UX Design

Onboarding New Users—An Interview with Samuel Hulick


When it comes to onboarding new users, it’d be difficult to find anyone who knows more than our friend Samuel Hulick. He’s the author of The Elements of User Onboarding and his popular user onboarding teardowns have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. So for our Onboarding New Users lesson, we asked Samuel to share his thoughts on the best user onboarding techniques, why the first run experience is so important, and much more. Enjoy!

What are a few of the most common mistakes products make in the first run experience?

There are a number of products out there that don’t really have a streamlined signup experience. Some of the most common mistakes that I see are asking for unnecessary information, being overly vague or introducing points of confusion into the mix. When a user signs up, their attention is so precious. You can think of it like air leaking out of a space suit - you want to make as much use of it as you possibly can while it’s still around. This goes beyond just removing friction – it means taking clear and meaningful actions that will motivate the user throughout the initial workflow.

For example, if you wanted somebody to make a pizza, you wouldn’t want to first say, “let’s start kneading dough and simmering sauce and…” You would want to say, “let’s make a pizza, and we’re going to start by kneading dough and simmering sauce.” When you frame these two activities around the end goal, it helps the user understand why they’re important and builds motivation to complete them.

What’s the best way for a product manager to make their user onboarding experience meaningful?

Before you start making changes to your onboarding process, it’s important to take a step back and get a clear understanding of what is motivating people to come to your site to begin with. You want to know what intentions they’re bringing, what they’re frustrated with in their current situation, and what they’re hoping that your product or service will resolve for them.

Once you know your user’s motivations and frustrations, you can make your interface and workflow decisions around “how can we make them more successful” and THEN “how can we make this button less confusing.”

What product or company do you think has an outstanding first run experience?

There are three that have really stood out to me: BasecampSlack, and Shopify.

Basecamp has a very intuitive interface that ensures all the blank states or empty container fields are filled with really helpful information. When you sign up, they guide you through a prepopulated project so you can see what using the tool is like. This is a nice way to ease users in and introduce them to functionality as opposed to just placing tooltips on top of buttons that don’t make a lot of sense.

Slack does a great job infusing a lot of personality into its onboarding process. When you’re waiting for it to load, it gives you a funny quote. And when you reach the end of the setup process you begin chatting with a bot that’ll say “Hey I’m here to help you get set up, I’m kind of dumb but I typically understand words like yes or yup or nope”. Having the humble human experience really makes Slack stand out. It’s great that Slack uses its core feature to onboard users. You always want to engage people by getting them to interact with your product as opposed to just telling them about your interface.

Shopify’s onboarding experience stands out by having so many minor UX details nailed from end to end. Setting up an ecommerce store can be an intimidating, time-consuming process, but Shopify does a great job of making it a linear, streamlined process.

How can Product Managers apply the successes of products like Basecamp, Slack and Shopify to their own onboarding experience?

It helps to familiarize yourself with particular design patterns: what a typical signup flow looks like, how other products are approaching email confirmation, or when to use profile completion widgets. You can look at how those UI patterns are used by other companies and surmise that they’re achieving some level of success.

But I should caveat this, because when I’m reviewing a new user experience I don’t have visibility into what their conversion rates are, the internal pressure they’re dealing with, or what resources they have available. On a number of occasions I thought a part of an onboarding flow didn’t make sense, only to find out later that the team tested it and it converts really well. So I try to not be overly critical or adulatory in general, especially regarding whether they conform to “best practices” or not.

Looking at other people’s onboarding flows can be a great source of ideas, but whether or not that idea becomes successful for you is a function of whether it helps your new users benefit from your product faster. Familiarize yourself with the different patterns that are available, almost like a chef would familiarize herself with cooking techniques or ingredients used by her peers. But when it comes time that you make your own dish, focus a lot more on what’s the quickest way to get somebody to have a meaningful win as early into your product as possible.

What the most important thing that should be accomplished in the first run experience?

When I define success in a first run experience, I don’t look at whether a user is fully set up or has activated features or been introduced to the interface. Onboarding is successful when users come back and actively engage with the product. So in the first run experience, it’s important to find quick wins that gives users a taste of why this product improves their lives and will keep them coming back.

This taste of success is different for every product, so it’s difficult to say that one activity is always more important than another. If you’re a company like Vimeo or Wistia, getting users to complete their profile is a quick win, but it likely won’t bring a lot of value to the user. Instead, getting users to upload their first video would be a great way to cap off their first experience. If you’re LinkedIn on the other hand, profile completion would make much more sense as an initial goal.

So does user onboarding end whenever a user is coming back and engaging with the product regularly?

Well, it gets a little philosophical at this point, but I usually define onboarding as a continuum. I believe an onboarding opportunity arises anytime there’s a gap between what the user is currently doing and what they’re capable of doing based on everything you provide to them. Every time you roll out a new feature, there’s an onboarding opportunity to introduce it to users. Whenever someone isn’t using one of your features from which they could benefit, there’s an onboarding opportunity there too.

This is when tools like lifecycle emails and in-app messaging become really important. You want to communicate to your customers, did you know you can do this? or it looks like you’re not getting the most out of this product, let’s help you do even better.

What product does a good job of continuing the onboarding experience past the first run experience?

I think Mailchimp does, because they look at their onboarding trajectory not as whether a user is fully set up in Mailchimp, but rather as whether that user is becoming a better email marketer. They go beyond just introducing you to the features or what you can do within the product – they also give you a ton of resources on how to write a compelling subject line or how to build an email list or how to avoid being seen as a spammer.

How should companies decide how to prioritize new user onboarding?

This can be really tricky because within a lot of organizations, user onboarding rests in a “no man’s land” between the marketing and product teams. Marketing is responsible for getting people to sign up, and Product is tasked with building new features for the users. But whose job is it to ensure that the signups that Marketing generates become highly engaged with the features that Product builds?

For this reason, I think one of the best ways to prioritize onboarding is to create roles within your company that are directly responsible for it. We’ve certainly seen a rise in growth hackers and growth teams, which to me are really roles that marry marketing and product. I even know of two organizations, Mailchimp and Toggl, that have people with user onboarding directly in their job titles. Many companies use customer success teams to manually aid the onboarding process, and those teams have some of the best input when trying to automate onboarding.

How should one incorporate customer feedback when building an onboarding experience?

Any opportunity that you have to survey people, specifically people who just recently signed up or just recently converted to becoming customers, can help give you a clear idea of what the process looked like through their eyes and what sort of problems they were dealing with outside of the process, and what they prompted them to go looking for products that might solve this problem.

Having live chat in your onboarding experience can be a great idea. Weirdly, I see a lot of companies have it on their homepage or their pricing page where they are getting a ton of less-than-qualified leads asking all sorts of off-the-wall questions. But in most onboarding experiences, where it is so crucial to help users get their accounts activated, it’s conspicuously absent.

Another good source of customer feedback are customer support tickets. Take a look at the tickets that are created in the first 5 or 30 days of someone using your product. They will tell you where your users are confused, and if you incorporate that feedback into your onboarding process can also reduce your support burden, which could even have an effect on your hiring plan for that department!

What about quantitative feedback?

You definitely want to track your onboarding data closely. And there are really two things that I look for. The first is your conversion rate for each required step of your onboarding flow. Are 97% of users making it from signup to confirm their email or is it 50%? Those conversion rates can be a significant cause for concern. Outside of conversion, the other data I track closely is time to completion. On average are people able to create their profile (or whatever your first run goal is) in 5 minutes or does it take 55 minutes?

Outside of the required activation steps, I use data to find the activities that are highly correlated with eventual conversion. A lot of freemium or free trial products have these behavioral proxies, e.g. if a new signup does this one thing within their first 3 days, they will have a much higher likelihood to stick around and become a highly-engaged user.

What role does A/B testing play in user onboarding?

A/B testing is ideal for user onboarding. One of the unfortunate reasons for pushback against A/B testing is familiarity bias, or the idea that users would be react differently to a new version because they’re already used to the current one. But in the case of onboarding, by it’s very nature everybody is unfamiliar with the entire experience. So in that way it’s the perfect controlled environment for experimentation.

A/B testing also gives us a tool to test our intuition and design tastes. Again, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to teams who’ve said, “we didn’t like it and didn’t think it would work, but boy did it.”

As you’ve learned more and more about user onboarding, what has surprised you?

One bias that I brought into it that I wound up having to change my mind about was the idea that quality user onboarding meant getting people through the process as quickly as possible.

There was a case study put out by Lumosity where they wanted to sacrifice the user onboarding process temporarily by preempting it with a survey so they could learn about their users. Their plan was to later pull the survey out and apply whatever they learned from the survey to hopefully improve the onboarding process in the long run. But what they found was that the survey questions caused users to slow down and reflect on the experience they were about to have. In the end, the survey actually was a net positive, and they kept it in as part of the official flow.

What do you recommend to a Product Manager who knows user onboarding is important but doesn’t have the time or resources to do a large scale overhaul of their onboarding process?

Well, the first thing I recommend is to have an open conversation about onboarding with the rest of your team. You want to surface the pain and confusion that users are having when they first experience your product. This can many times help you prioritize at least some minor fixes, and make the team much more familiar with it in general. Having a good user adoption funnel benefits the entire organization: Marketing’s effort goes a lot further, it frees up Product’s time to work on shipping new features instead of just putting out fires, your Customer Support load becomes a little lighter, Sales’ job is easier. It affects every job in every single department. So the first thing I suggest is make sure everyone knows this, because once you frame it around these benefits the prioritization decision becomes a little easier.

And while it might sound overly convenient to say so here, the other thing I suggest would actually be to use a tool like Appcues to help guide your new users. One thing I like about Appcues as opposed to other solutions is it orients around getting people to better understand the activities and value of the product as a whole. That’s not something that you can communicate when you’re limited to a tooltip anchored on top of a confusing button.

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

Try out Appcues