There are few things harder to overcome than a bad first impression. Rarely do you get a second chance at it, and even if you do, the initial bad taste indubitably lingers for at least a while. This is true for a job interview, a new neighbor, or a blind date— and it’s also true for your product.
You can think of onboarding as a user’s first impression of your product. For better or worse, the onboarding experience shapes the relationship that a user will have moving forward. It’s your job to ensure that they immediately discover the value you promised to convert them. (No pressure.)
Renowned UX Research firm Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) defines onboarding as “the process of getting users familiar with a new interface, using dedicated flows and UI elements that are not part of the regular app interface.” It’s a set of cues designed to educate users but not designed to remain as a permanent part of the experience.
There are three core guides we follow to design a superior onboarding experience:
There’s a reason that curb appeal can raise the value of your home dramatically—a lush, landscaped walkway and colorful front door captures attention and says “come on in!” The best onboarding experiences have the same effect. The goal should be to make entrance as frictionless as possible. View every interaction cost as a technology tax that users will hold against your product.
If you thought that driving to download was your biggest challenge, think again. One study of users across 37,000 apps found that “one in five users will never launch an app again after one session.” Which means that all of those marketing efforts to attract and convert a user were wasted because the initial experience failed to live up to expectations. Interaction cost might sound heavy, but the list of things that qualify as “cost” to users look a whole lot like just “using the internet.” NNG lists things like reading, scrolling, waiting for loading, typing, and looking around for information as all detrimental to your user’s experience.
Excellent experiences allow for easy entry. Some of the best products we’ve seen really blur the line and have almost no distinction between onboarding and the regular user experience.
No matter how much you reduce entrance friction, there’s never going to be zero interaction cost and there’s almost always going to be important information that you need to gather from a user to make their experience worthwhile. NNG points out that onboarding also includes “completing any necessary setup.” Part of getting users hooked into using your product right away involves allowing them to customize their experience a bit.
But It’s critical not to overwhelm users at onboarding. NNG’s research found that revealing the full functionality in a “start up tutorial” style before allowing a user to enter or explore can overwhelm users, color their perception of the interface as more difficult to use than it actually is, and strain their limited memory capacity. The resulting risk is drop off.
RocketAir CEO, Taylor Rosenbauer, explains this risk:
The more questions you ask during onboarding, the higher the risk of drop-off. More questions = more friction. So every question must be valuable. That’s why some apps leave onboarding to later in the experience. Think about e-commerce: You almost never need to create an account to start shopping on a site—they save that hurdle for checkout, once you’re already invested.
The antidote to this risk is to slowly reveal deeper value at key moments of the user journey. Through user research, you’re able to determine when and why users decide to take certain actions. When users need different pieces of information or when they’re most likely to use a feature and for what purposes.
One of the reasons that upfront onboarding fails is because it lacks purposeful context. When a user is onboarding, they’re not thinking about needing to sort alphabetically or where to switch from the paintbrush to the pencil. They’re in the wrong headspace to fully process and internalize the information because the need hasn’t arisen for them yet. Instead of displaying every available tool at once, imagine that the user’s paintbrush is the default and, once they’ve made a few brush strokes, the product nudges them towards the pencil.
This type of guidance is much more effective and intuitive—plus you’ve already got them using the product. Rosenbauer calls this type of nudging “contextual education” and explains the value this way:
Contextual education removes the need to teach while onboarding, which is not as effective because people often either forget what they’ve learned once they’re in the product or click through it in a hurry to enter the experience.
Contextual education is an ongoing process, it’s used to guide users throughout their relationship with your product.
Onboarding isn’t a hill we climb just once—there are many subsequent product experiences that should be given onboarding treatment. In NNG’s above definition of onboarding, there is no mention of the first product encounter, it’s simply “the process of getting users familiar with a new interface.” So, whether the interface is new because the user is just coming to the product for the first time, or because the feature is new to a set of existing users, the process must be repeated.
Successful onboarding for new feature sets ensures that users adapt their behavior as the usefulness and functionality of a product grows. Imagine if Instagram had released the ability to post multiple photos but hadn’t provided any in-app education for users. We’d still have timelines flooded with 40 consecutive posts of one friend’s beach vacation. The changes have been so gradual and our ability to adapt to them is so seamless that it’s nearly impossible to remember how the experience used to be or to pinpoint the ways that it has changed. Just try to imagine going back to the original Instagram experience. (Well, maybe we could go back a couple versions until we hit the chronological timeline…)
The holy grail of product loyalty creates an infinite feedback loop between users and designers. Rosenbauer explains:
The best products will learn about their users and make shifts along the way.
That learning loop starts the moment a user enters your experience. You have one shot to win the privilege of impressing, delighting, and helping them for years to come. Providing users with intuitive, non-obtrusive cues to demonstrate the core functionality of a product, revealing deeper value at key moments of their journey, and guiding them toward new features is a surefire way to carry a loyal user base over time.