Casey Winters Reveals How Pinterest Perfected User Onboarding

5 minute read

Have you ever been in a bad relationship?

It seems like we all have. Where a partner didn’t return the love we were giving. Or perhaps—more honestly—where we’ve been the partner giving less.

A good relationship is all about balance. You’ve heard this before, it’s about give and take. Relationships between software products and their users are much the same.

Pinterest has focused its efforts on balancing give and take. They mastered their onboarding experience by experimenting with these dynamics in order to get users to their aha moment.

Casey Winters was a member of the team behind Pinterest's onboarding as the product experienced rapid growth. During Casey’s tenure, the team ran hundreds of experiments to improve their activation rate.

Casey recently shared his onboarding secrets on Greylock Partners’ podcast, Greymatter.

We here at Appcues have taken the time to break it down with screenshots to give you a better idea of how Pinterest perfected user onboarding by balancing give and take.

Give contextual help to demonstrate your aha moment

As soon as a user hits your product for the first time, it’s on. In Casey’s words, “you really need to accomplish showing the main value in the first session. Or else there’s no guarantee there will be a next session.”

Showing initial value is as difficult to execute as it is critical to your success. It takes a deep understanding of what a new user wants from your product.

You probably have an idea of what new users want, but the more you can zero in on this need, and focus on delivering value, the more leverage you’ll have in improving your activation rate.

Pinterest has a clear understanding of what new users want, which—Casey reported—“is [to see] cool topics that [they’re] interested in.” This value is reinforced through its initial onboarding screen:

Pinterest's signup form

Not only does the subheader suggest “cool interesting topics,” but the foreground and background imagery complements it.

Reinforcing your value with images and words is the easy part. Delivering on it is what’s hard.

Pinterest delivers on its value promise by giving new users contextual help that gets them to engage with the product in a meaningful way. Here it is in action:

Pinterest's welcome message to new users

This blue banner tells readers exactly what to do. There is little room to get lost or confused.

Clicking a pin brings users here:

Pinterest hotspot for contextual help

A pulsing hotspot hovers over the save button, again, making it clear what to do next.

Pinterest uses tooltip for user onboarding

The tooltip message that appears upon clicking the hotspot contextualizes the button further.

From here, we’re given more context:

Pinterest's product tour

Contextual help in the banner below this modal is aimed to prompt action. The copy above—”A board is a visual collection of Pins”—helps a user understand the product.

Upon clicking save, the blue banner turns green:

Pinterest in-app message

This confirmation message helps a user know they’re on the right track. By this time, first-time users navigating Pinterest have a pretty good idea of what it is and does.

Level one complete.

The next time a user clicks into a pin, they see another hotspot. This time on a different element of the product:

Blinking hotspot

Pinterest’s onboarding experience continues to progress from here, but at this point, the user has had one or two significant aha moments. They understand the value of the product, and are ready to explore more on their own.

Get data to give a personalized experience

Effective user onboarding experiences often require personalization. Personalized onboarding aims to more closely align with the value an individual user wants than a one-size-fits-all approach.

This approach requires you to either ask for data from your users or obtain it through a third-party data source such as a user’s browser. Pinterest does both. 

Personalization by asking for data

When a user signs up, Pinterest quickly asks them to define their interests in order to customize their home feed:

Pinterest personalized onboarding feed

Pinterest contextualizes its ask to “Follow 5 topics.” Immediately under is “Then we’ll build a custom home feed for you.”

As Casey shared,

“you really need to make sure the user understands why you’re asking these questions. That it’s going to help them get value.And you need to strike the balance of how long you’re going to ask them questions before you try and deliver value.Because it is a funnel, right? And the more questions you ask the more there will be drop off.And that’s something something that the Pinterest activation team has played with a lot between level of specificity and yet time to value.”

Having asked a user what they want to see, Pinterest then reciprocates with:

building personalized home feed
Pinterest's welcome message to new users

It’s brilliant. Users are given a personalized home feed based on their gender, age, and interests. Not sure about you, but I’m falling in love already ❤️.

Personalization by browser data

A few years ago, Pinterest users abroad saw the same onboarding experience as users in the U.S. And unfortunately, users in certain countries were bouncing at higher rates.

When Pinterest’s team sat down to draw up some onboarding experiments, they hypothesised that the interests of users abroad were different than those in the U.S., resulting in home feeds that didn’t resonate as deeply and users missing the aha moment.

By identifying local interests, and pairing that with a user’s country—found within the browser data—Pinterest was able to turn a feed for German men that looked like this:

unpersonalized home feed for Germans

Into one for the same persona that looked like this:

home feed personalized for Germans

You can see the the topics suggested are vastly different after the optimization.

This experiment improved Pinterest’s activation rate abroad by 5-10% depending on the country and demographic. You can see exactly how Pinterest ran this experiment on their engineering blog.

Hide distractions to hook your users

Having a clear vision of what a user wants in their first session can inform what to save for future sessions.

Putting this idea into action, Casey “had the activation team at Pinterest really invest in removing a lot of the complexity of the product over time, so we got people to the core value of the product as soon as possible.”

Did you catch that?! Pinterest hides elements of their user interface for first-time users. Mind blowing, I know.

As Casey explains,

“Everything about where the Pins come from, how to add your own Pin, that you can share boards with other people...all of that is removed from the early product until we can make sure that you understand the really important parts of getting value...and then we can slowly start reintroducing those features later on.”
hiding distractions during user onboarding
Pinterest’s home feed for new users

Pinterest's home feed after user onboarding
Pinterest’s home feed for returning users

Notice what we’ve highlighted in the home feed for returning users is hidden for new? Information about the source for a pin is secondary in value to being able to search and save them. Pinterest reduces friction during onboarding by hiding these elements. 

After Pinterest gets users to the aha moment and they're hooked, it can now ask them for more. See the ‘Enable desktop notifications’ banner for returning users?

It’s smart for Pinterest to ask for things like this once a user is already engaged in order to try and drive further engagement.

Josh Elman, the host of the Greymatter podcast from which many of these lessons were first shared, refers to this approach as ‘the ladder of engagement.’

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