Building a foundation for great user onboarding

User onboarding building blocks

Concept by Artur Ovanesyan; Illustration by Angin Jabaryan, Raivix

User onboarding is your product’s first impression with your future customers. It’s the interaction that determines if your product provides value to the visitor.

Great user onboarding is making this value easy to find. When users are able to engage with your product with more clarity and speed, it means having

  • Reduced customer support costs 
  • Increased product adoption 
  • A more competitive product 

So how exactly does one make a great user onboarding experience? 

  • Identify the core value(s) of your product
  • Ask the right questions
  • Don’t offer any more steps than needed
  • Manage expectations

1. Identify how your product provides value for your user

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.
Theodore Levitt

This is one of the more famous quotes in the marketing world, essentially meaning recognize the purpose(s) of your product. Showing the user (and having them recognizing)  the value of the product as soon as possible allows them to have more aha moments. 

The more aha moments that the user recognizes, the higher the odds that they will become a customer (and a free spokesperson for your brand)

How do I know what provides value for my users?

Analytics, eye tracking, statistical analysis are all great tools. The best resource: talking to your users. Not just a survey, but actually talk to them.

Understanding the difference between why some users are your product’s biggest fans and why some struggle is key in understanding how your product is perceived.

Not to be overkill with the point, but your users are your most valuable asset with developing not only a great user onboarding but creating a holistic product experience. 

There’s a reason that Figma became so popular in such a short amount of time: they listened and adapted.

2. Ask the right questions

In order to get the right answers for your user onboarding, you have to ask the right questions. Perhaps the most important one is, how do you define a user within the context of your product?

Modern onboarding requires you to understand your user’s definition of success and break down the barriers to get them there.
Des Traynor
Co-founder and chief strategy officer of Intercom
If the answer is something along the lines of “When they sign up” or “when they pay”, please keep reading. Let’s talk about Slack. I’m going to take a big leap of faith and say that you’ve used it at some point in your professional life. At the very least, you’ve heard of it. But do you know its origins? Slack (this is actually an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”) was the internal communications tool during the development of a game called Glitch. At a certain point Stewart Butterfield, the CEO, saw more value in this asset than the game itself. This decision has paid off well when Slack was acquired for 27 billion by SalesforceSlack’s success wasn’t just from playing to their strengths but understanding how they defined a user.
Regardless of any other factor, after 2,000 messages, 93% of those customers are still using Slack today.
Stewart Butterfield

How did they come to this conclusion?

They identified the tipping point for their users. This is when a user has engaged with a product/service enough to be more likely to become a habitual user.

3. Remove unnecessary steps

Do you ever start using a product or service and all you want to do is just dive in? And before you can do so there’s a form. And then another form. And then an activation email. And then a survey. Annnnnd now you’ve left. 

These roadblocks exist in several digital products, put there with the best intentions. So what are some of the most common obstacles you ask? 

Asking for additional information that is more than the bare minimum needed to move on to the next step.

Ask yourself, what do you really need to know from users in order for them to get to the next step? For Marketo, they found that a short five question form outperformed a nine question form, converting 3% more users. (Product-Led Onboarding, How To Turn Users Into Lifelong Customers, By Ramli John and Wes Bush) 

Activation emails

Let’s be clear, you absolutely need to have activation emails. They are a good security defense and a great way to guard the accuracy of your email list. But there’s one small problem: they are kind of annoying. So instead of getting rid of them, move them a little further along in your marketing funnel. When the user has found value and is building more trust with your product, then you should send an activation email request.  Don’t get in the way of the user engaging with your product. 

4. Manage Expectations

I’m going to take a wild guess and assume you’ve seen an ad for a SaaS (Software as a Service) product. Mailchimp, Adobe, Microsoft, they all share a subscription based business model. This means they deeply rely on user retention. To get your attention (and monthly subscription) almost all of these ads have three things in common. 

  • How easy or how it’s free to start 
  • How it solves a problem 
  • This is the beginning of the user onboarding experience

You might be wondering about that last bullet point and be asking “why?” Because that is when expectations start to form. When expectations are misaligned, it creates a confusing and potentially disappointing moment for the user. 

Take this SEMrush ad for example. 

SEMrush is an extensive marketing tool that can be a bit overwhelming in the first encounter. Everything about this copy set up new users with the right expectations. The first seven words literally walk the audience through the steps needed to get started and hints at the complexity of the product.

managing expectations

Take a close look at your copy and make sure it really reflects what your product does and the value it provides.

5. So… how do I implement these steps?

All of the steps mentioned require a buy in from multiple departments in your organization.

Having insight and collaboration from marketing, design, customer success, sales and leadership is critical. Having one of these branches take on the process alone creates a one dimensional experience. 

  • Customer success is on the front lines of dealing with confused users
  • Marketing is responsible for setting appropriate expectations for your customers
  • Sales provides a helping hand when the user has lost interest or is dealing with some sticker shock
  • Design defines and refines the user experience
  • Leadership… well, leads. They make sure that decisions are aligned with business needs. (Note: yes this can also be accomplished by a project manager but leadership still needs to be involved in the process) 

Do you need to have a dedicated onboarding team? This depends on a few factors

  • The size of your organization
  • The user and business goals
  • And the talent you already have within your workforce

When you have the operational and user responsibilities like Facebook, they need to have a dedicated growth team. Whereas Drift, a sales company, has their product team overseeing the user onboarding experience. A good first step is having conversations with the key stakeholders. Luckily, you already have started the process by asking the right questions about your product’s value and defining your user. 

This. Will. Take. Time. 

But it is worth it. Having everyone on board with expectations, product value, determining what steps are unnecessary and defining the user will help prevent miscommunication and deliver a great user experience.

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