Plotters, pantsers, and user onboarding

Illustration of one person making a single list of steps, and another making a wild, messy drawing of multiple paths

The final seasons of fantasy TV series Game of Thrones were considered a complete flop, with character arcs reaching conclusions that seemed rushed and contrary to the paths they were on in prior seasons. Of the many discussions about why the end of the series felt so wrong, one critique from Twitter user @DSilvermint caught my eye. He attributed the cause to two different writer archetypes: “plotters” (those who start with a detailed outline and clear ending before writing a story, but which allows for less organic character development), and “pantsers” (those who “fly by the seat of their pants” by developing the characters and story as they write, seeing where it takes them, but because of that it can feel like the story doesn’t have a planned endpoint). According to @DSilvermint’s critique, the original book author George RR Martin was a pantser who hadn’t yet figured out where the story would take his characters, while the show producers were plotters focused on reaching a set finale. The conflict between these two approaches could have been one of the reasons the pace to a plotted ending of the show felt so jarring compared to earlier seasons that pulled directly from George RR Martin’s work.

That got me thinking about onboarding design. User onboarding is a process of guiding a new user on their journey from a product’s entry point to an endpoint of success, and can present challenges similar to that of writers trying to shephard characters through a plot. And if we look at difference designs, we can see evidence that some take a plotter’s approach, and others take a pantser’s one.

The plotter’s approach

I’ve mostly experienced teams who take a plotter’s approach to onboarding design. They treat it like a narrative. An end goal is defined, like retention, satisfaction, or some variation of a north star metric, and then the designers lay out a sequence of steps they want new users to follow to reach that goal. The upside of plotted onboarding is that it’s goal-oriented. But experiences aren’t stories to be told, and this rigidity can cause problems.

The results of an overly-plotted onboarding experience are obvious when encountered: step-by-step tutorials, time-consuming setup wizards, or a series of hints and notifications that push you to take a series of actions. Teams who take the plotting approach are frustrated when new users come in and don’t follow the path prescribed for them. Because people have so many different situations when they come to a new product or feature, and because they likely aren’t motivated by your long-term goal, they behave in a way that appears chaotic and short-sighted, but it’s just because the “plot” of the onboarding design didn’t account for the standard variety of human behavior.

This can result in two knee-jerk responses from the plotter team. They might double-down on the plotting, perhaps making a more rigid setup flow or getting heavy-handed with hints and pop-ups. Or, put off by the difficulty of aligning end-users to a long-term goal, they pull back to plotting users towards short-term goals they can more easily control, like signups.

A rigid plotter’s design can also suffer as a product ages, because it can rarely scale well if the product grows or changes focus.

The pantser’s approach

To a lesser extent, I’ve seen teams who take a pantser’s approach to onboarding design. In this approach, the team focuses on guiding users through individual actions and concepts as they’re encountered, shuffling them on to next-step actions when complete. The pantser team doesn’t have an opinionated stance about where a user should end up and instead embraces user-defined paths. The team that takes a pantser approach might not even think they’re designing onboarding, but instead that they’re designing general user education.

The pantser approach has benefits that offset the issues of the plotter’s approach. Such experiences can feel less forced, leading to a more welcoming first impression than a prescribed usage template. They’re also well-suited for product scalability because guidance is modularized instead of being a separate flow to be maintained.

But a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach can also have problems. Without a sense of direction, there’s no criteria for when guidance should and shouldn’t be applied. This can create guidance that is applied in an ad-hoc way, with inconsistencies from moment to moment, and potential collisions when multiple pieces of education happen at the same time. New users might feel lost if they aren’t greeted by an agent that helps them move forward. And, while letting people define their own paths is great, the product may lose users if they’re not being guided toward a long-term end goal.

Somewhere in between

Like most things in life and design, neither approach is wrong or right. “Plotter” and “pantser” describe two ends of a spectrum, and the best approach to user onboarding falls somewhere in between.

Two people shaking hands in front of a drawing of multiple paths leading to the same destination

A product might start out with a panster approach, and skew more towards a plotter’s method as it becomes established and you have data pointing to clearer paths users should take. Or you might have some designers who prefer to design like pantsers and others like plotters, and then you just need a process for bringing these two together in the design process. It’s all about balance.

I’ve blended a variety of plotting and pantser strategies into my book Better Onboarding, as well as my workshop “Better Onboarding Journeys.” Both include a mix of plotter and pantser-style exercises. One exercise helps people work backwards from onboarding end states to map different paths to success for new users, which gives the team a plotter-like view of the onboarding journey. And another exercise encourages the team to break down individual onboarding actions on that journey and figuring out where the user should go next based on that one action, which is more reflective of a pantser approach.

Ultimately, teams shouldn’t treat user onboarding like a map, nor should they untether it completely from an end goal. Good onboarding behaves like a compass, a guide that takes users in different situations to a good destination for success.