’s mission statement, operations, and leadership. If you make it difficult to access such content, people may feel you’re intentionally trying to hide it and be put off from continuing with your product.
Mapping Onboarding Journeys
- Define the End State
- Define the Entry Situations
- Work BACKward from End to Beginning
Onboarding’s finish line isn’t about making people an expert, much in the same way every new hire for a job isn’t expected to become a CEO. The end state of onboarding is the point at which users are doing the activities that make them part of your core user base.
Defining core use for your product will set the desired end-state for user onboarding.
1. Define the End State
Example core use for eBay sellers: Sells at least ten items per week while maintaining a high seller rating.
Core use descriptions should be:
- Aligned to long-term busines goals A core user represents someone who is helping to sustain our business. Our definition of core use should therefore correlate to engagement, retention, or other product health goals, not a vanity metric like “has an account."
- An achievable, desirable goal for the user Core use should be a state our users realistically can, and want to, be in.
- Specific It needs to reflect whatever your business and user goals translate to—how successfully-onboarded users should interact with your product.
- Framed around an individual user This helps in visualizing how a single person could take the journey to that state.
- Independent of technology Avoid incorporating the technology people will use to meet their goals, such as, “Sells ten items with the app per week.” This makes it hard for your onboarding experience to incorporate the range of technologies new users may try to use.
2. Define the Entry Situations
Entry situations are richer than just entry points.
Entry points are the channels that deliver users to a product, such as an emailed link, a social media post, an ad, a web search, etc.
Entry situations include entry points, but also include the motivation and context the user brings with them. Their situation has a strong influence on what kinds of things they’d be interested in doing next.
Analytics: how users came to your product
User Research: why users came to your product
If you’ve developed personas or user archetypes, you might look at those to extrapolate the kinds of scenarios that bring users in.
3. Work BACKward from End to Beginning
Start at the end.
- Set up the map and entry situations
- Using a large drawing space like a whiteboard or Miro draw three large concentric circles.
- Put core use in the center
- On opposite sides of the largest circle write two entry situations that are common but different enough to reflect a range of situations.
- Add core use routines
- Define a list of recurring behaviors that core users do to stay successful.
- Choose 3-6 of the most common ones.
- Add as post its to middle circle around center Core Use Circle
- Map actions from core use routine to entry situation
- Choose a core use routine from the middle circle
- Identify the action(s) users might have taken immediately prior to establishing the routine. Write this action in the largest circle, near the core use routine.
- Now identify the action a user would have to take to reach the action you just wrote down and place it near the previous one.
- Continue working backward in this manner to generate each action, working your way outward until you reach one of the entry situations
- Reduce abandonment or failure
- Increase product usage if completed sooner
- Required before doing other key actions
- Useful for many different entry situations
- Realistically can support/implement
Repeat these steps for different combinations of routines and entry situations until you end up with a constellation of actions in your biggest circle.
Repeat actions even if you’ve already written them down as part of a different combination, as the presence of the same action in multiple onboarding paths will be useful when it comes to prioritizing them!
4. Scope Actions
Represent a self-contained scope that will move users forward in their experience.
Provide a noticeable benefit to the user upon completion.
Reflect the user’s definition of the action.
Include the work needed to get the job done.
Provide an immediate benefit to the user
5. Prioritize Onboarding Actions
Actions to prioritize first:
Guidance in Action
Three parts of an onboarding action
- Prompt: any mechanism the user acts on to initiate an action
- Pick the right context
- Align to user benefit
- Set expectations
- Consider your "free samples" Instead of forcing people to make a commitment to your product too early, give them a free sample: a commitment-free taste of your product’s value proposition that is usable before an account is necessary.
- Work involved in the middle of the action
- Create continuity
- Provide support in context Differentiate required subtasks from optional subtasks, and order them so the required ones are disclosed first,
- Offer alternatives
- Make errors actionable and informative Negative experiences tend to be more memorable than unremarkable ones
- Follow-up at the end of the action Underemphasizing the success can leave users wondering if the work they did was actually impactful
- Acknowledge success Provide feedback indicating a new user has completed an onboarding action successfully.
- Provide meaningful next steps Make sure your next steps are relevant and focused on what benefits the user. Avoid these as next steps:
- Don’t use catchall checklists.
- Don’t create a superficial system of rewards. Reward systems are complex and must be well integrated into your entire product strategy, not just used as a mechanism for new users. The rewards system itself is a whole concept you need to spend at least some part of your onboarding experience familiarizing people with, otherwise they’ll be surprised by a sudden influx of rewards.
- Don’t launch straight into additional flows.
What we emphasize may change as the user makes progress; for example, we may emphasize elements that encourage users to create an account, then emphasize other kinds of content once they’re signed in.
The goal isn’t to make new users read a FAQ to onboard themselves; that’s not guided interaction.
- Your product’s baseline design is the foundation for all your guidance. The more you can bake onboarding into your core experience, the more resilient your guidance will be in different situations.
- Use additive UI patterns Consider overlays only when they’re respectful of the user’s situation and won’t result in messy collisions or interruptions.
- Add supplementary guidance in other channels
Embedded into the flow of default content and guide users to take an action related to the content they’re viewing.
Messages or banners inserted before, between, or after content, or emulate an item in a series of items.
Take care to use them only occasionally during a new user’s onboarding experience to provide contextually relevant prompts for action, or for temporary information that supplements the actions and options currently on screen. And, style them in a way that complements the surrounding product experience; the more you try to make them stick out from everything else, the more disjointed and advertising-like they may look.
Temporary elements that highlight a piece of UI the user can act on, or to give feedback on an action just taken.
- Highlights an badges Indicate that something is interactive or has changed status such as when a new feature is added or a feature has changed.
- Animated, sonic, or haptic hints. Suggest something important is interactive or give special feedback the first time users complete a task.
- Tooltips Small informational bubbles that appear on a desktop interface when users hover over a UI element, then disappear when the cursor moves away.
- Toasts Temporary messages that appear over an interface to confirm status or give feedback after a state has changed.
- Dialogs and pop-ups.
- Floating chat bubbles
- Interruptions push people away
- Overlays often collide
Reduce the number of overlays that push themselves in front of the user when they’re in the middle of a task.
Effective as long as:
- it’s applied only to a well-scoped onboarding action
- the action represents only a one-time setup or otherwise complex and infrequently visited flow
- each screen of the wizard is focused on getting the user to take an action, not acting as a surface to serve up pure information
Emails and Other Channels
Emails and notifications are two of the most common alternate channels for providing guidance to new users after their first use of a product.
- Do send a welcome message shortly after users provide their email address. Be brief and action-oriented instead of simply informing users about your product, providing one to three actionable next steps they can take.
- Don’t send additional onboarding emails without disclosing that you’ll do so.
- Do send additional onboarding emails that reflect recent user activities.
- Don’t confuse onboarding emails with marketing emails.
Push notifications are best when they’re immediately actionable and tied to recent activity in your product.
Text messages share the negative aspects of both push notifications (they’re disruptive), and email (they don’t offer space to elaborate, and links may be seen as spam)—and they can eat up users’ messaging allowance. An initial welcome text or very occasional promo text might be worth looking into if you don’t have access to a user’s email account, but don’t rely on this as a channel for onboarding.
Put guided interaction into action:
- Start making core product design adjustments in existing flows
- Identify and remove instances of poorly performing front-loaded instruction or displaced guidance
- Use your onboarding documentation as a rollout guide for launching designs for each onboarding action, addressing those actions that tend to occur earlier in a new user’s onboarding journey or those that were at the very top of the prioritized list of actions.
Evaluate and iterate
- Diary studies
- Cohort analysis
- Usability studies
- Offboarding feedback
Standardize your decisions in a pattern library;—consider organizing onboarding patterns by the user need it addresses.
Extended Guided Interaction Uses
- Personalizing the experience
- New feature introductions
- Product or service updates (Put high-priority messages in the context of a specific, relevant interaction)
- Product Redesigns
- put guidance in the context of the existing version of the product to prime people for the impending change
- let people opt in to the new version, and switch back and forth between versions for a time so they could learn the differences at their own pace
- Re-boarding lapsed users