Customer Experience

User Onboarding Doesn't Have to Be Digital: 5 Companies to Learn From

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We talk about user onboarding a lot. (Like, a lot, a lot.) And it's become such a hot topic in the product world, that it's easy to forget that non-digital companies onboard users, too.

Just about every product company, whether they're manufacturing furniture or SaaS software, can improve their customers' experience with a bit of strategic user onboarding.

And in fact, many of the top physical product companies are working diligently to design mobile apps, instructional classes, and other tools to help their customers reach their aha moments, increase engagement, and reduce churn (even if they're not using those terms to describe those steps).

In this article, we'll take a look at how some of those companies are taking full advantage of user onboarding. But first, it's helpful to understand how the concept of onboarding works across both physical and digital products:

Don't build better cameras, build better photographersEvery new product purchase—whether it's made in-store or online—comes with its own set of switching costs and extra burdens for the customer:

  • There's effort involved in switching behavior to match the new product. For example: “I bought this cooking equipment so I can start eating more healthy food at home—but I also need to find the time to shop for ingredients and find delicious recipes.”
  • There's effort involved in overcoming the doubt customers might feel about the new product. For example:  “I struggle to even make Top Ramen—I'm not sure I'm cut out to cook anything more complicated.”

Helping customers overcome those roadblocks is essential, regardless of the form that your product comes in. One of the best ways to help customers feel confident that your product is worth their money and effort is to make it as easy as possible for them to achieve the result they're looking for. That's where user onboarding comes in.

Every product is “hired” by a customer to fulfill a need they have, or to play a role in a result they're seeking. You don't buy a camera because it has more megapixels—you buy a camera because you want to capture memories of your kids at Christmas, or to create videos that connect with your audience, or to take better photos to help you sell more products.

“Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras—build better photographers.” — Kathy Sierra

All companies can benefit from the principles of user onboarding

Onboarding isn't just about helping customers use your product—it's about finding ways to enable the progress a customer is trying to make by purchasing a product in the first place. That means helping them overcome the behavioral and emotional roadblocks that might get in the way of achieving their goal.

Physical products can accomplish this with a wide variety of user onboarding strategies, including:

  1. Classes and online training courses. Teaching customers how to get more value from products is a great way for product companies to support their customers—and it can often unlock an additional revenue channel as well.
  2. Personal support, such as emails and follow-up calls. Keeping close contact with customers after they make a purchase can help quickly resolve common issues with delivery, assembly, etc.
  3. Supporting products. Creating supporting products like mobile applications can help customers overcome additional obstacle s that are related to their main goal.

Below, we look at five companies that offer exceptional onboarding experiences for their physical products—and explain how you can apply their strategies to your own product.

Five non-tech companies with first-rate onboarding

1. IKEA

“I want my home to look fancy when people visit, but I don't want to break the bank by hiring a designer.”

Anyone who has furnished an apartment knows that choosing the right furniture can be a fraught experience. Not only do you want to find something that fits your budget and square footage, but you also want to find a piece that fits your style. And of course, furniture that looks great in the store (or online catalogue) might feel completely different once you've dragged it home and set it up.

IKEA understands that the two biggest barriers most customers face when purchasing new furniture is picturing how it will look in their home, and making sure the final price tag comes in under budget. The Swedish giant does a stellar job of overcoming both objections.

With an annual print run of 203 million copies, the IKEA catalog rivals the Bible, the Koran, and Harry Potter as one of the world's most-distributed printed publications. Each catalog is packed with detailed photos and curated looks, demonstrating how IKEA's furniture can be styled, as well as complete prices for each room.

This is a gif of an augmented reality app from IKEA. The IKEA app uses AR to let users see furniture in their home. The gif shows a rotating sequence of multiple chairs in a living room with cactuses and natural light.
Photo courtesy of ADWEEK

Recently they've taken this one step further, creating an augmented reality app that lets users place digital furniture in their actual homes. IKEA gives potential customers a “trial run” of their furniture—eliminating the need to visit an IKEA showroom altogether.  

Takeaways from IKEA: Whether you're selling a couch or a SaaS product, letting potential customers test-drive your product before committing helps them become more excited about the experience and more likely to convert.

2. Fender

“I want to learn to play the guitar, but I'm too busy for lessons.”

Fender (along with much of the rest of the guitar industry) had seen a steady decline in their revenue in recent years. Half of Fender sales are to new guitarists, but the company discovered that 90% of those customers had stopped playing their instrument within a year after purchase. To gain lifelong customers, Fender needed to keep customers playing.

This picture is of a fender jazzmaster guitar handle with strings. It shows a person playing the guitar up close with a bokeh effect in the background.


Reducing abandonment became a major push for the company, and that meant thinking outside of the music store. So Fender worked with subscription service Zuora to create a monthly subscription-based video teaching service, called Fender Play

Students learn their first riff within 30 minutes of signing up, boosting both their confidence and the likelihood that they'll continue playing. After a free trial, subscribers pay a monthly fee to continue learning, unlocking an additional stream of revenue for the company and helping customers reach their goal of becoming great guitarists.

Takeaway from Fender: Empowering your customers with educational content during the onboarding process helps motivate them to stay active with your product, reducing abandonment and increasing retention. 

While Fender created an entirely new app, you can easily leverage your existing free content, delivering it to users through in-app messages or a drip email sequence.

3. Nike

“I want to be in better shape so I can keep up with my kids as they get older.”

Nike knows their customers aren't just buying new running shoes—they're looking to buy a fitter, healthier version of themselves. The right shoes are a tool to help them achieve this goal. But getting in shape (and becoming a regular buyer of athletic wear) is a process. Nike understands that if it can help customers make fitness a habit, those customers are more likely to remain loyal to the brand, and will purchase more products as the need arises.

This picture shows a woman running up bleacher stairs wearing nike sneakers and teal leggings. This is a photo abaout fitness and performance footwear

To help customers create strong fitness habits, Nike released a free mobile application called Nike Training Club. Billed as the “ultimate personal trainer,” the app provides nearly 200 free workouts, as well as expert video and audio guidance. Most importantly, the application helps users put together a workout plan they can stick to, turning regular exercise from a chore into a routine.

Takeaway from Nike: Like Fender, Nike's fitness app helps reduce abandonment and build customer loyalty by encouraging people to use their products more frequently. Creating a free ancillary product can be a great way to support your ideal customers and even. For example, CoSchedule's Headline Analyzer helps people write more effective headlines; it also give the company an excellent  opportunity to promote their main product.

4. REI

“I want a break from work on the weekends, and to spend more time with other outdoorsy people.”

All the top-quality outdoor gear in the world won't do you any good if it stays stashed in the basement all summer. Even after you've bought all the equipment you need for an outdoor adventure, the barriers to getting out into nature are often more psychological than physical. Without friends encouraging you to join them in the wild, staying home and watching TV can seem pretty attractive after a long week at the office.

This is a picture of a man on hike, resting by a small waterfall. He is wearing boots with socks and sitting on a log.

REI knows that customers aren't just buying tents and climbing gear—they're buying the promise of new experiences with friends. To help their customers get the most of their products, REI offers a range of guided activities and classes to teach people how to use each piece of equipment, and group adventures to help like-minded customers connect with one another. Oftentimes all people need is a nudge out the door, and in return REI gets a lasting relationship with each customer.

Takeaway from REI: REI's guided activities, classes, and group events help teach users how to get more value and enjoyment from their products, while also building an active user community and encouraging continued use of their products. Digital companies can do the same—for example, by building a Slack community for their users to share ideas and learn from each other.

5. Sur La Table

“Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday as a kid, so I want to keep that tradition going with my family.”

Cooking at home is easy enough to learn, but difficult to master. The sheer variety of different pots, pans, and knives can overwhelm even the most motivated of home cooks, and that's all before you even reach for the ingredients.

This is a picture of two people cooking in their kitchen. This is a photo of a couple cooking dinner by a window with stainless steel appliances.

Kitchenware retailer Sur La Table understood the difficulty facing its customers, and decided to make it easier for customers to get started with their cookware by providing cooking classes in their stores. 

Each Sur La Table store offers a variety of cooking classes, covering everything from basic knife skills to preparing a full Thanksgiving meal. Naturally, every piece of equipment used in the classes can also be purchased in their store, so customers can obtain everything they need for that perfect Thanksgiving.

Takeaway from Sur La Table: Demonstrating the value of your product to potential customers before they commit to purchasing can help increase conversions and reduce churn. Like Sur La Table's cooking classes, your product demos should focus less on the features of the product itself (a turkey baster is a turkey baster), and more on the benefits and outcomes for the user (a delicious Thanksgiving meal).

Onboarding: not just for digital products

Product people often restrict their thinking about user onboarding to digital products. But as we've seen, companies selling even the most straightforward physical products—from frying pans to bookcases—can benefit from educating and motivating their customers to help them get more value from their purchases. And sometimes the creative solutions that these companies come up with can help inform digital strategies in turn.

Effective user onboarding isn't just about selling the customer more products, or increasing the bottom line. It's about giving the customer a better experience, educating them about your product, building excitement, and making it easier for customers to achieve their goals.

Katryna is the content marketing manager at Appcues. She's a Boston startup veteran with a passion for good storytelling and engaging content. Her non-Appcues time is spent traveling to strange new places, befriending street cats, and baking elaborate pies.

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