I spend a lot of time evangelizing the importance of first time user experiences. After all, less than 100% of new users that are exposed to a product will stick around, but 100% of them will experience some piece of its FTUX. To encourage return use, that first impression must be solid.

Sometimes, though, designers overemphasize first time use at the expense of long-term education and growth. They pour all of their energy into those first few moments instead of distributing education over time to benefit users at different stages. Jonathan Korman captured this sentiment in a recent Twitter thread.

Clippy, the annoying Microsoft Office Assistant, failed partly because of this. As James Fallows describes “…Clippy suffered the dreaded ‘optimization for first time use’ problem. That is, the very first time you were composing a letter with Word, you might possibly be grateful for advice about how to use various letter-formatting features. The next billion times you typed ‘Dear …’ and saw Clippy pop up, you wanted to scream.”

It’s not difficult to see why the first run would be a tempting focal point for product teams. It’s a clearly defined moment in time to which finite resources can be assigned. It’s often easier to detect first entry than it is to track nuanced behaviors of intermediate users. And it provides “dedicated real estate” that all users see, a canvas on which designers and Marketing and PM can express themselves and be assured that people will see that expression.

But when onboarding and guidance is designed only with first run in mind, products end up with:

  • One-time slideshow/video/tutorial/sign-up processes that drop people into a product with no follow-up guidance
  • Too much emphasis on UI instruction instead of guiding users to valuable routines
  • An experience disconnected from the rest of the product

Illustration showing that a heavyweight first run without follow-up help is like running off a cliff

Building a robust but frontloaded first run experience tosses people into the product with no follow-up guidance.

Onboarding != orientation

When I landed my first tech job, I was so excited. I’d been through several failed interviews and it was such an achievement to finally be hired by a well-known company. On my first day, I arrived at the office of my new employer 45 minutes earlier than the scheduled orientation session and watched my future colleagues trickle in. I dreamed about what kind of training activities they had in store.

At 8:30 AM, a woman from HR escorted me to an empty, windowless meeting room. I was dismayed to find that it was just the two of us. She pushed a small folder labelled “orientation” toward me, explained that my manager was traveling this week, and that she’d be handling my onboarding. I spent the next several hours filling out a bunch of NDAs, tax forms, and other standard paperwork, while half-listening to lectures about the office’s projects and protocols. It was a lot of information. Around lunch, my HR chaperone announced that we were done, escorted me to my desk amidst several other empty desks, and said my coworkers would be happy to meet me when they returned from lunch. I sifted back through the papers in the “orientation” folder but found nothing on what I should do next; I wracked my brain to remember all the details of what I’d been lectured on, to no avail. So I hopefully awaited the return of my coworkers. They must have some next step for me. Perhaps a starter project? An introduction to the intranet? Shadowing them at meetings? But as the day wore on, as the weeks wore on, I realized that no one had planned anything more to help me get started.

That first half-day was the extent of this company’s onboarding program. I left this company not too long after this experience, surviving a few months longer that I should have thanks to a fellow designer that donated personal time on her weekends to give me the lowdown on key projects.

Think back to when you first joined a new company. Did you establish a working rhythm in one day? Had you fully internalized the company culture at the end of that first orientation session or meeting with HR? If you’re a hiring manager, would you say that your new hires are fully acclimated and performing at a good clip the day after they join?

Most likely not.

It takes time for new folks to become valuable contributors and carve out their niche in an institution. While orientation is what most people think of when starting a new job, good companies recognize that it is just a small event in an onboarding continuum, often one comprised of logistics irrelevant to day-to-day routines. Smart companies break out onboarding into 30/60/90+ day segments and utilize a variety of techniques to grow their new hires. It’s an investment, but one that pays off with better retention, performance, and satisfaction.

First run experiences in products are like orientation. They’re comprised of one-time activities like signup flows, tutorials, or setup wizards. While it’s important to complete all of this “paperwork,” this FTUX is not necessarily onboarding users to the routines we want them to engage in every day. Focusing on just the orientation experience does not lead to success.

Onboarding, however, is the process of guiding people into new habits and opportunities using a variety of techniques over time. When done well, the seam between onboarding and everyday user education is barely visible.

It takes more than 1 use

Researchers have spent countless hours trying to understand how long it takes people to establish new behavioral patterns. In “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2010), the habit forming process took an average of 66 days, but “…for one person it took just 18 days, and another did not get there in the 84 days, but was forecast to do so after as long as 254 days.” The numbers vary, but the gist is: It takes more than one run-through for folks to fall into a new routine And most products are built around the notion of behavioral routines. Thinking that every product can onboard every user in a single day is tragically optimistic.

Even if our first run experience introduces key actions that we’d like repeated, our teachings will wither and die if not reinforced. Concepts need to be practiced to be retained. This is at the core of an educational concept called spaced repetition, which encourages learners to distribute their knowledge practice over time instead of cramming it in all at once.

And people and products are not static. A site upgrade without preface may leave established users in the lurch. An existing user may want to explore a new path. You may add a new feature that would benefit someone if they simply knew how it could be woven into their routine. So let’s stop thinking of onboarding as a first timer’s problem. Instead, let’s weave the principles that underpin good user onboarding into a system that can address multiple situations over long-term product use.

Many opportunities for onboarding and education

Here’s a look at a few different situations where onboarding techniques could be put to use across the customer journey.

First run and the first few weeks

Image showing that onboarding for new users stretches over time

This includes the first run experience but stretches at least over the subsequent 7-30 days. The new user has come to your site/app/product in a quest to solve a problem, to meet a goal. Sometimes they’ve come to your product simply to explore, and other times they may be driven by a specific mission.

During this window of time, onboarding’s job is to:

  • Learn about the person’s motivation for coming to your product
  • Guide them to key actions and knowledge relevant to that motivation
  • Set up foundational logistics that facilitate success (e.g., profile setup)
  • Familiarize
  • Build trust
  • Gradually widen exposure to concepts and actions (gradual engagement), while reducing introductory activities (gradual reduction)
  • Reinforce key actions and routines
That’s a long list, and why onboarding needs to be designed as a long-term process. It’s impossible for it to complete all of these jobs in one day.

Continued discovery & facilitation

Image showing moments of continued education after initial onboarding

As a person moves from newbie status to someone more knowledgeable, they start establishing a routine. But learning is not done. Much like how an employee may continue honing their skills on the job or pick up additional techniques from colleagues, there are plenty of opportunities to enhance the experience of a maturing user. This is also the time when the user starts poking at the boundaries of their experience and personalizing more deeply.

During this time, onboarding techniques can help us to:

  • Introduce the user to shortcuts or actions that enhance their current experience or optimize their workflow
  • Help them understand the boundaries of their experience, with messaging or hints in response to their actions
  • Request runtime permissions and other ongoing requests
Screenshots showing how Duolingo unlocks chatbots feature after 3 lessons

Duolingo’s language learning app continues engaging a new user over time by waiting until they complete 3 lessons before unlocking and promoting their chatbot feature

New features

Image showing introduction of new features on a graph over time

Sometimes it’s not the user who is growing, but the product. If you add a feature or shortcut, you may need to help an existing user discover the new addition. You can use the information you’ve learned about them over their first few weeks, coupled with onboarding paradigms, to show them how they can put these elements to work.

During this time, onboarding’s job is to:

  • Evaluate the user’s current behaviors to identify which new capabilities to highlight
  • Onboard them to the new feature, if necessary

Screenshots of Etsy onboarding an existing user to their Pattern feature

Etsy recently added a feature for existing shop owners, called Pattern, which allows sellers to create branded versions of their shops. The feature requires its own mini-onboarding flow to introduce existing users to creating shop layouts.

Product overhauls

Image showing how a product overhaul may come up in the customer journey and require more prominent education

Occasionally the changes you make to a product will completely alter core workflows (such as an operating system update to a phone or computer). This overhaul could upset a user’s established workflow without preparation and guidance, much like an employee at a company needs guidance if they transition to a new role with different responsibilities. They don’t need to relearn everything, but they do have to be shown how to adapt as quickly as possible.

In this situation, onboarding’s job is to:

  • Prepare the user for the impending change
  • Familiarize them with the delta between their old experience and the new one (typically more UI-focused than value proposition-focused)
  • Gather their feedback on the new experience
Here’s a great example from Google Drive’s redesign and how they helped guide existing users through the change. You can listen to a full talk about this process from UX Australia 2014: “Understanding change aversion and how to design for it.”

Slide screenshot from Drive change aversion presentation

Returning after a lapse

Image showing how a lapsed user may return to the product and continue their customer journey

Similar to educating existing users about upcoming product overhauls is the case where a user has returned to your product after a period of non-use. Perhaps the disuse is part of the natural usage cycle of your product, like how most people only visit a tax preparation website once a year. Or perhaps the user left because your experience wasn’t compelling, and is coaxed back by a promotional re-engagement email.

Yep, onboarding and its tactics can be used in this scenario, as well. Here, its job is to:

  • Educate on the delta between the last time the product was used, and the current product offerings
  • Help them recover and update any previously-saved preferences and content

Coordinating a system of onboarding and education

So there are multiple opportunities for onboarding techniques across the customer journey. But how can we make this feel like a well-orchestrated system instead of a bunch of random educational moments haphazardly sprinkled about?

Begin at the end

To build a cohesive system on onboarding, you need to capture a bird’s eye view of all the key moments when onboarding techniques would be most valuable. Uncover these various moments by working backwards from the outcomes of your most, and least, successful users.

Start by understanding what a successful user looks like, and then examine the paths they took to get there. What different motivations and entry experiences brought them in? What knowledge and actions brought them to this point? What actions do they now engage with every day/week/month? Conversely, understand your unsuccessful users. What actions didn’t they take that your successful users did? What actions deterred them from taking the next steps?

Examining both sides of the story will often reveal opportunities for onboarding and user education. If you have a new product with no established user base, you can build a hypothesis of the best onboarding moments based on the situations outlined in the previous section, and then revisit that hypothesis as you iterate on your product.

Image showing working backwards from a maze related to how to track key user actions

One way to solve a maze is to start at the end and work backwards. Anticipate your key onboarding and user education needs by working backwards from successful and unsuccessful user states.

Be mindful that designing onboarding last, after working backwards, isn’t the same as designing it late. Leave ample time for iteration. Designing the onboarding flow may uncover requirements that invalidate assumptions about everyday product use; perhaps the opt-in you assumed everyone would accept on day one was premature, and it needs to be woven into a later, runtime context.

Set up learning checkpoints

A benefit of completing the start-at-the-end exercise is that it informs where logging needs to be implemented in service of stateful guidance. Instead of asking your team to instrument a massive behavioral tracking system because you might use all of that information, a request they will likely decline, you can give them a prioritized list that gives them a manageable starting point. In the meantime, you can still aid the user in the spaces between triggers by providing omnipresent, inline guidance that doesn’t require detection of unique user states.

Also establish a cadence of learning throughout the customer journey. Onboarding and education is just as much about adapting your product to users as it is about them adapting to you. Create in-product mechanisms for gathering user feedback. And define intervals during which you’ll regularly evaluate your user education system. Focus on longitudinal feedback methods and stay away from 5-minute tests as a measurement of onboarding, since those will not help you understand how your product does (or doesn’t) engage users over time.

Build for repeatability

We touched on the concept of spaced repetition earlier. It’s the idea that people retain information and form habits effectively by repeatedly engaging in practice over time. Seeing 100% engagement in our well-designed first run experiences means nothing if it’s not reinforced. Learning something only once is subject to a steep forgetting curve.

In addition to ensuring that onboarding techniques guide through interaction (which makes them inherently practicable), techniques should also have some means of repeatability. This doesn’t mean blindly pushing the same education over and over again. Instead, it means creating guidance with the intent of encouraging repeat engagement, guidance that has a shelf life of more than 1 run.

Repeatability can be achieved through product-driven repetition or user-driven repetition. Product-driven repetition means that your site, app, or service decides when and how guidance should be repeated. User-driven repetition is when the user is the one initiating the repetition.

Screenshot showing tooltip and cue text in Facebook events

In this scenario, Facebook repeats a piece of guidance by varying its presentation. It starts with a proactive blue tip and also reiterates that guidance via the omnipresent cue text in the search field. This is a very subtle form of repetition.

Screenshots showing "Save for screens" feature repeated in Photoshop and Illustrator

This is another example of product-driven repetition, where the repetition occurs in different places. Adobe is trying to call out their new “Save for screens” feature, and so presents a relevant, actionable message in both the Photoshop and Illustration “Save for Web” dialogs

To prevent product-driven repetition from being annoying, use different presentation techniques and/or space out timing to provide breathing room between recurrences. For repetitions that you display proactively (these often appear as tooltips or hints) define an end condition: stop showing the guidance after n repetitions; stop showing the guidance after the user demonstrates repeatable engagement with the action being highlighted; or include a dismiss function and stop showing repetitions after n dismissals with no user engagement with the action being referred to.

Screenshots showing repeating Notification Permissions dialog on Reddit

The Reddit mobile app does not have a good end condition for their notifications prompt; it will pester you endlessly until you allow.

User-driven repetition is less annoying because it puts control in a person’s hands, but it relies on them to actively seek help. Any guidance in which you proactively engage the user should clearly point out where that user can revisit it, or dive more deeply into the topic, later. This is your hedge if someone dismisses early guidance and you don’t have a reliable means by which to contextually reveal it to them again.

Screenshot showing Etsy's product tour

This is an example of user-driven repetition. Etsy shows a product tour proactively to a user. The user can dismiss it at any time, but can also repeat it by clicking on the “Take a tour” link that is permanently on their dashboard.

Building for repeatability is a great way to break your team out of a one-time-use mindset. When creating an educational moment, ask, “How can I reinforce this concept a second, third, even fourth time? How can the user revisit this guidance on demand? Will this still even be relevant later on in their experience?” When faced with content having to be useful more than once, it makes the team question one-shot approaches like marketing slideshows.

Be appropriate

An effective onboarding and education system also relies on the techniques it uses to be appropriate for the the product’s context and the user’s context.

Users may expect prominent guidance for a brand new type of product, like a VR headset or a bitcoin trading service. These users likely don’t have additional resources like friends, family or videos to pre-expose them to such new concepts. On the other hand, users would likely expect a lighter touch for a product type they’ve used before, like an email app or shopping website. Typically, the more novel the value proposition or interaction space, the more prominent onboarding may need to be.

The user’s context should also drive your choice of onboarding techniques. For example, a new user who leisurely browses to your website’s home page, or downloads your app from a promoted apps list, may expect to do more exploring and browsing. Meanwhile, someone accessing a shared document from a colleague is likely on a mission, and wants only assistance in completing that mission. You could follow up with more general guidance after their mission is complete.

Chart showing advised prominence of guidance based on product and user context

Use this chart as a starting point for determining the appropriateness of onboarding prominence

When it doubt, I always recommend sticking to lightweight guidance.

Screenshots of slideshow tutorial in Zoho mail app

Zoho mail uses a lengthy slideshow to introduce new users. While the imagery in the slideshow itself is beautiful and probably aligned with their brand, it feels like overkill for the established email space.

Screenshot showing welcome email in Zoho's inbox

On the other hand, the “welcome” email waiting in the user’s app after account creation feels more appropriate. It’s lightweight and relevant.

Screenshots of BB8 app playthrough tutorials

This BB8 onboarding experience is comprised of detailed, interactive tutorials. While something like this would feel heavy-handed in a productivity app, most users expect a playful experience from this toy and are less driven by a specific mission.

Be authentic

In addition to being appropriate for a given situation, the presentation and tone of your onboarding techniques should feel like a natural extension of your product. Anything not matching up with your day-to-day product personality will come across as disruptive, almost like an ad. One-shot tutorials or introductory videos and slideshows are often prone to feeling inauthentic because they tend to be designed by a separate team (or even an agency).

Screenshots showing consistent use of Facebook blue tips

Facebook has established two patterns for education, inline cards and occasional blue tooltips. It maintains consistency between these and its brand while also appearing without blocking interaction with the content it is guiding about.

A source of inauthenticity is the reliance on third party tools or plugins to generate educational elements. There are a growing number of onboarding tools out there like Appcues and Onboard.io. These tools are great for prototyping and testing new ideas, but won’t give you the full extensibility you need to make everything feel like a well-choreographed part of your product. Don’t rely on them for the final version of things.

Include in audits & pattern libraries

Just like you might include stateful patterns like error or success treatments in your audits and pattern libraries, so too should you include onboarding and educational patterns. Doing this will help you meet the criteria of a continuous onboarding and educational system as detailed above. You need a library of reliable patterns you can reuse.

If you have an existing product, do an initial scrub of the patterns you have by examining first run flows, inline cues and empty states, tooltips, reactive messaging (like confirmation messages), user feedback mechanisms, and on-demand help links.

Screenshots of different onboarding elements arranged into an audit

These images show how someone may choose to visually audit the different educational and onboarding components from an app. Example shown is from the Mona shopping assistant app.

You can also catalog these elements together in a spreadsheet. Below is a quick example, using Brad Frost’s Atomic Design methodology, of how you might incorporate the stateful behaviors of onboarding and user education alongside the rest of your product’s patterns. Spreadsheets are particularly helpful if you are working on some non-visual or hard-to-screenshot surfaces, like VR or voice interaction.

Screenshot of spreadsheet that catalogs user onboarding and education states with other baseline components

Marathon, not a sprint

It’s tempting to check off a single box that says onboarding is complete once you’ve designed a tutorial or introductory slideshow. But when you treat guidance in that way, you shortchange users that could benefit from guidance across their experience, you create something that’s not scalable, and you end up with disconnected designs. Instead, plan a system of extensible onboarding and education that can benefit users from across the journey, even if it means simplifying that first run.

illustration showing that creating a long term system of onboarding is like running a marathon

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