Onboarding is a process that involves multiple events over the user journey to guide someone from their immediate goals to longer-term success. We can’t rely on just one method for providing guidance during this time. Instead, using diverse methods allow us to support users in different situations, with different expectations, in our products and services.

So, what different methods we can pull from? Several years ago, I suggested that there are 5 categories we can consider for onboarding, but have since renamed, reorganized, and added a category, informed by newer conversations with designers and newer approaches in the industry. The following are some updated descriptions of those categories.

1. Defaults

This is the most foundational category of guidance. A good default experience involves well-structured information architecture, well-written copy, good performance, informative empty states, clear affordances, and thoughtful default settings. Defaults are what remain should a new user skip, ignore, or forget guidance provided at other times or places. Designing onboarding to leverage good defaults ensures you have a solid product for returning users.

2. Inline cues

Inline cues are the next level of guidance. They are supplemental, lightweight, informational elements that are embedded within the flow of surrounding content and in service of a user’s journey in your product (thus, not ads). Inline cues may appear as banners inserted in a long scrolling list of content or they might leverage the first item in a list of other items as something instructional.

3. Hints

Where inline cues might be fixed and embedded, hints tend to be fleeting. Hints either responsively reinforce, or suggest, interaction. Examples might include badges, toasts, small tooltips that appear when you hover over a button, motion bounces, transitions, sounds, and vibration.

4. Overlays and announcements

Overlays appear on a layer above primary or inline content, and generally require user action to be dismissed or hidden. Announcements are pieces of audio guidance inserted in the middle of a flow of information. This is a category you should use sparingly (if at all!) because of how interruptive they tend to be. These include dialogs, customer support chat bubbles, slide-over sheets and banners, interstitial messages in an audio experience, or large callouts and tooltip tours.

5. Dedicated flows

Dedicated flows are one-time-use or setup flows with the purpose of guiding someone through their first interaction with a concept or feature. These include setup flows and tutorials.

6. Supporting channels

Supporting channels provide guidance outside of the immediate product or service experience a user is in. These includes help centers, email and notifications, and companion apps or devices. You can’t rely on these to provide guidance, but the best one you can focus on is a good help center.

A product’s onboarding experience should rely primarily on defaults. If you need additional layers of guidance, inline cues and hints are the next best option, with overlays, dedicated flows, and supporting channels being something to rely much less on, or not at all.

Pyramid diagram showing distribution of categories for providing guidance, with defaults being at the bottom and overlays at the top

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