What other product folks said about user onboarding

Over the last few months, I asked different people who work on products in services, in a variety of industries, to share their perspectives on user onboarding. While I’ve heard from many people over the years, I wanted to ask a few pointed questions. Via questionnaires and interviews, 48 people* shared with me the challenges they faced in trying to create a good user onboarding experience, the goals they felt user onboarding needed to achieve, and how they defined the scope of it. My goal was to understand the range of perspectives different people have about user onboarding, and find common themes. In the spirit of sharing, this post is a lightweight recap of what stuck out most from these conversations (and I’d love to hear if your perspective is similar or different!).

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Bookending with good beginnings & ends

This piece was written together with Joe Macleod and also published as part of UXLX 2020.

When we design products and services, we focus a lot on the core user experience, or what we envision seasoned users to be doing day to day. But a good product or service will be bookended by a strong beginning, and a strong end.

So, what makes a good beginning and end, and how should we be thinking about the design of them? Krystal Higgins, interaction designer for user onboarding, and Joe Macleod, the founder of the world’s first customer ends-focused business, have been thinking about these two sides of the customer journey for a while. When they realized that they were both giving workshops at the same conference, they decided to write a joint primer on the basics of good product beginnings and ends.

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User education as Pokemon evos

When people think of user education in products, they’re often thinking of certain set of UI patterns. In some cases, these patterns can be helpful. But, in most other cases, the patterns are overused and applied inappropriately to many situations. They quickly become anti-patterns.

I’ve illustrated that slippery slope by drawing these “patterns” as if they were Pokemon evolutions. You know, when a seemingly harmless pattern can turn into a formidable beast.

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Categorizing onboarding patterns

Onboarding is a process that involves multiple events over the user journey to guide someone from their immediate goals to longer-term success. We can’t rely on just one method for providing guidance during this time. Instead, using diverse methods allow us to support users in different situations, with different expectations, in our products and services. So, what different methods we can pull from? Several years ago, I suggested that there are 5 categories we can consider for onboarding, but have since renamed, reorganized, and added a category, informed by newer conversations with designers and newer approaches in the industry. The following are some updated descriptions of those categories.

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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 season of the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which aired recently, was panned for its tonal shift from prior seasons. The audience blamed the show writers for pacing and action that seemed contrary to the character arcs developed in George RR Martin’s books. There were many arguments and discussions about what the true cause was, but one particular critique from a Twitter user caught my eye. The author describes how differences between “plotters” and “pantsers,” two writer archetypes, could have been at the heart of the issue. And I realized it reflects how differences in our approaches to designing user onboarding can affect the user experience.

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Onboarding people to AI experiences

With artificial intelligence and its many variants becoming core parts of our products, we need to think about how to onboard users to automated experiences. The principles that underpin good user onboarding for AI aren’t that different from the principles that underpin good user onboarding for anything else. But, because of the unpredictable nature of AI, we must embrace interactive, multi-part guidance more than ever before, instead of the information-heavy approaches that still dominate onboarding for traditional products today.

Sketch of a person being carried by a conveyor belt as they flick on switches.

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Onboarding and the active user paradox

Illustration showing a user happily running far ahead of a tutorial, which is chasing them

“New users aren’t discovering our features. Can we make them watch a video or do a tutorial before they get started?”

This is a question I’ve heard many variations of throughout my career. Chances are, if you work in product design, you’ve heard it too.

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Key action storyboarding

A photograph of a filled-out key action storyboard

User onboarding is a journey made up of multiple activities, not a single, linear flow. Onboarding should align guidance independently around each of the “key actions” of its experience so that newcomers can interact with them at the pace and in the order that makes sense for their different situations.

In an earlier post, I covered how to identify key actions. In that same post, I covered how to break key actions down into 3 parts: the trigger(s), the part that initiates action, the activity, the decisions and subtasks that make up the action, and its follow-up, the part that closes out the action and suggests or leads people to meaningful next steps.

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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
One-size-fits-all onboarding experiences rarely carry all of our new users.

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Building onboarding for long-term guidance

In a previous post, we looked at multiple opportunities over time for user onboarding techniques to be useful in our products. If we design for those opportunities ad hoc, we risk unscalable designs and frustrating users with fragmented education. Instead, let’s see how to tackle onboarding design so that it fits into a long-term approach to guidance.

Illustration of infinity symbol

When designed as part of a long-term approach to guidance, the seam between everyday user education and onboarding can be invisible.

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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

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“Free sample” idea boards

Attendees of my “New Users Matter, Too” talks have graciously brainstormed ideas for free samples–experiences that allow new users to interact with a portion of a product’s value proposition before committing to an account. These methods can increase valuable signups and reduce the walls that prevent conversion. Use these ideas to kickstart your team’s exploration of a free sample that’s right for your product.

Free Samples Feature Image

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Evaluating onboarding experiences

If you’re designing your product’s first onboarding flow or improving an existing one, you’ll need to evaluate its performance. A good assessment process helps you find opportunities for improvement and justifies the resources you need to make the new user’s experience awesome.

Often, teams measure onboarding myopically, like a feature in isolation. Apps measure clickthrough rate in an introductory slideshow. Sites measure how many people sign up. Devices measure how quickly someone gets through a setup wizard. These kinds of measurements are immediate, cheap, and easily automated. But, while they’re easy, they don’t show whether an onboarding design is contributing to or detracting from a new user’s overall success.

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Engaging new users: Personal focus

This is the last post in the 3-part “Engaging new users” series. Part 1 covered guided interaction, the practice of educating users in a realistic context, and how it is more compelling than slideshows, videos or static instruction.  In part 2, we learned how to use free samples to demonstrate a product’s value proposition and build the trust needed to encourage sign-up.

And in today’s post, part 3, we’ll examine how giving new users a personal focus is the key to making these onboarding techniques stick.

Primary image

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Engaging new users: Free samples

In the first part of this series, I shared how guided interaction introduces users to the authentic context of your product with just the right amount of education to ensure they find success.  Today, we investigate how the 2nd of the 3 pillars of better onboarding, the use of free samples, gets those new customers using your product in the first place.  

There are 3 overarching best practices when it comes to engaging and educating new users:

  1. Guided interaction
  2. Free samples
  3. Personal focus

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Engaging new users: Guided interaction

In the past I’ve covered patterns and anti-patterns for onboarding new users and principles for first time user experiences.  In this post and the two that will follow, I’ll be digging into each of the 3 ways we can better engage new users:

  1. Guided interaction
  2. Free samples
  3. Personal focus

Today’s post is focused on guided interaction. So let’s jump into what it means, discover patterns for making guided interaction a reality and see a few examples.

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4 user states to consider in your onboarding design process

If you’ve been following my first time UX work, you know I advocate the creation of onboarding experiences that provide guided interaction, free samples and a personal focus. The value of this educational effort doesn’t stop at new customers. When we build onboarding experiences with other user states in mind, we can create a versatile platform for continued education and engagement.  This makes it easier to convince your team to invest in onboarding, and beyond.

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New users matter too!

I recently gave a talk about designing better first time user experiences for mobile apps, with examples gleaned from my collection of first time user experiences.

Slideshare via Krystal Higgins

In this presentation and in my other work, I stress how we need to move from a mode of telling new users about our value proposition, to a mode of letting users experience it for themselves. We want to show interact, not tell.

Here are 3 ways we can engage new users and get them interacting early:

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What’s your coaching cadence?

In a recent presentation, I discussed the role that guided interaction and coaching can play in onboarding new users to a product. Playthroughs and user-guided tutorials are some examples of guided interaction. Guided interaction allows users to start playing with a new product quickly in an authentic context (instead of wading through abstracted coachmarks, instructions or intro tours), but also gives them enough coaching so that they’ll be motivated by an early success.

To help teams explore the right cadence of guided interaction for their product’s new user experience, I created a template to help with judging that interaction between a product and a new user. I’ve been calling it the coaching cadence worksheet. This can be used to audit an existing experience, or to explore variations for a revision or completely new first time ux. The worksheet follows.

Patterns for new user experiences

I’ve been keeping an ongoing collection of first time user experiences (FTUEs) at http://firsttimeux.tumblr.com/. In this post, I’ve distilled the most common approaches I’ve observed being used today into a list of 8 design patterns and anti-patterns. Each pattern has a description, pros/cons list, design considerations, and an example. You may recognize a few of these because many are modern takes on well-established UX patterns.  My hope is for this to serve as a helpful reference as you develop your own first time user experiences.

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