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3 user onboarding pitfalls every designer should avoid

4 min read
Krystal Higgins  •  Aug 26, 2019
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Have you ever wondered why an onboarding experience seems to be working well in another product, but a similar approach isn’t working in yours?

This can happen when we reuse interface patterns without understanding if they address or undermine core educational concepts. While UI components often change, the concepts underpinning good and bad choices rarely do. Not understanding these concepts can mean an onboarding experience that falls flat.

Let’s get into: 

  • Common user onboarding pitfalls
  • The paradox of the active user
  • Dual-task interference
  • Front-loading
  • How to avoid them with good design choices

1. The paradox of the active user

“The paradox of the active user” was first introduced in a study by Mary Beth Rosson and John Carroll, researchers at IBM, in the 1980s. While observing new users of desktop publishing software, an unexpected behavior emerged: these users were rarely reading the user guides for it. Instead, these “active users” would dive right into using the software to try it out—even if that meant running into avoidable errors and getting stuck at dead-ends.

(Lay out your onboarding flows in InVision Freehand for easier collaboration.)

Though the researchers knew that new users would get more value from the software if they took the time to read the user guide, they couldn’t design for this “ideal state”—it just wasn’t how most people behaved. New users wanted to get started and do something meaningful, not waste time reading a manual. This is the paradox of the active user.

Knowing that many users want to actively learn a product while they use it means that we can’t rely on passive content like introductory slides or tutorial videos. Instead, we need to embrace guiding users as they interact with our products, giving them what they need through practice.

Because of the active user paradox, we have to move beyond introductory tours. Illustrated by the author

How to avoid the paradox of the active user

To address the paradox of the active user, we must incorporate guidance into the context of the user’s journey. This allows new users to learn at their own pace based on their use of the product, without burdening them with irrelevant information. 

Leverage your defaults

Having great defaults is a simple but powerful way to onboard new users. For example, Duolingo, a language-learning product, uses the default state of its site to help users get started. The user sees that they can take a language placement test, or take their first language lesson, right away.

Screenshot: © 2019 Duolingo. All rights reserved.

By participating in a hands-on language test, new users can quickly experience the basics of how Duolingo works, while also making progress towards their learning goals. This is much more active than making those users, who are eager to learn a new language, to read about how it works in text or a video. 

Put education in the context of use

Another way to provide an interactive onboarding experience is to have education appear while users do a task in your product. IFTTT, an app that allows people to use “applets” to connect different devices, allows new users to find an applet they’re interested in before explaining how it works. 

In the example below, the user has found an applet in the IFTTT app that allows them to get a notification from eBay when an item matches a saved search. If the user turns it on, IFTTT uses that moment to walk through how an applet works. 

Screenshot: © 2019 IFTTT. All rights reserved.

Avoid the paradox of the active user by onboarding users as they use your product. A more interactive, built-in approach means you won’t have to invest extra time and effort in standalone tutorials and videos. 

2. Dual-task interference

“Dual-task interference” is a phenomenon in which people ignore alerts, announcements, and other messaging that pop up or get in the way of a person’s current task. The “dual” part of dual-task interference speaks to the idea of someone needing to deal with two things at once. 

For example, in one study called “More Harm Than Good? How Messages That Interrupt Can Make Us Vulnerable,” Brigham Young University researchers partnered with engineers on the Google Chrome team to see how people interacted with security dialogs. They found that 74% of people in the study ignored security messages that popped up while they were on the way to close a web page window, while an even larger percentage ignored the messages if they were watching a video or transferring information. As such, the security dialogs that appeared during these tasks were likely to be ignored.

On the other hand, these researchers found that displaying security messages during natural pauses, such as while the user was waiting for a video to process, reduced how many participants disregarded the messages by as much as 50%.

When we design onboarding, our instinct is to make introductory information as visible as possible. Unfortunately, we tend to default to solutions that are interruptive and ignored: new users quickly swipe through introductory slideshows that launch when they open a new app; new website visitors close welcome videos that play automatically; and existing users quickly dismiss new feature dialogs that interrupt their usual routine.

Though interruptions seem like the perfect way to ensure new users see important information, the concept of dual task interference proves that these pop-ups are often ignored. 

How to avoid dual-task interference

In the “More Harm Than Good?” study, researchers showed that important messages were most likely to be heeded during natural pauses. This is where we should start when considering our messaging. To avoid triggering dual task interference, we have to be mindful of when, and where, we provide onboarding guidance. 

Put educational messages after the user completes an action

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia, for example, waits until after users have made a payment to prompt them to set up Siri shortcuts.

Screenshot © 2019 Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Opt for in-line messaging instead of overlays

The method you use to display information can also contribute to its perceived interruptiveness. Overlays are common in user onboarding, yet are naturally interruptive because they appear on top of an interface. Instead of using an overlay to introduce new features or information, guidance could instead be presented inline with the normal state of the product.

The following is an example of inline guidance from Instagram, when it introduces new Stories features. The app doesn’t interrupt the user with an announcement dialog, but adds a “New” story inline along with other stories. When watched, it walks the user through those new features.

Screenshot © 2019 Instagram, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avoid dual-task interference by presenting messages at natural stopping points and not relying too heavily on overlays. This will ensure your new users see important messages without ignoring them.

3. Front-loading

Front-loading is when all of the instructions and steps for learning a new concept are presented at the start of a learning experience. Front-loading occurs in many industries: in business, a company might front-load all possible agreement terms into a contract to avoid disputes down the road, and election primaries may be front-loaded at the start of an election cycle to expedite candidate selection. While front-loading can be beneficial in business and elections, it doesn’t help people learn new things, like products. 

Consider how someone learns to ride a bike: they do not jump on a standard bicycle and start riding in busy traffic. Instead, they start with training wheels and in safe areas until they can graduate to more challenging rides.

Many designers assume providing all onboarding at one time is enough to ensure new users will master their product. Unfortunately, this can leave users overwhelmed, and with no support later on.

How to avoid front-loading

To avoid front-loading, we should break down the tasks we want new users to master and apply education for those tasks gradually, at intervals. In the classroom, instructional scaffolding describes how teachers can help students master concepts by providing support in stages. And, in a post called “Sign Up Forms Must Die,” Luke Wroblewski talks about using a similar “gradual engagement” approach to effectively break signup flows into chunks that assist users in understanding the value of filling them in. 

In both cases, the advice is the same: to onboard new users effectively, we need to provide guidance gradually, not all at once. 

Break critical setup activities into 3 parts

Identify the critical setup actions you need new users to master. Then, break each of those actions down into three parts: the trigger, the activity, and the follow-up. Applying education to each of those parts creates an onboarding flow that is gradual and supportive. 

The following example of a “Create Account” flow from Slack shows how they’ve broken guidance into trigger, activity, and follow-up states in a simple but effective manner. 

Screenshot © 2019 Slack, Inc. All rights reserved.

First, we see the guidance that triggers the new user account creation flow. It comes in the form of an invitation email from a colleague to join a workspace. Guidance here concisely states the value of joining, and sets expectations that a signup flow will be next. 

When the user taps “Join now”, they are redirected to a signup form on the Slack website, which represents the activity state of the create-an-account action. Guidance in this state reaffirms the name of the workspace they’re joining and guides the user through the task, primarily leveraging hint text below each of the form fields. 

Screenshot © 2019 Slack, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tapping “Create account” completes the action and moves the user into the follow-up state. A confirmation message offers a brief moment of reflection, while the user is prompted to take a next step by inviting more colleagues. 

Screenshot © 2019 Slack, Inc. All rights reserved.

Introduce new features by breaking them down

Applying guidance in steps isn’t just effective for setup and signup flows. It can also help onboard users to features. 

For example, Twitter uses trigger, activity, and follow-up guidance to introduce an in-app camera feature. Trigger guidance appears in the form of a tooltip that points out the new functionality during the compose tweet flow. Activity guidance walks them through the subtasks of enabling system permissions and taking a photo. And the follow-up guidance redirects the user to their Twitter stream after posting, allowing them to see their recent post and continue exploring the app. 

Screenshot © 2019 Twitter, Inc. All rights reserved.

For a deeper dive into this strategy, and others, visit https://www.kryshiggins.com/long-term-guidance/

Understanding common pitfalls in onboarding design, like the active user paradox, dual-task interference, and front-loading, helps us make better choices to avoid them. Addressing even one of these three pitfalls can lead to an onboarding experience that is more effective for your users, and for your product.

Feature photo by Micaela Parente.