From “user education” to “product education”

There’s a term used in the product development world that has started to make me cringe, even though I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve used it before. This term is unavoidable if you work on any experience that even remotely touches user onboarding. But it’s one I hope we can stop using. The offending term? “User education.” 

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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.

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When “explicit” onboarding isn’t the right choice

I recently downloaded a calculator app. This app greeted me with a series of first-run tooltips explaining various parts of the app. It was an example of an “explicit” first-run experience—when guidance is provided on temporary layers or in one-off flows—that was unnecessary. Let’s quickly run through some of the issues with applying an explicit educational approach to this calculator app, in the hope it can help you decide if implementing an “explicit” onboarding experience for your new users is the right way to go.

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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.

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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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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

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.

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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, 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.

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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


Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant, failed partly because it catered to first time users. It didn’t scale gracefully as those users became acclimated to the product. As James Fallows describes “…Clippy suffered the dreaded ‘optimization for first time use’ problem. That is, the very first time you were composing a letter with Word, you might possibly be grateful for advice about how to use various letter-formatting features. The next billion times you typed ‘Dear …’ and saw Clippy pop up, you wanted to scream.”

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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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