Better Onboarding

by Krystal Higgins

130 pages, ★★★★★
Finished on 18th of October, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Product onboarding needs to be done during usage and woven into the interactions, not separated from them.
  2. Think about long-term goals for your own business and how they are aligned with the way your users behave while using your product.
  3. Think like your (individually very different) users: where do they come from, what do they want to do, how are they looking to solve their problems using your product, in order to find out what type of guidance they need at what stage.

🎨 Impressions

Creators and developers can have a blindspot for their users’ capabilities. In order to have more satisfied users who stay on longer, we need to look at our products from their perspectives and choose between many tried and tested techniques in order to guide them through using our products.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • The concept of mapping user journeys seems helpful – analyzing why they come to our services and what they’re trying to do in order to guide them towards their goals more efficiently.
  • Looking at our users in a more empathetic way will definitely help avoid negative feelings in the future and is worth the time and effort put into it in the long run.
  • Categorizing different approaches of guidance by their level of “blocking” user flow will be useful when deciding between options.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. Everybody has an onboarding experience, and it begins in the very fabric of your product’s design. This is what remains should a new user skip, ignore, or forget something provided during their first experiences.
  2. Guided interaction helps users understand a product more than an approach that relies only on explaining the product up front. Whether it’s starting a new routine or learning to ride a bike, integrating almost anything new into our lives involves learning-through-doing.
  3. Affordances are the properties of an object that help people understand how to use it. For example, a common affordance on a website is the underlined treatment of a text link, while a common affordance for an audio assistant device is a pulsing light to indicate readiness for a command.

📔 Summary & Notes

  • People don't want tutorials or explanations, nor stories or narratives; they want to get things done.
  • Remember to support wide audiences who have different needs and look for different experiences with your products.

1: What is Onboarding?

  • People skip the guided tutorials and videos. It forces the users into a passive state. They want to try out the new device or tool!
  • Explain it when it first happens.
  • Onboarding isn't a single moment, it's a process happening over time. It serves more purposes than just getting the user familiarized with the possibilities: it helps create trust, leads them to make commitments, helps them achieve what they are looking for.
  • A bad first impression can negatively impact all future interactions.
  • Paradox of the active user: users dive right into it and try a few tasks for themselves. They are motivated by the goal they want to achieve, not by the larger potential of the technology. They want to benefit immediately. Paradox because people could have learned more when reading the manuals. We need to design for people not for ideals we have of people.
  • Creators have a bias towards thinking users will be so eager to find out everything about the product and patiently sit through lengthy explanations. They won't.
  • Front-loaded explanations try to predict the future, but you can't know enough about the user at that point. Second, users can't remember everything. Third, they are overwhelmed easily because it can make a product seem overly complex. Not to mention, it's a lot of work to maintain whenever the product slightly changes. Users don't know the product yet, so the explanation is out of context.
  • Throwing the user head-on into the product instead through unsupported immersion? Can also be overwhelming, exclude audiences who don't get it immediately.
  • Ideally, guidance blends seamlessly into the product. The user should be able to say that they didn't notice there even was a tutorial. "Guided interaction", learning-through-doing.
  • Connect the information to the meaningful actions. As an extension, not as a disruption.
  • When the user acts in way it makes clear their intentions, provide them with unobtrusive hints on what their options are at that point.

2: Getting Ready for New Users

  • Align your team: different people working on different aspects of the product have a different view and goals about the onboarding, sometimes there's tunnel vision. Speak about it.
  • Get the right metrics: successfully completed tutorials don't mean successfully converted users. Look at the big picture: do they stay as happy paying clients / users?
  • The goal is to help users succeed and thereby cause advances into our organization's business goals. Retention and engagement should be the focus.
  • Pull in the extended company, align them on the right goals and discuss onboarding with them all, including the copywriters, QA's, marketing dept, customer service workers, legal workers and others. Try to understand all the points of view and get the expertise necessary to improve your product.
  • Check your assumptions about new users with research in order to understand them.
    • How did they find your product, why?
    • What are they expecting?
    • How have they used other new products?
    • What has worked and what hasn't with other products?
    • What common routines are they leaning on?
    • What workarounds have the developed?
  • Working on the product day-to-day can make you forget about new users and their experience coming into the product. Keep that in mind.
    • Write down your own experiences using other products as a new user.
    • Use your own product in "new user mode" regularly.
    • Roleplay "new user" together as a team.
  • Try to get separate metrics on new vs. existing users' behavior.
  • Avoid roadblocks for new users:
    • Poor performance and reliability: people abandon it quickly. Don't lock out audiences with bad bandwidth or hardware.
    • Signup walls: forcing signup too early drives away users or drive them to sign up using fake accounts. Captcha and uncomfortable password choosing make them leave, too.
    • Lack of inclusion: people are different and have different accessibility needs. Support assistive technology, provide localization, don't restrict them to choices which won't fit them.
  • Hidden or unclear missions: people decide whether to use a product also based on their view of the provider. Trust needs to be earned, increasingly people want ethical behavior and activism. Promote transparency.

3: Mapping Onboarding Journeys

  • They are often overloaded. Show examples of what the users could do at the right moments, not all up front, but leave the option to "skip ahead".
  • Write down the steps a user can take and the shortcuts you present them along the way. Define the end state and entry situations.
  • Focus on the goal for "first-time use": what do you want the user to understand so the first-time use will be successful and satisfying?
  • Define "core use" of your product. E.g. "sell at least ten items per week to each user", "user logs in twice per week and leaves happily after having acquired the desired information".
    • Aligned to long-term business goals.
    • An achievable and desirable goal for the user.
    • Specific, not generic.
    • Focus on the individual user.
    • Independent of technology.
  • There can be multiple core uses.
  • Work backward from end to beginning: where does the user need to end up, and which steps/actions would lead them there fastest.
    1. Set up your map and entry situations. Visually draw it.
    2. Add core use routines: which actions do the users want to repeatedly do, find a few (3-6).
    3. Map the actions from core use routine to entry situation.
      "User responds to buyers within 24 hours" ← "Has notifications turned on" ← "Downloaded the mobile app" ← "Posted an item for sale" ← "Created an account" ← "Saw a similar item, copied the details" ← "Visited the sales portal website because wanted to get of clutter at home" (entry situation)
  • Provide a noticeable benefit to the user upon completion of an action.
  • Merge actions which belong together and streamline actions.
  • Reflect the user's definition of the action – it must be what the user expects.
  • Prioritize / emphasize onboarding actions as a form of guidance.
    • Which actions reduce abandonment or failure?
    • Which actions are required to do other key actions? (for selling an item, a user has to create an account)
    • Which actions are useful for several different entry situations? (prioritize those)
    • Which actions can you realistically support?

4: Guidance in Action

  • Users experience a product on an action-by-action basis. Guidance will help them identify the next possible actions to get where they want to be.
  • Prompt to take action → work involved during the action → follow-up at the end of the action.
    • Simple example: "Sign up for the newsletter!" (prompt) → fill out form with email (work) → "You're signed up!" message (follow-up)
  • Prompts initiate the action. (CTA) Pick the right context, align to user benefit, set expectations.
  • "free samples": giving the user a commitment-free taste of your products value proposition before an account is necessary, so they can make an informed decision about using it.
    • Don't let a user create too much content before they have to commit to creating an account / paying, this will destroy their first impression.
  • Create continuity: each action should result in what the user expected. Use similar language or imagery to create confidence.
  • Provide support in context: put necessary info right where it's needed so users don't need to leave their flow. Sequenced guidance, when the user needs to take linear actions which influence the following (show the progress to the user, avoid subtasks).
    • Email verification is a subtask which is annoying and hinders conversion: try to put it after the account creation is completed and give clear explanations. You can also let the user continue to use the product in a limited way until email verification is completed.
  • Offer alternatives: different signup options, option to skip part of the work, let users save progress and return later.
  • Make errors actionable and informative: negative experiences are more memorable. Be clear about why the error occurred, give actionable options to resolve it.
  • Follow-up:
    • acknowledge success (little clear notifications, redirects if necessary).
    • provide meaningful next steps (show likely desired options, don't overwhelm).
      • No checklists of absolute all features / options available. Three most effective / reasonable options.
      • No superficial system of rewards. Gamification has its place, but it's not everywhere.
      • Don't launch into new flows, give the user time to contemplate on their own what to do next.
  • Repeatable actions: when introducing new features, reusing a known system of guidance is familiar to the user.
  • Reinforcing guidance: for some users it takes more than just one explanation. Spaced repetition helps to improve routine-building.

5: Presenting Guidance

  • Everybody has an onboarding experience. Even if you don't think your product offers one, it does.
  • Affordance: the property of an object that help people understand its usage.
    • Based on conventions, familiar patterns.
    • Clear labels: actions (verb), navigation (nouns).
    • Use metaphors carefully. Icons need to be very clear and often require typed out labels.
    • Keep them constant so people don't have to re-learn.
  • Microcopy: a consistent tone establishes trust and sets a personality of the product.
  • Animations / transitions can be used to convey a sense of location and progress.
  • Help content: nobody should need to read a FAQ in order to use a product, but for the edge cases it can make sense to bake help into the primary UI instead of making them go to another location for help. Example: Slackbot.
  • Presets: <5% of all users change the default settings. Choose the right presets with that in mind.
  • Not-so-empty states: tooltips on buttons; include usable, pre-populated content to show a user what's possible. Playthrough content: interactive example of the way the product works built on the product UI. (Things, Notion: get started by checking off working task lists)
  • Additive guidance patterns
    • inline cues (best): only use occasionally because they can look like advertising and be ignored due to banner blindness
    • hints (okay): meant to be seen briefly; highlights or badges, sonic / animated / haptic hints for important messages; tooltips; toasts (macOS volume-up feedback)
    • overlays (blocking): modal, putting users in a forced focus mode; or modeless, when the surrounding content remains interactive; dialogs and pop-ups (OK or Cancel); sheets (cookie consent); callouts (tooltips which point out an element and contain action buttons; product tours); floating chat bubbles. Usually displaced from product UI, can be thrown on – increased risk of detracting from guided interaction. Best way to include overlays is during a user's natural pause; reduce the amount of overlays as much as possible.
      • Interruptions push people away: overlays are getting in the way of people actually interacting. The tendency of users is to discard, skip, or ignore.
      • Overlays often collide: always use repetition with care. Collision can also be due to rapid sequencing and must not occur simultaneous. Or if mixing modals with inline cues, there’s collision.
    • setup wizards (weak): series of screens, needs to be well-scoped onboarding, only one-time, each screens needs to ask for action and not just deliver information.
  • Other channels like emails = Guidance separate from the product. Especially helpful for SaaS products. Content tailored to a user's current state in a product. Best practices:
    • Send a welcome message shortly after the user provide their email address: brief and action-oriented, not more than 3 actionable steps offered.
    • Don't send more emails without announcing that you'll do so.
    • Send additional onboarding emails that reflect recent user activities. (User changed a setting but doesn't use it for a while? Send a guidance text, automatically of course)
    • Don't send marketing mails instead of onboarding mails.
  • Notifications: used for onboarding they should be immediately actionable, not just information.
  • Text messages: spammy. Use with great care.
  • Everything works together: the products baseline design is the foundation for all your guidance, bake it into it. Escalate the obstructiveness of the guidance slowly and deliberately only when needed.

6: Scaling Guidance

  • Document decisions: write down why you chose which specific type of guidance so you can understand necessary changes.
  • Integrate onboarding into your product development process.
  • Write down the core use a user has with your product: state, routines, entry situation, onboarding actions.
  • Make product design adjustments in existing flows: e.g. swapping out confusing terms with simple ones. Consistent copy.
  • Identify and remove poorly performing front-loaded instructions or displaced guidance which add no value. Not comfortable removing items? A/B test.
  • Use your documentations as a guide for future designs.
  • Evaluate, iterate. Compare before and after states. Cohort analysis, usability studies, offboarding feedback (users who decide to delete an account or cancel a free trial).
  • Standardize your decisions: make a toolkit for guidance options for all designers in your team. Or just catalog instances of guidance as a help.
  • Distribute ownership: it’s not a one-person job; everyone who’s part of the team must know and value onboarding. Retain the knowledge in the whole team.
  • Grow with your user base's developing needs: by taking metrics and getting to know your (changing) users, different needs for guidance will emerge.
  • Cater to individual needs: when a user first visits, show general options. When you know their preferences later, show individually preferred options.
  • Product redesigns: keep in mind that when you change your product, the guidance needs to change, too.
  • Reboarding: some users won't use a product for a long time and then come back. They might have forgotten how parts of the product work. There’s a need to guide them again.

“You’re All Set!”

  • The core idea: weave guidance into the product itself during the interaction with it.

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