UX Design

Designing User Onboarding Experiences for Real Customers


The winning trait of a great product team is that they always keep the customer in mind. Designing a user onboarding flow is no exception. When architecting your user onboarding process, try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and understand how they experience your product. The truth is, unless your product has life threatening implications, your customer didn’t clear his schedule to learn how to use it.

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."— Shunryu Suzuki (1973)

Startups revere Suzuki’s quote and practice of beginner’s mind. Indeed, it’s a great first step, but it only removes our internal biases. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that your “beginner’s mind” is still business-savvy and college-educated, and that just isn’t enough.

To empathize with a customer, we need to learn more about her and her environment:

  • Does she have a high or low tolerance for learning new things?
  • Is she knowledgeable about my industry or does she need some background information?
  • Where does my product fall on her list of priorities?
  • How was my product introduced to her?
  • How does she feel about the source or circumstance that led her to my product?

You’ll probably find that the answer to these questions won’t be the same for every person. If possible, create personas for these kinds of customers and consider onboarding them differently.

At Least Two Types

Every product serves at least two types of customers. In the above case, the buyer’s perception of value (e.g. cost, implementation) is different from the daily user’s (e.g. ease-of-use, flexibility) so their WOW moments will likely be different. Customers can be grouped by a range of different properties. Job function, sophistication level, and referral source are just a few.

The ideal user onboarding experience fulfills the unique desires of each customer and helps him or her get value immediately.

No Customer Left Behind

An interesting thing about enterprise software is that the person who purchases the product is often not the end user. The buyer is a company executive who understands the high-level business needs and is skilled at negotiation. Her job is to get the best product for the best possible price.

However, once the sale ends, the product is then put in the hands of people further down the food chain. These people weren’t part of the sales process, but they still need onboarding to be successful with the product. In fact, their success decides whether the buyer will renew the contract.

Good companies focus on selling the product to the buyer. Great companies go beyond that. They make the daily user successful and share that progress with the buyer.

Twitter’s User Onboarding Evolution

Twitter’s growth is nothing short of impressive. One of the guys who kicked off their user onboarding initiative was Josh Elman and his concept of the learn flow. Twitter is among the best at onboarding users, but it’s even they have at least two kinds of users: those that hate following celebrities, and those that don’t.

The twitter sign-up process is pretty pleaseent, well done twitterhq. Have seen some extensive forms/captcha for ui's on other channels. #ui

— newclearmedia (@newclearmedia) August 19, 2013

Twitter new user onboarding is tragic. Obliged to follow celebs unlikely to engage with you, doesn't teach you how to interact with others.

— C.Y. Lee (@cxy) April 1, 2014

Loved the sign up process of twitter. Almost no friction to make me wanna quit half way. Let's see how the rest of the expirience goes:-)

— Tatjana Mihnovits (@what_is_ux) May 8, 2013

Man the sign up process for a new Twitter account is ballbags! Makes you follow a bunch of loser celebs!

— Duncan Birch (@Dunkndisorderly) June 14, 2013

Want to become a User Onboarding Master? Check out our free User Onboarding Academy!

Software engineer from Hawaii. Majored in Journalism. Passionate about building Appcues and helping real people.

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