5 new year’s resolutions for better user onboarding

The new year is the perfect time to explore new ways of building effective and human-centered user onboarding experiences. Here are 5 onboarding design strategies you can explore this year, whether you’re building for devices, apps, services, platforms, or anything in between.

Illustration of a person watering 5 seedlings, as a metaphor for 5 new year's resolutions
The new year is a perfect time to nurture better user onboarding experiences

1. Understand where new users are coming from

Good onboarding experiences adapt to the expectations of new users. Using interviews and other forms of qualitative research, deepen your understanding about what situations your new users are coming from and what expectations they hold. Do some of your new users have history with competitor tools, and are expecting certain features or metaphors? Do potential new users have existing data that you could import to make their lives easier? Are your new users’s behaviors influenced by other people, like coworkers or family members? Are they getting help from customer service reps or forums when they’re setting up your service, and are these sources adding extra layers to their expectations? You can learn such insights from both existing and prospective users alike.

2. Revisit your success metrics

Have you been making decisions about onboarding design based on narrowly focused metrics like clickthrough rate or setup completion rate? Onboarding is the process of acclimating to a new experience over time, and isn’t well-reflected in metrics that look at isolated actions. This year, invest in more onboarding-friendly measures, such as 30+ day retention rates, engagement with core features, and sentiments shared by new users during longitudinal, qualitative research programs like diary studies. Then, evaluate if the metrics you currently have are doing you any favors: if you do keep using narrowly-focused benchmarks, just ensure you’re putting them in the context of more longitudinal ones. For example, it’s entirely possible that a higher number of people creating an account can correlate to a higher amount of churn if you’re forcing sign up too early. But if you only measure the number of account signups, you might never notice.

Image of text comparing short-term metrics that aren't effective at measuring onboarding, compared to longer term measures that are
Onboarding success is better measured by looking at the bigger picture, rather than by narrowly-focused metrics. Image from my presentation “Better Onboarding” in 2023.

3. Level up from interface orientation

Interface orientation, which is about teaching users where things are in your product’s interface, represents the most superficial level of user onboarding. And it’s also at risk of becoming obsoleted in a world of AI-powered experiences that might one day adapt interfaces to individual users. This year, redirect your onboarding design efforts to the bigger picture: help new users understand how your product fits into their workflows, what goals they can achieve with it, and how to responsibly use your product or service in the context of the communities it exists in. For more on leveling up your onboarding, have a peek at this post.

4. Take the no-overlays challenge

Whenever you’re tasked with providing guidance to new users, challenge yourself to not use overlays at all in your design explorations. Overlays—which include dialogs, sheets, product tour tooltips, chat bubbles, and more—are disruptive, easily dismissed, and short-lived in their usefulness. The goal of this exercise is to cultivate a habit of building guidance into the core design of your product or service, where it can help new and existing users alike. Look at things like navigation, transitions, empty states, and content design to see how you can guide new users in a way that’s integrated into your product.

5. Gain empathy for new users by living like one

We can convince ourselves that the content we throw at new users or the setup we require from them aren’t a problem because they’re a one-time deal. But people are bombarded by requests on a daily basis from many different places. Gain a little bit more empathy for new users by navigating the web in private browsing mode, resetting a device to system defaults, or signing out of your apps. Once you see how many prompts and demands sites and apps push on users every day, you may find you’re less likely to perpetuate it in your own experience. 

Screenshot of Firefox's private browsing mode as an example of one way to live like a new user
Using built-in tools like private web browsing mode can let you gain empathy for new users and the demands they are peppered with throughout their digital journeys.

Building user onboarding is an ongoing process, and hopefully these resolutions will give you some starting points for a more human-centered approach.

Looking for even more better onboarding design strategies? Check out the Better Onboarding book!