A topic that is often neglected on a project is the user onboarding: How does a potential user know that there is a new product that can make their life easier? What is the easiest registration process for them? How do they come back a second time and how can we ensure that the users are not just using our products, but using them in an advantageous way, and enjoying it too?
About a month ago, I took part in the MOBX Conference in Berlin. The first talk was given by Samuel Hulick, a UX designer from Portland (Oregon, USA) who is the author of the book “The Elements of User Onboarding.” During the lunch break, I had the opportunity to speak to Samuel:
Samuel, you have dedicated your whole working life to the topic of user onboarding. How important is a proper user onboarding process?
I would say it is critically important. If you look at the statistics, where 50% of your users never come back a second time or things along those lines — you are working so hard to create this product that really has demand and you are working equally hard to let the market, or the audience, know that you have something for them and to not really be attendant to people making that switch, and picking up a new habit — absorbing your product into their life, is a real shame in a lot of ways.
Especially when you look at the amount of attention and resources that are dedicated to coming out with new features or new experiences or things like that. There might be a new feature that is relevant to some of the people who sign up for your product, but by definition, everybody experiences the onboarding. Everybody goes through that. And if you haven’t really nailed that then you are working with a really leaky bucket and you are wasting a lot of your efforts. It’s kind of like the Mario game (the video game analogy) where you don’t need the ending to be really good if the beginning is terrible because no one is ever going to get there. So make the beginning really really good and then it really alleviates the way going forward.
So, by having a great onboarding process, the whole user experience of the product increases?
Right! Say there is a new feature that you are coming out with that is going to be relevant to like 6 out of every 10 people who sign up for your product, but only half of the people who sign up ever come back a second time. Mathematically, you are down to 3 out of 10 people who are going to get to experience that feature. So it’s kind of a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ sort of a thing.
And also, it is such a make or break moment, where if you think of your product as a better way of doing something than the way people are currently doing it then what you are asking them to do, is pick up a new habit. It’s basically saying: there is this old, not as good, way of doing things that you are used to. Now we’re asking you to do something you are not used to and build up a habit around it. There is a lot that goes into it that isn’t just a tool tip tour or whatever it might be.
How great is the effort to integrate onboarding processes in a later phase of a project and not to think of it in first place?
Yeah, one thing that surprises a lot of people is, early on, I actually recommend not investing a lot in your user onboarding interface, or I don’t recommend formalizing it in a lot of ways, because you are not necessarily sure where people are running into trouble; what people should even be doing right from the beginning in what order; and things along those lines.
And my recommendation early on is, as much as possible, to just be the onboarding. To watch people go through the sign-up process, either through usability tests, or offer live chat, or look at customer support tickets. Just get a really strong sense of: where people are tripping up, where people are succeeding.
All the people who do wind up making it through and convert and become high-powered users — what was their journey like and how is it different from an average sign up for example? How can you kind of craft a recipe for a successful user and then, once you have that really strong signal, then formalize around it and that’s when you change your user interface and things like that, and actually put engineering time towards it.
The user onboarding process is not just the first use of an app. What else do you see as a part of it?
My definition is a little bit more ‘hippy dippy’ maybe: Your product exists to make people more capable of something and any time there is a gap between how capable they are, versus how capable they could be if they were using your product to its fullest extent — that is an onboarding opportunity.
A straightforward example would be: if people are using your product to its fullest and then you come out with a new feature — that is an onboarding opportunity to get them up and running with that new feature. Or if they maybe never discovered that to begin with, and it has been six months, then let people know “Hey, by the way, it looks like you haven’t been using our budgeting feature or whatever it might be.” There is an opportunity for you to be doing better and we want to help you to do better in that way.
So, I would say, anytime that people are not as successful as they possibly could be, because of using your product, the onboarding is essentially never done until they get there.
On your website you present a lot of teardowns of websites and mobile apps. Do have any experience with other devices like game consoles or TV?
Interestingly, once you start reviewing them, you see it everywhere. I was checking into a cabin the other day and the cabin had a little manual that says: this is the Wi-Fi password and this is where to find the firewood and things like that. And sometimes they are really helpful and it’s like “Oh, they know all the questions that you are going to have and they address them before it even occurs to you.”
And I remember another cabin where they had advertised a fireplace and I got there and there was no wood by the fireplace, but they said that there was wood in a shed, but they didn’t say which one. And they didn’t mention that the shed was locked and they didn’t tell you where the key was. And so there were all these things — there was not this straightforward ‘attentive to’ kind of thing. I would consider that to be an onboarding experience for a cabin.
From a digital experience, certainly working with video game consoles, and things like that, I experienced it to a different degree than I used to before I really started to pay attention to it. But I haven’t done any formal reviews of anything outside of browser and mobile.
What is your advice in the following situation: With an on-demand application, you allow your users to browse your complete content catalogue and, only when they want to watch something, they are asked to register or login. Would you always offer the same dialogue or would you prefer special solutions for specific cases?
Well, I can kind of answer that both ways. On the one hand, having a uniform message like that — there is a certain consistency through the experience — the users are not constantly being reintroduced to new things that they have to think about. I know when I login to HBO Go I get the same one — I just go through the same process and I don’t have to be very mindful of it, necessarily. So there is benefit there. Also, it is easier to maintain that way where you don’t have a bunch of different places to maintain it.
On the other hand, I can also answer it from a standpoint of, if you as a person would be responding differently to someone in one situation versus another, that is something that I really recommend paying attention to — just in general.
If there are significantly different moments that you are designing for, where having just one kind of cookie cutter point of conversation, or prompt, sometimes it would be the proper tone and sometimes it wouldn’t. Then, it is something to look into.
To conclude this interview, I would like to ask if you have any tips on how to convince the client to invest more into onboarding and to pay attention to it?
Sure! The two things that I have found to be most effective are: One, showing them the statistics like I had in the presentation. We know that for someone to be fully set up, they have to do these 5 things. And just showing the rate of attrition from one to another. And just saying, “We are starting with this many people and we end up with this many. And we can only hope to keep this many to begin with.” So that’s one way: just painting a picture with numbers.
And then the other that I have found to be really really effective is to just record video of people trying to go through the experience and just bumping into locked doors or error codes or all these different things. You don’t expect them to happen when you are designing it, but it pops up all the time. I have seen a lot of executives squirm watching these kind of videos and thinking “Oh, this really is a big problem. I knew it before but now I really feel it.”
Samuel, thank you very much for your time!