User onboarding can make or break a successful digital experience.
From initial experience to training, user onboarding encompasses every aspect of a new user’s relationship with your product.
When done thoughtfully, it can leave users feeling cared for and supported as they use your product for the first time. If ignored or tacked on hastily, users can become confused and frustrated, likely not to stick around or return in the future.
Fortunately, user onboarding is no longer in its infancy, and there exists a multitude of ways you can guide and inform first-time users of your products.
At its core, good onboarding:
- Helps users get to the product’s value early into the experience while also offering guidance.
- Plays an essential role for both users and organizations.
- Is measured and adjusted with hypotheses and assumptions tested against data and metrics, evolving over time.
- Uses the appropriate pattern for the desired path and initial user outcome.
- Leverages out-of-app cues sparingly and in a focused way.
The average app loses 73% of users within one day—and roughly 90% in the first week.
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So, what exactly is user onboarding?
User onboarding is often described as the practice of optimizing the earliest experiences of a product by orienting and educating new users. It’s about making the first-time experience something that helps a user see the value of your product while also teaching them how to use it.
There’s a well-known graph that many people who study onboarding are familiar with. If you’re a product manager or owner focused on retention, be warned—it isn’t pretty.
Essentially, users who download your app are likely not to use it beyond those first 24 hours. More specifically, the average app will lose 73% of potential users within 1 day, and roughly 90% within the first week.
Why is user onboarding so important?
Creating a positive onboarding experience is critical for users and stakeholders on both sides of the equation.
For users, onboarding can:
For organizations, onboarding can:
Making customer insights accessible to everyone
Insights are a fundamental part of understanding and learning. It provides the analytics and feedback necessary for growth. Customer insights are fundamental to understanding your customer better—and providing satisfactory services and products.
Suppose you work at a bank, and you want the entire bank to rally around serving the customer with a “design thinking” mentality. In this case, your entire workforce will need access to customer insights, including at least a basic understanding of their needs.
An insights-driven culture emerges as new habits that encourage decision-making based on data become standard practice. By creating a unified customer experience platform, employees can leverage real-time analytics and dashboards to derive insights and make informed decisions.
When employees make informed decisions about the customer experience based on insights derived directly from customers, the bank has arrived at customer centricity, improving stability to preserve improvements from a digital transformation for the long term.
Onboarding Benefits for Users
Good onboarding experiences should be contextually relevant to the task at hand: informative but brief, and ideally interactive. They should guide the user
to the A-Ha! moment as quickly as possible to deliver value up front.
Good onboarding reiterates the product’s focus and value by highlighting key features. It acts as a continuum from the App Store or marketing website to reinforce the brand’s products and services.
Those who use a new product successfully feel a sense of accomplishment. Thoughtful experiences that help guide users to success are viewed favorably.
Onboarding benefits for product teams
Onboarding benefits go far beyond the user experience. For the product teams, clarity and accessibility to key information means their benefits extend throughout the user’s process as well.
Onboarding can provide proactive, contextual support for early users to reduce the number of support requests.
Well-crafted onboarding experiences make users feel like the initial experience understood their goals and guided them through a successful journey. This gives users a sense the product and brand cares about its users and their experiences.
Satisfied users can also help market and sell your product with positive reviews, social media mentions, or direct referrals to colleagues and friends.
There are certainly an assortment of reasons that new users don’t stick around and they’re not all related to poor first-time experiences, but investing time and energy in making your product’s first run more intuitive will likely reduce the initial churn that occurs with early users.
Too Little, Too Late
User Onboarding expert Samuel Hulick explains the phenomenon in his foreword to Intercom on Onboarding:
Onboarding is the only part of a product that every single user will experience. In fact, onboarding can even pose a bit of a paradox in that way: the worse onboarding performs, the more often it will be the only part of a product that a given user sees.
Getting started with user onboarding
Based on our research and experience, we’ve identified four tenets of user onboarding strategy. In its simplest terms: How do you define a regular user? Is it possible to work backwards and provide a seamless path to help new users reach that end state?
- Delaying Signup (where applicable)
- Getting to A-Ha!
- Defining Your Path
- Measuring and Adjusting
Delaying Signup (where applicable)
Let’s face it. Signup screens often result in losing a portion of new users interested in simply testing out your product out without registering for an
account. One of the best ways to support and encourage this behavior is through Gradual Engagement.
Gradual Engagement is the practice of delaying the signup step until the user has interacted with one or more core features. It allows new users to explore and use a product before registering and giving up information. However, this is not a perfect fit for every instance.
Apps that rely on existing account data (E.g. cable and banking access) or require an immediate form of payment (E.g. food delivery like Doordash) must invoke registration and login early in the process for their apps to work.
We’ll get into some examples of Gradual Engagement shortly. And speaking of signup, it’s important to:
- Consider accessibility and assistive technologies.
- Support non-binary options for profile data such as gender or user role (buyer vs. seller).
- Offer localization support that accounts for linguistic and cultural differences.
- Make sure the marketing messages reflect the product accurately. Good onboarding will not overcome a bad product fit or inaccurate descriptions.
Getting to A-Ha!
A great way to think about user onboarding is through the lens of helping new users achieve their “A-Ha! moment” early into their first few experiences. The A- Ha! moment can be defined as the first time a new user discovers the value of your product—when it solves a problem or serves a need they have.
This intersects with onboarding strategy as once you define what that moment is for new users, you can start working toward providing it for them as early in the journey as possible.
If your product has multiple features, talk to users to understand what they see as the most important or primary feature. Consider whether it’s possible to even bring that moment to new users before they’re prompted to sign up.
Let’s consider a few ways your business can promote A-Ha! moments before prompting users to signup.
Let users create their first To-Do list and only register if they want to save it and come back as a repeat user.
Track or log your first exercise. Could new users try out the app anonymously to evaluate the product before registering? Like our To-
Do example above, maybe the act of saving the workout is what requires the user to sign up.
What if users could browse the network or search for friends before signing up? If they’re able to look around and feel validated, they’d likely be more willing to register.
What if users could find a destination or plan a trip and sign up later to save or complete their booking?
Before forcing gamers to sign up, users could browse a few demo games to get a sense of the gameplay and graphics. If convinced, they would feel good about signing up and their expectations would already be aligned with the post-registration experience.
Defining Your Path
Once you understand your users’ A-Ha! moment(s) and what makes them feel like your product is the right fit, it’s time to define and adjust your onboarding path. Paths will differ for each organization, but should focus on offering value as early in the experience as possible and consider whether signup is truly necessary for users to poke around and get started.
One simplified approach could be:
- List 3 – 5 common tasks that intermediate or advanced users regularly do.
- Break down which tasks would be most important to present first.
- Focus on ways to let users interact with the feature as early into their journey as possible.
- Offer direction, guidance, and positive feedback as users interact.
Measuring & Adjusting
As with all aspects of product management, onboarding should be tracked and measured using analytics. This should give your team a baseline to compare against as you start to implement and improve your onboarding approach.
Ideally, this is something that would continue to evolve with continued experimentation focused on the goal of retaining as many new users as possible. Decisions around your onboarding strategy and implementation should be documented and shared with everyone on the team.
Key metrics to track:
- App downloads
- Abandonments during first use
- Signups from first use
- Returning users
Common onboarding patterns
Instructional onboarding patterns aim to educate the user before they enter the experience with a series of carousel slides or card. There are four common
onboarding patterns: instructional patterns, wizards & checklists, interactive guidance, and outside of app.
Different patterns support different use cases and offer different experiences for users as they get started. Let’s talk through use-cases and when it would be suitable to use each.
Instructional onboarding patterns usually aim to educate the user before they enter the experience using a series of carousel slides or cards that include illustrations and text. Most commonly, these patterns pop up upon first login and let users to swipe or click through 3-5 slides, or exit the tour entirely.
These instructional tours tend to either explain the value of the app or show how any specific features work.
The issue with instructional patterns is that they don’t test well for retained comprehension—especially after the user exits the tour. They’re also commonly dismissed after the first slide by users eager to get into the product to try it for themselves.
Let’s look over a few more examples of instructional patterns below.
A slightly different spin on the instructional pattern with a series of videos from Titan.
An example of an instructional tour from the travel app Hopper.
An earlier iteration of Google Drive’s onboarding tour.
Instructional onboarding considerations
- Instructional screens tend to be the easiest onboarding pattern for teams to implement.
- Unfortunately, information retention scores very low, as users are required to read and remember information on multiple slides that are decoupled from the product.
- Instructional tutorials are also very commonly skipped over by users eager to get right into it.
- If used, implement sparingly. Keep titles and body text to an absolute minimum and don’t exceed three slides.
Wizards & Checklists
Wizards and checklists involve multiple screens, usually presented in a linear process. Checklists are fairly intuitive, and wizards are designed to capture
additional information beyond a basic signup and are a good fit for longer, more complicated processes that tend to be front-loaded.
When using wizards or checklists, be sure to label the steps in the process clearly and provide a visual indication of where the user is in the process.
It might also be helpful to give users an expectation of how long the process will take and, if supported, that the software will save their progress after each step and they can return later to finish it.
In addition, try to make each step in the flow feel cohesive and minimize form fields as much as possible to reduce friction.
Wizards and checklists are commonly used include when applying for a loan or mortgage, when applying for insurance, and when filing taxes. Essentially, in business and consumer cases where users are better served by a linear process that captures thematically similar information in a step-by-step manner.
While users tend to understand the logical structure of wizards and checklists, make sure any onboarding instructions answer the following questions:
- What step am I in within this process?
- How long will this take?
- Are there actions I can take now or am I blocked until all steps are completed?
Let’s tale a look at some examples of wizards and checklists in the wild.
These screenshots demonstrate a multi-stepped approach to collecting profile information, ending with a grid of tiles the user can tap on to indicate topics
they’re interested in. One benefit to collecting profile information like this, especially a user’s topics of interest, is that once the user completes the onboarding process, the app can immediately make recommendations suited to their interests.
One potential drawback is that a fraction of users are likely to exit the onboarding process after seeing that it will take five steps to complete.
Something to consider is making steps or the entire flow skippable if the profile data is more of a “nice-to-have” rather than mandatory flow.
Hometap’s onboarding also has a linear approach, but they offer more of a checklist than a wizard. While the user is clearly still in the onboarding process, they can navigate around and access a limited set of screens as opposed to being ‘locked’ onto a single page.
Language app Duolingo combines a wizard approach with gradual engagement. At first glance, it seems like a standard wizard approach for a mobile app. However, a closer look reveals a number of clever things that are happening, including:
- DuoLingo lets users identify the language they want to learn, why they want to learn it, and how long they expect to spend each day practicing.
- They then split users into two groups: those with no experience, and those with some familiarity of the language. Users within the latter group through a quick placement test and are then placed at the appropriate level.
- And last but not least, all of the above happened without registration. That’s right. If you notice the language and actions on the very last slide, it’s clear the entire flow was designed to let the user get a feel for the app and even try out a lesson before deciding if they want to register to save their test result and continue any future progress.
Box and Dropbox
The next examples from Dropbox and Box also leverage a checklist approach.
Both allow you to navigate freely through the experience but position a “Get started” checklist on the home screen that attempts to get new users to engage in different aspects of the product. Dropbox takes it one step further by offering a storage bonus if you complete a certain number of checklist steps. In this case, one could say they’re incentivizing onboarding.
One of the newest and more effective onboarding techniques currently being used is interactive guidance. Essentially, users are shown helpful tips positioned within or above UI elements directly in the product’s UI.
This pattern tends to feel more like a demo, where users go through the experience with contextual guidance rather than being told about the features beforehand as detailed in instructional patterns.
This type of pattern is also good at highlighting certain UI elements or features and helping users start to digest, perhaps unconsciously, the spatial relationships and affordances of the design. One thing to keep an eye out for is overusing these tips and trying to force users through a cumbersome tour. If your design features interactive guidance to call out multiple features in a sequence, add an option for users skip or close out of the tour so they don’t feel trapped or frustrated.
Let’s go over some examples of Interactive Guidance.
The Roku app features clear guidance pointing toward its interface elements.
There are two options in the tour so it’s not overly taxing and still allows users to skip if they’d prefer to dig into the app on their own.
When you create your first post in Evernote, they offer a three-step tour that calls out additional types of media you can add. They also show users how to save a new document or make changes to an existing one.
Tips like the second one featured here can be effective in cases where your design has nuances such as a non-labeled icon performing a primary action.
Slack’s interactive onboarding is very clever and effective at getting the user to interact with it right away. In the text outlined, they’ve prompted the user to type something to “Slackbot,” an artificial bot that helps users through various aspects of the tool.
The text says “Type something to get started.” When you post a message, it dialogues with the user as if they were were typing to an actual contact within your organization.
Elsewhere in the onboarding process, Slack explains the concept of channels and direct messages, giving users a sense of where conversations take place and how to think about the overall platform structure.
It could be argued that within these three key interactions, a user could become fairly proficient with the software—even during their first use.
These final interactive examples from Grammarly are also quite clever as they help the user learn by doing. When a new user visits their dashboard, they encounter a “Demo Document,” which they can click on and interact with to see the product in action. The demo is purposefully riddled with spelling and grammatical issues and lets you correct them to improve the content of their document.
As users continue to make corrections to the demo document, they will also see their Overall Score increase, reinforcing the value of the product itself. Through this interaction with the demo document and Grammarly’s suggestions, users can be confident in their skills and prowess, having learned basic knowledge of the overall workflow.
Interactive guidance considerations
- With the help of SaaS software like Appcues and Pendo, annotated tooltips have become very popular and easier to implement.
- Researchers have stated interactive guidance is generally more effective than instructional patterns. Not only do people learn by doing, but these patterns are anchored within visuals and context.
- If possible, designing an experience that the user can actually interact with the product while learning is even better.
Outside the App
Our final onboarding pattern is a series of actions that occur outside of the app. This includes welcome emails, text messages, and app notifications. These communications usually attempt to draw the user back into the product and can be leveraged to guide and support early use.
In many cases, they help lead users to perform a core action as opposed to just conveying general information. Let’s have a look at some examples.
Box’s welcome email does a few things well:
- It shows the interface visually with a call-to action to “Log In.”
- It features a secondary “Start Now” call-to-action below the introduction message.
- It provides direct links allowing users to download the Box app for iOS or Android.
Financial investment app, Titan’s welcome email is primarily focused on getting users to watch their video, featuring a greeting and introduction from one of their founders, Clay.
This video can be an effective way to communicate with new users in a one-to-many fashion. It also assures users that there are people behind the scenes, not just algorithms making decisions about where to invest your money.
One critique? This email is pretty wordy and the call-to- action to go into your account is toward the bottom of the email. However, it’s still easy enough to scan through the email and click through.
One critique? This email is pretty wordy and the call-to-action to go into your account is toward the bottom of the email. However, it’s still easy enough to scan through the email and click through.
Speaking of being wordy—let’s move onto Amazon Prime’s welcome email. Though they include a Get Started button at the bottom of the email, the message is a very long, dense bullet list highlighting all of Prime’s features.
While this is great information for new Prime users to have, perhaps it could be categorized more thematically—or sorted along the lines of “What would a new user want to do first?”
Next, let’s look at an from mobile notification services company CleverTap.
These examples to the right demonstrates how a movie rental company could use their software to serve notifications to new users. In this scenario, the company is thanking the new user for joining and immediately giving them value with a free first rental.
A customer loyalty app shows a similar interaction where, once a user registers, they’re directed to their wallet to see their rewards.
It’s not uncommon for systems like this to seed their user’s account with a certain number of rewards as a thank you for signing up.
The final example to the right shows Duolingo using push notifications to draw users back into their language practice.
While this seems like a friendly enough way to remind learners of their progress, these notifications left some users feeling overwhelmed. Users also felt that the messaging was a bit passive-aggressive.
A quick search for “Duolingo notifications” provides a wealth of humorous result titles as well as a microsite Duolingo built to address the issue.
Needless to say, companies should tread with caution regarding any notifications or messages that will go out repeatedly.
Outside of app considerations
- Welcome emails are an established and generally expected pattern.
- Emails with too much text or too many options run the risk of being ignored.
- A single, focused call to action is ideal.
- SMS and push notifications should be focused on drawing the user back in to take a specific action.
- Overusing notifications or having them sent at the same cadence will likely cause them to be ignored altogether.