Levels of user onboarding

Discussion about user onboarding often focuses on teaching new users how to use a product’s interface. There are dozens of third-party plugins that offer various ways to point out product navigation, features, and affordances. However, this only scratches the surface of what onboarding can be about. The biggest opportunities for onboarding happen at higher levels. 

Similar to how The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) says that employee onboarding can happen at multiple levels, user onboarding can also be tiered. Here’s the 4 levels of user onboarding that I currently think about, from lowest highest level: interface orientation, process onboarding, new meanings onboarding, and systems understanding. 

Illustration of 4 levels of onboarding represented as 4 concentric circles, with interface orientation being the smallest circle and systems understanding being the largest, outer circle.

Interface orientation

The lowest level of user onboarding is interface orientation. It’s the level most of us are comfortable with and involves getting new users familiar with a product’s interface. It starts with good product design, so that interfaces are intuitive with clear and accessible navigation, affordances, and content. Some interfaces need nothing more than a good core design that leverages common patterns or interactive elements that implicitly guide people as they interact. A classic example of implicit interface orientation was the old Solitaire game introduced in Windows 3.0. Not only was it a fun game to play, it also helped people get familiar with graphical user interfaces and some of the more (at the time) complex mouse actions like drag and drop.

Sometimes products attempt to do interface orientation with add-on, one-time explanatory elements like tooltips, coachmarks, pop ups, videos, callouts, or click-through tours. Unfortunately these elements are often overused and their impact is shallow. Usually it’s the result of a product team treating interface orientation as the end-goal of onboarding, so they go all out on the bells and whistles. But the reality is that focusing only on interface orientation is unlikely to make a big impact on user retention or engagement; the interface is simply a means to an end. Interface orientation needs to be paired with a higher level of onboarding to make a difference.  

Process onboarding

The second level of onboarding is process onboarding. It’s about tasks and workflows: helping users complete a task to meet a goal, and how to integrate a new product with existing tools, services, and workflows. It may also include introducing people to new technologies that facilitate the product’s processes, such as AI tools.

For example, a college application service might have process onboarding in how it guides students through submitting an application. It would need to set expectations about the materials and information the student should be prepared with, break up the work of the application process into easy-to-understand steps, provide helpful tips and suggestions for crafting the right responses, and then help them understand what happens after their application is submitted. This could also involve any interface orientation needed to help someone complete the process.

Some products can get away with treating process onboarding as their highest level. For example, a government service page that’s focused on helping someone renew a license may not care about long term retention; they just need to focus on helping people who will only see this form once to complete it successfully. Or a product that cares only about competing with similar products on price point alone can get away with this kind of onboarding. But if a product or service wants ongoing retention, engagement, and differentiation from competitors , it needs to step up to a higher tier of onboarding: helping new users understand how a product adds new meaning to their lives. 

New meanings onboarding 

This tier is about helping people understand a new meaning that a product or service can add to their lives. New meanings onboarding can drive long-term retention, competitiveness, and make new ideas easier for new audiences to adopt. After all, you want people to understand how your product is unique in its abilities. In addition to including interface orientation and task and workflow onboarding, new meanings onboarding may also include introducing users to technologies or concepts that are used by the product to provide its value.

An example of onboarding to new meanings was from Nintendo Wii. In the book Design-Driven Innovation, author Roberto Verganti analyzes what made the Wii a successful innovation in the gaming world. Verganti describes that until the Wii, innovation in the video game industry was focused on incrementally ramping up game graphics and console processing power. By contrast, the Wii created a new meaning for gamers by introducing motion-sensitive controllers and building an offering around them. People who had not previously considered themselves video gamers started using the Wii as it offered more accessible, active, and social games.

The onboarding approach for the Wii relied on various channels coming together. Marketing set expectations about the meaning for the device, showing groups of people actively playing together in ads. There was interface orientation to the new motion controllers, achieved both through the implicit accessible design of the controls and use of gestural metaphors that mimicked common motions, as well as through low-risk, fun activities like an out-of-box experience that invited people to create a personal avatar called a Mii. Nintendo also worked with game designers to onboard users, creating immersive games like Wii Sports with its own layers of interface orientation and process onboarding that guided people as they interacted. In a quote from a Forbes article: “There’s no sequence of arcane button combinations required to throw a baseball: You just wind up and mime an actual throw. Suddenly, videogames are fun for everyone–old or young, male or female, regardless of prior gaming experience. I lost count of how many times I heard non-gamers say, ‘Wow, I want to get this.’”

Screenshot of Wii Sports boxing tutorial
Wii Sports, bundled with the Wii on release, contributed to onboarding people to the Wii console and the new meaning of gaming it provided. Screenshot source.

Achieving new meanings onboarding like the Wii takes more effort and coordination across multiple channels, but will get users to a state where they can realize the long-term value of a product, and that will drive retention, engagement, and revenue. And another bonus: When people understand the meaning a product provides in their lives, they’ll be more motivated, and this can in turn make them more forgiving of imperfections at the interface and process onboarding levels. 

The achievement of new meanings onboarding is a level that many products should aspire to. But I think many can also consider striving for one level higher: Systems understanding. 

Systems understanding

Until recently, I felt that new meanings onboarding was the pinnacle all products should aim for. However, that level might be too individual-focused . Many modern products create impacts far beyond that of one person and they should to help users understand and navigate these interconnected social, economic, and environmental systems. That’s why I’ve added systems understanding as the top tier of onboarding design. It’s when a product teaches users how their use of it impacts, and is impacted by, the larger world. This concept has some similarities to the “connection” tier of SHRM’s employee onboarding framework, about helping new employees comprehend the relationship connections within their workplace.

I once worked on a product used by students, parents, teachers, and administrators. These groups often had competing needs. Trying to address one group’s needs might create pain points for the other group. There was no solution that solved for all needs, therefore, the product had constraints. Solutions we discussed for onboarding included, in part, helping people understand why those constraints existed. For example, if someone tried to do an action that conflicted with another group — let’s say if parents were trying to get customized documents from teachers who were already time-stretched — the tool might inform them that the action is unavailable due to the tough schedules that teachers work. Instead of just blocking the action without explanation, the aim is to provide an understanding that might drive some empathy.

There may be many ways to onboard people to understand elements of a system. A very small scale example is Driving Mode on Apple Messages, which sends auto-responses to people letting them know they are driving and may not respond. This helps remind users about the human on the other side of the conversation. Some transit products reminded users to stay home during the initial COVID outbreak, to stop the spread to others. There’s also an effort called Environment-Centered Design, authored by Monika Sznel, wherein the goal is to make sure we don’t keep creating products that are centered on humans without regard for other entities.

I won’t claim to be an expert on system-level onboarding; it’s an incredibly complex and developing area of product design. We certainly must not rely on it to make up for poor choices a product has made in what it allows people to do. And it also has to be designed carefully, as people don’t always respond kindly to being educated about constraints that are for the benefit of others. But when it’s successful, paired with lower levels of onboarding, I believe it will not only lead to retention in a single product, but also lead to better outcomes in larger society.


In conclusion, effective onboarding strategies will incorporate multiple levels of user onboarding. It will not be limited to just the technical aspect of interface orientation but will extend to onboard people to processes, meanings, and, ideally, systems. By upleveling onboarding, companies and products can increase user retention, engagement, and even create better world citizens along the way.

Want to learn more about user onboarding design? Pick up my book Better Onboarding, from A Book Apart.