How to approach user onboarding—a conversation with Samuel Hulick

4 min read
Romy Misra
  •  Jul 7, 2017
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When a product’s user onboarding is a mess, there’s a slim chance anyone will ever come back after they sign up. It’s got to be good.

Wanting to learn more about user onboarding, I reached out to Samuel Hulick, one of the best UX designers around. If you haven’t seen his onboarding reviews, check them out here.

How did you get interested in user onboarding?

Samuel Hulick: I started my career as an engineer, and then I got into UX design after I found myself consistently advocating on the users’ behalf. When I was contracting as a UX designer, I noticed there was one part of the process that was getting overlooked repeatedly—the onboarding. That’s how I got really interested in it.

Related: 5 key lessons for successful user onboarding

Many organizations approach onboarding as more of an afterthought. How do you suggest people think about onboarding?

For me there are few things that are as motivating as identifying a big gap between how effective something is and how effective it could be. We put so much effort into creating a product, and then we have so many people sign up for it and bounce out. Roughly 50% of users never come back after signing up.Twitter Logo So for that half, the question is: what could have been different?

As for how to approach that from a product design standpoint for every user who signs up for the product, if they don’t get to a point where they don’t get to experience the value of the product, the product might as well not exist for them. If you can’t get someone through the first 5 minutes of your product, then all the advanced features you’re working on and all the power user features are invisible to them.

“Onboarding is about guiding users to make meaningful accomplishments.”

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My suggestion is to focus on figuring out the absolute minimum that needs to happen for someone to get any value from your product—then put that front and center. I’d much rather have 75% of the users who sign up for the product and experience some value sign back in to experience the full value of the product, rather than a small percentage of people make it all the way, but the majority of them never experience the core value of the product. Onboarding is one of the highest leverage opportunitiesTwitter Logo—and one of the best ways to increase lifetime value.

Onboarding is typically thought of as tooltips or intro screens. What do you define as onboarding for a product?

Onboarding is looking at the core value you provide and determining how you can help your users guide themselves to that value. It’s not telling them about certain features—it’sm guiding them to make meaningful accomplishments.

The other myth about onboarding is that it’s the first few seconds or minutes when someone interacts with the product. For some users, it may actually take weeks or months to make those meaningful accomplishments—it’s a long-term game.

Slapping together a tooltip tour or intro screens isn’t onboarding.Twitter Logo Giving them a couple of quick pointers when they’re trying to make heads or tails of the product isn’t the best strategy for onboarding. There’s very little evidence that intro tours work.Twitter Logo Intro tours actually make the company feel like they’ve solved the problem rather than actually solving it.

It’s tempting to add in tooltip tours when you’re working on the product, but when you think of times you’ve experienced them firsthand as a user, they’ve rarely been beneficial. I can’t think of a single time when it was personally super helpful.

The 3 main concerns I have with tooltip tours during onboarding:

  1. They’re distracting. They interrupt you when you’re trying to explore the product—they aren’t immersive and superficial from the rest of the product.
  2. They’re controlling. They take the control out of your hands, making you a button-clicker rather than someone who has agency within the product.
  3. They’re temporary. You log in and click, click, click, and they’re gone forever. So if there was super important information in there, hopefully you’ve retained it—otherwise it’s gone.

I wrote a detailed article about this here for anyone who wants to read more.

How do you think through onboarding for feature-rich applications like Salesforce?

I like to think about it as what I call situation-driven design. Someone is in a situation they don’t want to be in, and they’re hoping your product will get them in a situation they’d rather be in.

The purpose of a product is to help you transition from one situation to the other. For example, let’s say I want to manage projects better and more effectively and I think Basecamp will help me be in that situation. It starts with credibly being able to promise that you can transition them from one situation to another.

“Onboarding has to help users make the meaningful accomplishments they were hoping for.”

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But the onboarding isn’t the promise it’s following through on that promise of a better situation. The onboarding is not over till you have gotten them to experience some degree of the success that you promised that led them to find your product to begin with.

Onboarding isn’t clicking around and looking at features.Twitter Logo Onboarding has to help users make the meaningful accomplishments they were hoping for, and I like to align my design my efforts around that. When you get people to click around and “activate features,” it’s not so much about getting from point A to point B in your app—it’s about getting from point A to point B in their lives.

What are some good UX principles to keep in mind when designing user onboarding for your product?

I like to keep these 3 principles in mind:

  1. Onboarding should be integrated into and embedded within a product—it shouldn’t be distracting. An example design pattern: blank or empty states. If you log into a project management software, there’s a create a project button that shows where your projects go. It’s integrated into the product—it’s not an extra part of it.
  2. Onboarding should be self-guiding, not controlling.Twitter Logo For example, a tooltip that says “create a project” is just causing confusion on an interface level rather than helping to take action. People are willing to act only when they get value out of the product. Design your onboarding around why someone is using your product to begin with. Slack is a great example of this—when you’re signing up, they use Slackbot to ask for info up front, so you can experience part of the product.
  3. Onboarding should be steadfast and persistent.Twitter Logo The last thing you want to do is throw a ton of information at someone and then disappear. If you take someone on this brief feature tour and then hope they remember it when it becomes relevant to them in a couple of weeks, that’s a bad bet. Instead, fold them into empty states, progression systems, or lifecycle emails. If you reframe the onboarding question—how do we guide people most reliably to be most successful when they’re trying to adopt the product into their lives—then you can look at it from the perspective of a long game, and a timeframe of weeks or months.

“Onboarding should be integrated into and embedded within a product—it shouldn’t be distracting.”

Progression systems can take a couple of different forms. Some products provide a to-do list made up of achievable pieces, and show your progress as you finish them. For instance, LinkedIn shows a percentage as you fill out your profile. Any way you can demonstrate to people how far along the road they are and what explicit steps they can take to make further progress is great.

What gaps do you typically see during various products’ onboarding?

As a general caveat, if you’re paying attention to your conversion metrics and it’s working for you I’m not dismissive of any design pattern in a vacuum.

The biggest gap is how people think of onboarding, which is more of a way to give a lot of information initially and then forget about the user. Things that I don’t think are of great impact are: tooltip tours, intro screens, or if you download a new app there are sometimes a series of screens you swipe through with cute illustrations. One good rule of thumb: if it’s skippable, assume it’ll be skipped.Twitter Logo

Videos tell people things instead of guiding them to take action, which is what onboarding should be. You don’t want to be the boring teacher who just tells them things and then leaves them to figure it out later.

What are your favorite onboarding examples?

Slack‘s user onboarding is great. Duolingo has one of best onboarding examples I’ve ever reviewed.

Quartz integrates their onboarding so deeply that it’s hard to distinguish which part is onboarding and which part is the product. And that’s exactly what I aspire to do with onboarding.

Keep reading about user onboarding

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