An onboarding reading list

Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of posts, books, papers, and talks that have expanded my thinking about what goes into good user onboarding. That’s because user onboarding is a blend of many educational, behavioral, human resources, design, and business practices, rather than a separate instance of design.

Beyond my onboarding posts and my book Better Onboarding, I’ve put together the following reading list to help expand your thinking on the world of user onboarding. Since we often start with a narrow view on user onboarding design, I’ve started the list with the broader educational industry, and ended with specific, user-onboarding-for-products stuff. I’ve tried to include as many resources as seemed reasonable, but obviously this list is not exhaustive, and you can likely find many more resources in each area to dig into!

Jump to a topic area

Learning and behavioral concepts

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When it comes to learning and behavior, there’s so much we still don’t understand. That’s why user onboarding can’t be treated like a feature: it’s hard to put a box around learning! But there are a couple of topics, theories, and frameworks worth being aware of that can help you navigate through best practices. 

  • Understanding Scaffolding and the ZPD in Educational Research(paper) by Irina Verenikina. Educational scaffolding, broadly speaking, is the idea of using a student’s current level of understanding to take them to the next level of understanding, until they reach a level of expertise. This paper can gives a starting point for understanding this concept and thinking about how it might be applied to helping users understand products. 
  • The Truth about learning styles (video) by Linda Nilson goes over the fallacy of trying to find one perfect style of teaching a person, and why people need to be exposed to things in different ways to really learn. I also touch on learning modalities in regards to user onboarding in “Onboarding for Many” (article).
  • A Thousand Brains (book) by Jeff Hawkins gets into the neuroscientific mechanics of learning in a way that non-experts can understand. It suggests a theory that may help explain why “learning by doing” is essential to mental model development (as the author puts it, “ You cannot learn a model of a house without moving from room to room and you cannot learn a new app on your smartphone without interacting with it”).
  • The Fogg Behavioral Model (website/book) by behavioral scientist BJ Fogg offers a practical application of the mechanics of behavior change based on the relationship between a person’s motivation, ability, and an actionable prompt.
  • The ‘IKEA Effect’: When Labor Leads to Love (paper) by Michael Norton, Daniel Mocho, and Dan Ariely and The “I Designed It Myself” Effect in Mass Customization (paper) by Nikolaus Franke, Martin Schreier, and Ulrike Kaiserand outlines how, when people actively create something for themselves, they value it more highly than if something was pre-made for them. This doesn’t just tie into the idea of letting people customize their experience, but points to how the “right” kind of friction can actually help someone form a relationship with a product. 
  • Coglode (website) is a company that provides a handy cheat sheet for a number of psychological concepts and their effects on user interaction.
  • Behavioral Design 2020 and Beyond,” (article) a collection of thoughts from many in the field, can help you understand the broader behavior change space—including important ethical considerations.

Employee onboarding

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Many of our perceptions of, and subsequent approaches to, user onboarding design come from the world of workplace orientation. It’s important to be aware of these, and the limitations of taking this perspective on user onboarding.

  • Organizational Socialization: Its Content and Consequences” (paper) by Georgia Chao, Anne O’Leary-Kelly, Samantha Wolf, Howard Klein, and Philip Gardner was the origin point for many modern approaches to human resources onboarding
  • Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success” (paper) by Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D. talks about the importance of employee onboarding being an interactive process: “Simply writing down a formal plan will not help new employees succeed. The key is to engage important stakeholders and new employees in interactions that help them understand one another and how they interact over time.” There is also a reading list for human resources onboarding at the end of the paper.

Understandable and inclusive product design

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Your core product design needs to offer a compelling foundation for an onboarding experience to build off of. If the core product is confusing, or puts up walls that don’t welcome users in different situations, no onboarding experience can make up for it. 

  • Obvious always wins” (video) by Luke Wroblewski covers the design process of creating “obvious” design, and why making core parts of one’s UI more self-evident is better than hiding it behind menus.
  • Cross-Cultural Design (book) by Senongo Akpem provides a structured approach to designing products that support multiple cultures.
  • The GenderMag Project (website) offers different personas you can use to help you design for diverse audiences, and shows how different people take different approaches to learning new products. 
  • Mismatch (book) by Kat Holmes offers a broader lens into designing more inclusive products.
  • Microinteractions (book) by Dan Saffer is a comprehensive guide to structuring the small, single-task actions in a product, and a deeper dive into how to break down and design actions for better impact.
  • Designing Interfaces (book) by Jenifer Tidwell, Charles Brewer and Aynne Valencia cover the ways you can utilize UI patterns to have impact across the user journey.
  • The GOV.UK Design System (website) offers a holistic look of design patterns, even those you might use in user onboarding, and, instead of treating them as separate than other product patterns, puts them in the context of the goals they’re helping users meet. 
  • Strategic Writing for UX (book) by Torrey Podmajersky breaks down tips for UX writing based on different parts of the user journey, including the user onboarding phase. Content is so very important to product understandability! 
  • Fixing the Failures of the Authentication UX” (video) by Jared Spool is an important watch if your onboarding experience will involve user account registration. The wrong approach to signup and login can put frustrating walls between you and your new users. 
  • Ends (book) by Joe MacLeod offers a look at how offboarding—how someone leaves a product—serves as bookend to onboarding. You can also read this post we co-authored on the topic of onboarding and offboarding as user journey bookends.

User research

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  • Just Enough Research (book) by Erika Hall will provide an in-depth look at user research methods that you can use to understand new users and evaluate your product’s onboarding experience.
  • Build Better Products (book) by Laura Klein provides strategies for using both user research and analytics to product design.

Growth design

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A good onboarding experience will contribute to the growth and sustainability of the business. That’s where Growth Design comes in. Rather than a practice focused just on growth “hacking,” these resources show how it’s a comprehensive practice leading to lasting business outcomes. 

  • The Growth Designers community (website) is a great starting point. It’s a community dedicated to the practice of growth design and they have a bunch of resources on topics ranging from experimentation to example applications in product design.
  • Design-Driven Growth (book) by Molly Norris Walker provides a process for combining business impact strategies and ux design strategies to create product growth driven by a design mindset.

User onboarding-specific resources

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While the list above covers a number of the core topics you should be looking at first in onboarding design, the following short list offers you a select variety of perspectives and examples related to user onboarding.

  • Intercom on Onboarding (digital book) offers resources and takeaways conversational relationship company Intercom has collected over the years.
  • run by Samuel Hulick links off to a number of teardowns and his writings on the topic of good onboarding design.

Note that inclusion in this list is not an endorsement of the author/publishing company