Why would we care about user onboarding?

Francois Brill
7 min readJan 21, 2021
Craft your user onboarding experience to help users achieve their desired outcomes. Retention resonates from nailing this!
Photo by Uri Paz on Unsplash

Why would we care about onboarding? Shouldn’t we just create a user registration form to get someone signed up and dump them into the middle of our product as quickly as possible? Changes are you won’t have much success retaining such users. You’ve spent a bunch of time, energy and possibly resources to get users to this point, so we need to stress the importance of making the most of it.

The truth is the user has a “job-to-be-done” based on a need that they need fulfilled. They are not there because you had a pretty landing page. That landing page promised something that they are after and it’s our job to help them get to that point as quickly as possible. Most software don’t just do one thing, and users entering through this “funnel” might have different desired outcomes for users, and it’s our job as part of the onboarding process to figure this out and help guide them along the shortest possible path to provide users with value.

At the end of the day, engaged users are retained users. We want to avoid users going through an onboarding process and dropping off after days or weeks. We need to understand that onboarding is not a single event. It’s something that starts on that first day with a new sign-up and lasts for the duration of the customer’s lifecycle with our product.

The Problem

The problem with a lot of the existing user onboarding techniques you see out there is that the chances are good that they are:

  • Distracting, like when a tour pops up when you’ve just gotten ready to dive into something else, or worse — when you’re already in the middle of something else.
  • Controlling, like when it takes over the entire screen and makes you click next-next-next-next until it finally puts you back in the driver’s seat, no one like being out of control.
  • Flaky, like the times when you accidentally get kicked out of a tour before it’s over and can’t start it again to see what you missed.

Considering the wrong approaches, what can we do to make sure we have a better and more thought-through process?

Make sure it’s focused

When it comes to an onboarding experience, one of the key things to remember is your user’s sense of immersion, moment and flow when they self initiate this onboarding process. You want your users to form a bond with your product, and getting them into an immediate groove is an excellent way to do just that. Our users are engaged in a meaningful activity at this point, so don’t distract them with anything else.

Empower your users for success

Are we creating meaningful moments that truly add value to our user’s lives to help them make progress? It’s important to understand that we’re not aiming to educate users about our UI — focus on the user, the jobs they need to get done and what needs they have at this stage. People act when they believe that doing so is aligned with their ambitions. If your onboarding is simply reiterating what the interface should already make clear, that’s a clear sign that you instead need to rework things on a fundamental level. People sign up for your product because they believe their lives would be better because of it — guide them to that promised land.

Design for the long haul

If your onboarding is just about the moment from when they initiate the process and getting them into your product, you’ve won the battle but lost the war. Anyone would have restricted attention at that moment, they can only absorb so much information before it becomes clutter. A true onboarding experience starts before the first engagement — how did they get here, what did the landing page say, how do you convince them to take that first step to onboarding. And it ends long after they’re dropped into your product, until they are actually up and running with your product and it becomes a habit (which can take days to weeks depending on the type of product). Even after this point there might still be areas or features of your product that was disregarded initially but down the road might become relevant again, so “new feature onboarding” is very much a reality for the full lifecycle of that user.

Spending the time to craft your onboarding experience is not only to prevent churn, it’s to help users achieve their desired outcomes. Retention resonates from getting this right.

Tips & Things to consider

See loading times or “empty states” as opportunities

Simply showing loading states, i.e. spinners gives almost zero feedback and adds uncertainty. We can use gradual progression to “lazy-load” content in as it becomes available. Things like React suspense will solve the feasibility of implementing something like this, so that we don’t see multiple spinners across the same screen all the time. We could even use empty stated as learning opportunities. What screen is the user trying to get to? Perhaps an intro to the section or well thought through call-to-action is time well spent. The point is add value to what the user is trying to do.

Personalisation

Look at what type of information you can collect from the user during onboarding to help personalise the product or experience later on. Be careful though and keep it short. Don’t go into full blown survey mode. One or two questions, with options that are easy to click or tap on are sufficient, don’t make the user work for it at this stage. The risk of losing them is definitely not worth the reward.

Priming

Give users a taste of what to come. That way you help them get excited and engaged to keep pushing through the onboarding process. Everything we include as part of our onboarding experience will prime our users into forming expectations of what’s to follow. Keeping this in mind will help us question everything we include in the onboarding experience.

Progression Systems

Taking our users from “completely new” to “fully capable” is a journey. No one likes completing information step-after-step without knowing what’s left to do. We need to help our users understand two key things. Firstly how many steps are there and what you expect from me, and secondly how far am I into the process. A nice touch is adding a “time-to-complete” at the beginning if it’s anything that would take more than ±30 seconds to complete. Users want to know what they’re in for, and when they proceed with their commitment to go through this, it will increase your conversion rate.

Get your Timing right when asking for something

In real life, it’s okay to ask for a favour — we do it all the time. But would you ask for 6 favours in a row without reciprocating? No, hopefully not! So why do we do it to our users? We can’t ask, ask, ask. We need to add value in-between those key moments, before we proceed to ask for more from our users. So make sure you provide value before asking for more.

Craft your experience

We collect some information from our users to help serve them better. We can make some educated guesses but don’t be afraid to add an “other” field. This will just help us do “in field” research and help us refine and improve the experience over time. Once we collect the information from our users, they would be expecting us to deliver the value along that path, so make sure to not send everyone along the same path or end up at the same “catch-all” screens. Put this new knowledge we have about our users to use and customise their path into our product so that they get immediate value from providing us with that information.

LIfecycle Emails

This is the catch-all term for all the messages you send someone after they sign up. Ideally, the emails are dynamically based on a user’s activity within the product (or lack thereof), rather than a cookie-cutter series of “info blasts” that go out to everyone, regardless of their level of progress. When someone signs up for a product, they’re doing so because they’re motivated to find a better way of doing things. That’s unlikely to fully happen in the very first visit, so I like to think of Lifecycle Emails as “guardrails” for that motivation. Lifecycle emails (and their sister pattern, Push Notifications) are unique in the onboarding world, as they’re the only patterns that actively go out and bring people back into your product — hopefully in a way that’s motivated to take meaningful action!

Benefits of nailing your onboarding

As a result of crafting a better onboarding experience, we could expect the following:

  1. Improved Retention → When we’re engaged, we go back for more.
  2. Reduced Churn → According to Sixteen Ventures, customers who aren’t fully engaged after 90 days don’t stay customers very long.
  3. Reduced Customer Acquisition Cost → Expect a decreased marketing spend as the urgency to get more users through the door reduces when more users stick.
  4. Increased Referrals → We love a good experience, and when we have one, we love telling our friends and connections about it.

In conclusion, I hope this helped you give more thought to how you onboard users. Realise that it’s not a single event that we just need to get done, but rather an activity where when you focus on creating value along the way to your users would results in better business outcomes for your product.

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The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published on our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

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Francois Brill

I’m an all-hands-on-deck product designer. I thrive when I have the opportunity to create something that is simple, beautiful & easy to use.