From first run to the long run

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.

Illustration showing that a first run experience ends up ending too soon to help users complete their journey on the path to engagement and retention

Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant, failed partly because it catered to first time users. It didn’t scale gracefully as those users became acclimated to the product. 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 user scenario. 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 upon which we paint the stories of our features and designs.

Screenshot of a product's release notes where first time user experience is listed as a feature
If we focus on the first run experience, it becomes a one-off feature for our release notes instead of an experience that guides over time.

But when onboarding is designed only for first time use, products end up with:

  • One-size-fits-all approaches that don’t scale to address user feedback or product changes
  • UI training instead of value discovery
  • A fragmented approach to user guidance across the product
  • An experience that leaves users to figure out what’s next

To put this problem in perspective, let’s consider where the word “onboarding” came from: the Human Resources industry.

Onboarding is not orientation

When I landed my first tech job, I was so excited. 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 training program they had in store.

Eventually a woman from HR escorted me to a windowless meeting room. It was just the two of us. She explained that my manager was out of the office 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. At noon my HR chaperone announced that we were done, escorted me to my desk, and told me that my colleagues would introduce themselves when they returned from lunch. I sifted through the employee handbook I’d been given but found nothing about what I should do next.

So waited for my coworkers. They must have some next steps for me. 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 beyond introducing themselves. 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 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? Were you an expert on company culture at the end of orientation? If you’re a manager, would you say that your new hires are fully performing at a good clip right after they join?

Most likely not.

While orientation is what most people think of when starting a new job, it’s really a single 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.

Images of MIT's new hire checklists
Good companies plan onboarding activities over time. These worksheets are from MIT’s new hire onboarding program.

First run product experiences are like orientation. They’re a single event, often presented in a one-size-fits-all fashion, and achieve short term logistics like signup. While this “paperwork” is important, it’s not the same as onboarding. Onboarding guides people into new routines using a variety of techniques over time. When done well, the seam between onboarding and everyday user education is invisible.

It takes more than one use

Researchers have spent countless hours trying to understand how long it takes people to establish routines. 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. Many products have the goal of routine use. 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. That’s thanks to a phenomenon called the forgetting curve, discovered in the 1880s by German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus found that concepts need to be practiced to be retained. This is at the core of an educational concept called spaced repetition, which encourages students of any subject to distribute learning over time instead of cramming it in all at once.

Graph of the forgetting curve
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve suggests we’ll forget 2/3 of what we learn within the first day of exposure to it.
Graph of spaced repetition
Ebbinghaus also discovered that the forgetting curve could be reduced by practicing knowledge in intervals distributed over time. This is called “spaced repetition.”

Opportunities for onboarding over time

People and products are not static. A site upgrade without preface may leave established users in the lurch. New features may be added that improve a user’s routine, if they could be guided to use them. So let’s stop thinking of onboarding as a first timer’s problem and instead consider how it can address multiple situations over long-term use.

The following provides a list of situations, throughout the customer journey, when onboarding tactics can be useful.

Initial onboarding

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 initial onboarding, onboarding’s jobs are to:

  • Familiarize the user with the product or service
  • Learn about the person’s needs and shape the experience around them
  • Set up foundational logistics that facilitate success (e.g., profile setup)
  • Convert them to signed up, subscribed, or otherwise valuable users
  • Guide them to next steps

That’s a long list of jobs, and insurmountable if we only gave onboarding the first run experience in which to complete them. Recent research from Android mobile apps, for example, suggests the most critical onboarding period is actually between days 3-7, not first use. So if we give onboarding a wider window of time in which to do its work, it can do it more effectively. Let’s see how the website of Lumosity, a brain-training service, leverages this extended timeframe to familiarize, convert, and continue engaging their new users.

Screenshot of Lumosity initial user questionnaire
Lumosity starts out by learning about the new user, asking questions that invite personal reflection and teach the product about the customer.
Screenshot of Lumosity first game list
Lumosity then begins familiarizing the user with its technique of training their mental skills through games, by immediately offering them three games to try.
Screenshot of the beginning of a Lumosity game
The familiarization process includes introducing the user to each individual game and the skill being trained
Screenshot of Lumosity game in progress
The game engages the user while teaching them about the value of training mental skills on Lumosity
Screenshot of recap screen after Lumosity game is complete
After each game is completed, Lumosity reinforces the skill trained and offers teaser information about their subscription service–but they remain focus on leading users through the rest of the gameplan instead of to subscription.
Screenshot of Lumosity first session recap
After all games are complete, then Lumosity expands with more details about their subscription service. But, they’ve rightfully planned for users to not be ready to subscribe at this point.
Screenshot of Lumosity follow-up email
If the user didn’t subscribe after the first session, Lumosity sends an email the next day recapping the prior day’s results, and suggesting the user engage in the next day’s training.
Screenshot of Lumosity third-day recap
Upon completing subsequent days of training without subscribing, Lumosity keeps adjusting the content of its recap screens to provide various details about the benefits of subscribing.
Screenshot of Lumosity home page after subscribing
Even after subscribing, Lumosity doesn’t stop onboarding tactics. Right after the subscription is processed, the site guides the user to playing a few of the new games that they’ve unlocked.
Screenshot of Lumosity "insights" progress
And even days after subscribing, Lumosity considers guiding the user to repeat engagement by showing other things that can be unlocked with daily training.

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. Products and people are constantly growing. There are plenty of opportunities to enhance the experience of a maturing user by introducing them to new features, or facilitating their discovery of existing ones. We can use what we already know about an existing user to onboard them to these opportunities.

During continued discovery, onboarding’s jobs are to:

  • Guide users to shortcuts that optimize their current experience
  • Convert them to higher tiers of service
  • Familiarize them with new features
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.
Screenshots showing how Duolingo unlocks chatbots feature after 3 lessons
After a user has completed 3 lessons in Duolingo’s language learning app, it reveals a chatbot feature and onboards them to the new experience.

Major redesigns

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

Occasionally a product may be so completely redesigned that core workflows are altered (such as an operating system update to a phone or computer). Onboarding tactics are necessary to guide existing users through this change, much like how an employee at a company would want guidance after a large reorg.

During major redesigns, onboarding’s jobs are to:

  • Prepare the user for the impending change
  • Familiarize them with and guide them through the delta between their old experience and the new one
  • Learn from their feedback to improve the redesign

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

Return from a lapse

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

Finally, there are times when a user has returned to a product after a period of non-use. Perhaps the lapse is part of the natural usage cycle of the 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 re-engagement promotion.

Onboarding and its tactics can be used in this scenario, as well. Here, its jobs ares to:

  • Familiarize the user on the delta between the last time the product was used, and the current product offerings
  • Learn about what’s changed with the user since the last visit, and help them update any preferences or data

Marathon, not a sprint

Many teams call onboarding complete once you’ve designed a tutorial or introductory slideshow. But when you limit onboarding to first run, you shortchange users that could benefit from similar guidance at other times in their experience. Instead, extend your initial onboarding philosophy and techniques to other moments in the customer journey like continued discovery, major redesigns, and returning from a lapse. To take the next steps to designing onboarding as part of a long-term approach to guidance, check out my next post on designing for longer-term guidance.

Illustration of several users crossing the finish line
When you design onboarding for the long run, it carries people through to retention and engagement.