Over the last few months, I asked different people who work on products in services, in a variety of industries, to share their perspectives on user onboarding. While I’ve heard from many people over the years, I wanted to ask a few pointed questions. Via questionnaires and interviews, 48 people* shared with me the challenges they faced in trying to create a good user onboarding experience, the goals they felt user onboarding needed to achieve, and how they defined the scope of it. My goal was to understand the range of perspectives different people have about user onboarding, and find common themes. In the spirit of sharing, this post is a lightweight recap of what stuck out most from these conversations (and I’d love to hear if your perspective is similar or different!).
When we design products and services, we focus a lot on the core user experience, or what we envision seasoned users to be doing day to day. But a good product or service will be bookended by a strong beginning, and a strong end.
So, what makes a good beginning and end, and how should we be thinking about the design of them? Krystal Higgins, interaction designer for user onboarding, and Joe Macleod, the founder of the world’s first customer ends-focused business, have been thinking about these two sides of the customer journey for a while. When they realized that they were both giving workshops at the same conference, they decided to write a joint primer on the basics of good product beginnings and ends.
When people think of user education in products, they’re often thinking of certain set of UI patterns. In some cases, these patterns can be helpful. But, in most other cases, the patterns are overused and applied inappropriately to many situations. They quickly become anti-patterns.
I’ve illustrated that slippery slope by drawing these “patterns” as if they were Pokemon evolutions. You know, when a seemingly harmless pattern can turn into a formidable beast.
This is a time when we’re seeing thousands of products and services trying to give users guidance about a single community issue: Coronavirus, or COVID-19. I’ve included a few brief considerations for designing this kind of in-app messaging, along with examples.
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.
If you’re designing a new user onboarding experience, or trying to redesign an existing one, you’ll want to know what it takes to make it effective. In a guest post for the InVision design blog, I detail common pitfalls that onboarding designers can stumble into and how to address them.
The final season of the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which aired recently, was panned for its tonal shift from prior seasons. The audience blamed the show writers for pacing and action that seemed contrary to the character arcs developed in George RR Martin’s books. There were many arguments and discussions about what the true cause was, but one particular critique from a Twitter user caught my eye. The author describes how differences between “plotters” and “pantsers,” two writer archetypes, could have been at the heart of the issue. And I realized it reflects how differences in our approaches to designing user onboarding can affect the user experience.
With artificial intelligence and its many variants becoming core parts of our products, we need to think about how to onboard users to automated experiences. The principles that underpin good user onboarding for AI aren’t that different from the principles that underpin good user onboarding for anything else. But, because of the unpredictable nature of AI, we must embrace interactive, multi-part guidance more than ever before, instead of the information-heavy approaches that still dominate onboarding for traditional products today.
My process for designing workshops is never the same from one event to the next. But one thing I frequently include is storyboarding. I took some notes on why and how I storyboarded for a recent workshop, “Creating a user onboarding compass,” in the hopes that you may find it helpful in your own process.
User onboarding is a journey made up of multiple activities, not a single, linear flow. Onboarding should align guidance independently around each of the “key actions” of its experience so that newcomers can interact with them at the pace and in the order that makes sense for their different situations.
In an earlier post, I covered how to identify key actions. In that same post, I covered how to break key actions down into 3 parts: the trigger(s), the part that initiates action, the activity, the decisions and subtasks that make up the action, and its follow-up, the part that closes out the action and suggests or leads people to meaningful next steps.
I’ve long tried to use iPad drawing apps, like Procreate or Photoshop, to simulate my traditional watercolor painting work. Until recently I had no luck using these tools to make anything decently watercolor-ish. But with Procreate 4’s introduction of wet canvas + brush dynamics, an Apple Pencil, and a set of lovely, free watercolor brushes from Abbie at Uproot Jewellery, I’ve been thrilled at how close I can get to the real thing. The only thing missing has been a good set of salt brushes (I use a lot of salt in my paintings to simulate textures like dense fields of coral), so I created 6 of my own. And now you can use them, too!
In an earlier post, I covered how onboarding is more than just a one-time event in a customer’s journey. In this post, I’ll be making the case for applying more than one onboarding method. Just as students will fail to learn if taught with a one-size-fits-all approach, trying to onboard every user in the same way is bound to fail.
Instructional presentations in the design and tech world often benefit when they include examples outside of a speaker’s own work. If you’re a presenter or working towards being one, chances are you’ve realized how helpful 3rd-party screenshots and recordings can be in illustrating a point, and how easy they are to capture from sites and apps. You were probably trained to get permission before adding 3rd-party music, photos, and other creative works that aren’t already in the public domain or under an open-sharing license like the Creative Commons copyright license in your slides. But, have you considered doing the same for screenshots and screen recordings?
In a previous post, we looked at multiple opportunities over time for user onboarding techniques to be useful in our products. If we design for those opportunities ad hoc, we risk unscalable designs and frustrating users with fragmented education. Instead, let’s see how to tackle onboarding design so that it fits into a long-term approach to guidance.
When designed as part of a long-term approach to guidance, the seam between everyday user education and onboarding can be invisible.
I often evangelize the importance of first time user experiences. After all, not all of the users acquired to a product will stick around, but they’ll all experience its first run design. To encourage return use, that first impression must be solid. But it’s also very common for designers to overemphasize the first run experience at the expense of long-term user support.
I used to be intimidated by watercolor. It seemed so unwieldy compared to the acrylic, pencil, ink, and digital media I’d grown accustomed to using during my BFA program. For years I shied away from it, despite the fact that those who could control it made beautiful, airy paintings that were nearly impossible to simulate in Procreate or Photoshop.
People can be shaped by a mix of factors: genes, people, places, events, both the good and the bad. Everyone is a unique blend. As good product designers, we consider these contexts in relation to the users for whom we design, with the intent of creating experiences that suit their needs and expectations. But we don’t often take as much time to understand what has shaped us. Why do we gravitate to the problems and solutions that we do? A little self reflection in uncertain times can help us realign to higher quality, impactful projects and can also remind us, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, to thank those that had a positive impact on who we are now.
Attendees of my “New Users Matter, Too” talks have graciously brainstormed ideas for free samples–experiences that allow new users to interact with a portion of a product’s value proposition before committing to an account. These methods can increase valuable signups and reduce the walls that prevent conversion. Use these ideas to kickstart your team’s exploration of a free sample that’s right for your product.