Product Management

Intro to User Onboarding


Let’s say you just started a SaaS company or online business. You spend countless hours researching the industry, talking to potential customers, and meeting with advisors to come up with a growth strategy that looks something like this:

Step 1: Build an awesome product.
Step 2: Tell like a million people about it.
Step 3: Profit.

Sounds like a good plan. But you may be missing one critical step that can determine if your fate is more like that of Facebook or Friendster. Something that will determine how many users sign up for your site, the percentage of users who come back and actively interact with it, and, of course, how profitable your company is. Your user onboarding experience.

What is user onboarding, exactly?

So what exactly is user onboarding, and why is it important? In the world of software, user onboarding is your user’s initial experience with your brand, product, and people. It spans from the moment someone starts to sign up for your product, until the moment they realize how your product is going to improve their life, or their “WOW moment”. The goal of user onboarding is to help users find your product’s core value(s) and benefit from it regularly. The quicker users find and understand your product’s core value, the more likely they are to eventually become enthusiastic, profitable customers. Let’s use Dropbox as an example…

Dropbox’s core value is the ability to effortlessly store and access documents from anywhere in the world. The easiest way for this to happen is for a user to not only have a Dropbox account, but also to install the Dropbox software on her computer/mobile device (otherwise storing and accessing documents on the cloud would not be effortless). Thus, just after a new user signs up (let’s assume desktop), Dropbox automatically starts the software download and asks the user to install it as her first step (and incentivizes her to do so with more free space).

Luckily for Dropbox, this strategy also aligns quite well with its business goals. The logic goes something like this:

  • Users who install Dropbox software are more likely to passively store documents
  • Those who passively stores documents are more likely to run out of free space
  • When users run out of space, they have a higher likelihood of upgrading to a paid account

And this is where the value of an amazing user onboarding experience becomes far less abstract. Dropbox would have two very different growth trajectories (and financial results) if its conversion rate between signup and software installation were 15%, or, say, 50%. The company has probably spent thousands of hours testing different approaches to make the user experience between signup and software installation as quick and painless as possible.

But Dropbox’s user onboarding process does not stop when a user has successfully installed the software. It then asks (and incentivizes) users to share files and folders with friends/coworkers, install the Dropbox mobile app, etc. For Dropbox, there is always a next user action that will make storing and accessing documents even more effortless, and reduce the barriers of habitual product use. So their onboarding experience is not just the 5 minutes after a user inputs her email address; it lasts all the way until the user realizes how Dropbox has improved her life (and hopefully upgrades!).

What makes a great user onboarding experience

User onboarding isn’t necessarily about converting visitors into users, but rather about turning users into enthusiastic customers. How is that done? Well, on a very high level there are three main goals of a successful onboarding process:

  1. Shorten the amount of time and effort required to find the product’s core value (WOW moment)
  2. Create excitement/motivation/momentum
  3. Educate the user on a new/novel approach

We’ll dive much deeper into each of these in future Academy lessons. But before we do, beware that the third goal is often overused. User onboarding should not be used as a crutch to explain a confusing interface. Rather, it should be the be the means of introduction to your interface, making an otherwise foreign space feel just like home.

What great user onboarding is not

Poor User Onboarding - Clippy

Remember Clippy, the overly eager steward of the Microsoft Office realm? Clippy was proud of what his Microsoft teammates had built and took every opportunity possible to show off features one by one.

On the surface, Clippy sounds like he would be a user’s best friend - someone to take the time to train users on how to use Office products correctly. But he had one major flaw: Clippy too often wanted to talk to users about features that they didn’t care about, features that weren’t going to improve their lives. And even worse, Clippy distracted users from finding and regularly benefitting from the core value(s) of Microsoft Office products.

This is a HUGE trap in building any user onboarding experience: it’s tempting to show off too much. When we fall into this trap, a user onboarding flow can sound something like this:

Here, look at this, and you can also do this. Look over here at this thing as well.

Users don’t care about your features as much as you do. They care about how your product is going to make their life better. What you don’t want to do is drag your user over the coals, through every step and feature of your product.

Rather, the goal should be to get users to experience your product’s core value before they lose patience or get distracted. Once a user sees value, they will gladly take the time and effort to learn your entire product.

What you can do right now

Are you about to rehaul your entire user onboarding process? Make sure to take the time to plan and design an onboarding flow that is right for your product. Just because Dropbox has a great onboarding flow, doesn’t mean you can copy it and expect the same results. Your user onboarding process should be a function of who your customer is, what they care most about, and how your product helps improve their life. Onboarding should be inherently different for every product and service out there.

So before you start building, here are some actions you can take right now as a first step to improve your onboarding:

  1. Take a look at your current user onboarding flow. What is the objective you want your user to achieve? Is this based on what you want them to do, or what will bring them the most value?
  2. Think about your product’s core value. What do your users value most? Think results, not features. Write these down.
  3. Talk to some of your best customers. Ask them what they value most about your product.

This is just the first step in planning your onboarding process. In the next lesson, we’ll give you strategies on how to pinpoint your WOW moment based on customer feedback and data.

Achieving WOW without friction and distractions is the ultimate goal of a successful user onboarding experience. It takes some work to get to WOW, but when done correctly, it can have an unbelievable impact on your user experience and your product’s growth rate.

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

Building @appcues, startup that will improve your user #onboarding | Learned @BucknellU & @HarvardHBS | Proud St. Louis native | Explorer | Made in the 80s

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