Onboarding for many

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.

Illustration showing too many people being forced to use a one size onboarding technique, represented by a large box with legs buckling under the weight of all those people.
One-size-fits-all onboarding experiences rarely carry all of our new users.

In school, I’d struggled with algebra. I just couldn’t grok the concept of variables, those placeholder X’s, Y’s, and Z’s. The rest of my classmates seemed to have no trouble, so my teacher continued the pace of instruction at a fast clip. I sat quietly through confusing lessons and several few bad tests before a classmate offered the tutoring I needed to get up to speed. Only after that point did I begin to show progress in class.

This is the challenge of teaching: while we want students to come away from our courses with the same baseline knowledge, everyone won’t benefit from the same approach. In algebra, I’d needed more help than my peers, but my peers would have been frustrated to slow down their progress.

In our products, onboarding ideally brings users to the same destination, but not every user will arrive at it in the same way, or at the same time. You may create a new user onboarding flow that goes from point A to B, but person 1 might need more help, person 2 may just breeze right through, and person 3 might take a …roundabout approach.

Illustration of varying onboarding pathsThese paths often vary because of different histories a user has with your product or its type. These histories in turn influences their mental models–their understanding of how  and how much work you have to do to connect your product to their incoming expectations.

A person who has never used a product of your type before will need your help to build up a mental model, and may require a lot of guidance. Someone moving from using your product’s website to your app will be less in need of guidance, if any at all. A person coming from a competitor will have expectations about what should be different, and what should be the same, based on their prior experiences.

Illustration of different entry points
Whether it’s someone’s first exposure to a product of your type, they’re moving from a different platform, or if they’re coming from a competitor, different situations can warrant different approaches to guidance.

Looking at a user’s entry point can hint at the expectations they’re starting with. Entry points might include a referral from a friend, links from partner sites or search engines, or a special promotion. For this reason, it’s important to handle deep linking–allowing users to drop into a specific landing page or sub-flow of a product–to allow people to get an experience aligned with their expectations. It can be frustrating to follow a link to view a particular feature, but then be led to an app’s start screen, a sign-in prompt, or a website’s generic home page.

Screenshots of Nextdoor's referral email and landing page
In this example from Nextdoor, a neighborhood networking site/app, I’ve referred a friend to join. She’ll enter the experience already having some context as to the conversations that are already happening in the area, thanks to knowing me. Her expectations will be different than someone joining as the first in their neighborhood.

Different methods

Another factor influencing the onboarding paths is how people learn. Now, people will often demonstrate different preferences for how they like to learn new things. But, some product teams, especially those less familiar with the teaching world, inevitably mistake learning preferences with learning styles. They incorrectly set out on a path to find one teaching approach to assign to each user.

However, learning styles are a pervasive neuromyth; they aren’t based on actual science. People are capable of learning in multiple ways. Limiting them to just one methodology hinders effective education. Teaching professionals like Linda Nilson in “The Truth about Learning Styles” instead emphasize that “people learn new material best when they encounter it multiple times and through multiple modalities.”

Diagram showing Felder-Silverman learning styles
The Felder-Silverman learning styles model suggests that people fall into one of two categories of learning, such as “active” vs “reflective.” The reality is that people need to use different approaches if they want to learn effectively in different situations.

A one-size-fits-all approach to onboarding is problematic because users won’t be able to benefit from multiple learning techniques. And users who have physical or learning impairments would be prevented from benefitting from an approach designed for one type of user. Instead, products should offer more than one option for onboarding guidance.

Building an onboarding toolkit

This doesn’t mean teams have to spend months figuring out what learning methodology to apply to each individual user. It just means they need to assemble a toolkit of sorts, so that guidance around any one topic can be represented in more than one way. Let’s take a look at 6 categories of guidance that comprise a good onboarding toolkit.

Categories of guidance


A requirement for every onboarding toolkit is a selection of thoughtfully-designed default states. Consider what a website’s home page or an app’s start screen communicates to a new user. Think about what settings could be automatically applied to a brand new device, or how a newly introduced feature behaves initially.

For content driven experiences, a good default state is all about a clear information architecture. Allow the organization of content to implicitly communicate the purpose of a product. For example, a news website called The Perspective claims to present at least two sides to every news story. The default layout of the articles on their website communicates this without an explicit onboarding flow.

Screenshot of The Perspective home page
The layout of “The Perspective” implicitly educates users about the experience it provides.

If a product is task-oriented, the default state can set expectations about actions required. AirWander is a website that helps people find interesting stopovers between two travel points. It begins with a default state that shows a skeleton of the information users will input to get flight search results. This skeleton guides the user to select a departure point and a destination, then highlights the middle “Stopover” box to get them to select one, so that they can move onward to search results.

Screenshot of Airwander's default state

Applying default settings can also be powerful. Etsy recently introduced a new feature called Pattern to existing shop owners. This feature allowed them to create a custom website using the listings that they already had on Etsy. When the shop owners tried out the feature for the first time, Etsy automatically applied a default design template for their site, allowing them to quickly publish a free trial and see if custom websites are worth the investment, before spending time tweaking a theme.

Screenshot of Etsy Pattern's default theme

A study done by Jared Spool on users of desktop computer users found that less than 5% of people changed their default settings. And even employers that apply default fund selections in 401k plans and auto-enroll employees see increased 401k plan participation. Defaults, again, can be powerful when done well.

A good set of default states underpins every good onboarding toolkit. Once these are in place, other techniques can provide additional avenues for guidance.

Inline guidance

All categories

One technique that many choose to include in an onboarding toolkit is inline guidance. Inline content can be effective at onboarding someone within the flow of surrounding content, without the effort of building separate, standalone flows.

Nextdoor inserts an inline checklist of next steps at the top of a user’s feed after their initial signup experience, encouraging the user to improve their profile in the flow of the rest of their content.

Screenshot of Nextdoor's inline guidance about next steps

Tindr includes an occasional “tips” card inline with the rest of the matches cards.

Screenshot of Tindr's inline approach to teaching users about new features

For more examples of inline guidance, as well as the pros and cons of using it, take a read through this earlier post.

Reactive guidance

All categories

Where inline guidance is fairly passive, reactive onboarding techniques provide guidance in response to a user’s action. It helps people learn through direct manipulation and supports a “learning by doing” approach. Reactive guidance is best for low-risk situations where there aren’t serious, negative consequences to a trial-and-error methodology.

When Twitter introduced their mute feature, it didn’t force all users to go through a mini-onboarding process the next time they opened the app. Instead, Twitter waited until they performed the mute action for the first time and then displayed a one-time informational about what muting does and where its settings live. On subsequent uses of the mute action, this informational screen no longer appears. By displaying information in this way, it ensured the user was in a state of readiness to understand more.

Screenshot of Google Drive web client's reactive guidance

In another example from Google Drive’s web client, a reactive hint appears when dragging files from a desktop folder over the web client interface. It’s there to indicate that these items will be uploaded if they are released while over the web page. It’s subtle enough not to interrupt users who already understand this behavior, but noticeable enough for users who weren’t aware.

Screenshot of Twitter's first time mute education

Proactive guidance

All categories

The complement to reactive guidance is proactive guidance. This approach is marked by prominent, directed onboarding elements that try to anticipate a user’s needs before they get stuck. Whereas reactive guidance is appropriate for a wide variety of situations, proactive guidance should be used sparingly, since it makes a lot of assumptions about what any one person wishes to experience at a particular time.

“Prominent” doesn’t mean we have to shove modal overlays in a person’s face. It can be achieved by steering someone to an ideal flow on first visit, like Duolingo does when it encourages new users to take part in a placement test or their first lesson. The user can skip out of either of these options, but the first experience in the product directs them prominently towards one or the other.

Screenshot of Duolingo's proactive onboarding approach
Duolingo, a language learning site/app, leverages a proactive approach. After new users choose the language they want to train in, the app encourages them to jump into their first lesson or a placement test. No matter which path users choose, they can skip it and explore the site’s dashboard. Duolingo is proactively trying to coax users into the flow that may lead to the highest engagement and success.

Proactive guidance can also be a bit more supplemental, like providing hints that point to new features or changes. Evernote’s web app uses this to point out new features without disrupting an existing user in the flow of creating notes. We can use proactive guidance that doesn’t interrupt the user’s experience with a full screen takeover or long-winded slideshow.

Screenshot of Evernote's supplemental proactive hint

On-demand help

All categories

No matter how many onboarding techniques are available, it will be impossible to anticipate every individual’s needs. It is necessary to include avenues for self-help. For example, if my algebra teacher had offered office hours for 1:1 instruction, I might have been able to resolve my struggles a lot earlier. Therefore, a well-rounded onboarding toolkit should include resources for on-demand guidance.

On-demand guidance includes help articles, customer support chat, community discussion, or a video library. These resources should be centralized and the entry point(s) easily discoverable. In some cases, it may also be appropriate to explicitly point out where users can go to learn more or get personalized assistance at the end of a dedicated onboarding flow.

Screenshot of Squarespace's help section
Squarespace’s help page is a centralized resource for their help articles, videos, and community forums. Even the link to their Twitter account at the bottom of the page offers another avenue to get help.

Making guidance on-demand also helps users that skip or ignore onboarding steps because they “don’t know what they don’t know” and are eager to get started. Later, these users may realize that they’re missing something. Having on-demand assistance, or a way to revisit onboarding steps, can help them recover.

Bonus technique: Observational guidance

All categories

This technique is a rather new addition, and the name came out of a podcast discussion with Chris Coyier, but it is rooted in a core social learning concept that people learn by observing and imitating others. Observational onboarding is the idea that users could be guided into a new product by watching other people model it, and seeing their authentic results.

Products built for shared presence experiences can leverage the onlooker effect. Some VR headsets output a 2D representation of what the main player is experiencing on a nearby TV. This allows non-players in the same room to observe how the the player uses device in physical space, how they interact with the software in virtual space, and the results of those interactions. Similarly, people visiting friends with a voice assistant device in their homes may learn what kind of things they can ask their own device. Even the streaming service Twitch offers what might could be considered voyeuristic onboarding, as some users stream their first time through a game, or the unboxing of a device.

The reason I label this a “bonus” technique is because effective onlooker guidance requires situations that are difficult to architect. Creating a bunch of marketing videos of people using a product requires them to feel authentic and as if real people are using them. Simply having a library of passive how-to videos or sponsored live streams might not see much success. To leverage this technique, it’s more about facilitating its occurrence. One way could be to implement a “public demo” mode that’s easy for existing users to activate so that they can show something off to others. A product brought to events could create a spectator situation, like how many video games are introduced at gaming conventions (although it risks that they forget about what they observed between the event and their acquisition of the product).

If facilitated well, guidance that helps the onlooker learn could be a key part of a product’s onboarding experience. It’s still an early and difficult concept to implement, so is a nonessential part of an onboarding toolkit.

Making onboarding more accessible

To summarize, the primary techniques that can be included in an onboarding toolkit:

  • Default states
  • Inline guidance
  • Reactive guidance
  • Proactive guidance
  • On-demand help
  • Observational guidance

A product doesn’t have to make use of all of these. It just needs to have more than one to help different users in different situations reach the same destination.

Screenshots showing Etsy's multiple paths to enter new feature onboarding
Etsy has an inline treatment to introduce sellers to their Pattern feature, but, if the user ignores or dismisses it, the entry point also is part of their default menu system. There is more than one way to reach this destination.

This makes our onboarding experience accessible to a wider range of users, and the more users that can be effectively onboarded, the more retention and engagement will grow.

Illustration of two users benefiting from multiple onboarding approaches
When you have more than one approach to onboarding, you can carry different types of users through your onboarding experience.