Jetways and Gangplanks

A Guide to User Onboarding

Jetways and Gangplanks

You wake up to find yourself in the cockpit of a 747 and someone on the radio telling you to fly from New York to London. You haven’t been trained to pilot a plane at all let alone one as big and complex as this. In front of you is a completely unfamiliar panel of flashing lights, toggle switches, and buttons, none of which you’re completely sure does what.

Do you feel a little panicked just thinking about that? Good. That’s how your users feel when you dump them directly into your shiny new application without any form of onboarding. Sure, there will be plenty of tech-savvy users who will be familiar with many of the patterns you’re using, but you can’t assume that everyone is able to comfortably jump right in and properly use the app.

Too often we, as product owners – stakeholders, designers, and developers – either put minimal effort into or completely ignore user onboarding. It makes complete sense. We’ve all spent so much time doing the research, mapping out the various paths users can travel, and building the app itself that we find it difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of a first-time user. Keep in mind that your users, no matter how savvy, don’t have the same level of experience with your app as you do. Most of them will need some level of hand holding to get the most out of the application.

What is User Onboarding?

A good place to start with user onboarding is determining what that actually means.

One immediate problem you’ll find with user onboarding is that within the software industry, there is a wide range of definitions for the term. One definition you’ll hear a lot is that user onboarding is a “guided tour” of your application. Another definition is that it’s a tutorial to get your user started. Both of these definitions (and the myriad of others) are correct, though they’re only part of the story.

User onboarding in its full form is the process of guiding users throughout the entire lifecycle of an application, through multiple channels and touchpoints to help them see the true value that the application can provide them.

This definition hits on two key factors that determine whether or not your user onboarding (and many times your application) will be successful.

  1. Onboarding is a continuing process and not one that takes place only the first time a user logs in.
  2. Onboarding needs to help the user see the value the application can provide them.

Aha Moments and Time-to-Value

It’s important to understand that onboarding isn’t to just teach users how to use your application but to get them to their first “aha moment.”

An aha moment is the moment that your user goes from someone who is analyzing your application to one that is an active user. In simpler terms, it’s when a user understands the value of the application and how it helps them solve their unique problems.

Now to be fair, even without user onboarding, your users may find the value in your application but the extended time it takes for them to discover that value greatly increases the likelihood that they will stop using the app before encountering that aha moment.

User onboarding is used to shorten the time-to-value a user experiences when first using an application. Time-to-value is the amount of time between a user’s first log-in and their first aha moment. The faster you can get a user to their first aha moment, the more likely they are to continue using the application.

Onboarding Is Not Just a Product Tour

Product tours are a great way to let your users get their feet wet in your application but by no means are they the extent of user onboarding. Product tours are just one of many channels that you can utilize in your user onboarding experience. If you stopped there, then you’d still be relying on the user to discover the value of your application on their own, which as we’ve already covered, is less than ideal. You have to use multiple channels and touchpoints such as product tours, tooltips, and checklists to help users become masters of your application.

Why is User Onboarding Important?

When it comes to onboarding, the stakes might be a lot higher than you think. Consider this scenario. Your company has spent a large amount of time and money on developing a new project management application. To save time and effort, you choose not to invest in user onboarding. As a result, you find that your employees are reluctant to engage with the system and rely on other, more familiar applications as much as possible. They seem to only engage with the new application when absolutely necessary or when they are required to. Is this a scenario you want to experience when introducing a new application in your company? No. You want to get the most bang for your buck and have your staff maximizing the potential of the application you paid for. There are a few key things that user onboarding does to achieve this.

Onboarding Sets a Positive Tone Early

Setting a positive tone early on in a user’s journey will help to keep them going in the application. Quickly getting that user to their first “aha” moment is the best way to take them from being someone who was just told to use the application by management to someone that sees the value of using the application. User onboarding is key in doing that by guiding the user to small wins early on in their journey and keeping them motivated.

Onboarding Improves Adoption, Engagement and Retention

Which application would you rather work with – one that is complex, frustrating, and vague or one that, despite being complex, guides you along and enables you to achieve value by working in that application? When you dump your employees into the deep end of a complex system and expect them to just figure it out, they’re unlikely to embrace it eagerly or to use it more than the minimum required.However, when the necessary time and effort is spent on developing a great onboarding experience, your users will be more comfortable with your application, which in turn improves adoption, engagement, and retention. All three of these will lead to a better ROI.

Onboarding Creates Great Advocates

Many of us have worked somewhere that uses an application that everyone hates because it’s complicated and fails to make clear any advantages that it may provide. People bad mouth it to one another and, more detrimentally, to new employees. No one wants to use an application that they’re being told is bad before they even see it. Good user onboarding helps to avoid this issue. By providing a guide to the user’s first aha moment and showing them the value in your application, you can turn them into advocates. These advocates will help to increase adoption and engagement among their peers and new hires.

User Onboarding Best Practices

Know who you’re onboarding

Are the users of your application highly technical? Can they easily pick up a new system or do they need more guidance before they can get in the groove of an application? Knowing who you’re onboarding is incredibly important to determine what kinds of channels and touchpoints to use in your onboarding experience. The good news is that you should already have a good foundational knowledge of who your users are from the research that was done early on in the development process, and you can use this to help develop your onboarding experience.

Use Familiar Patterns

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when choosing the UI patterns you use in your onboarding experience. Modals, tooltips, hotspots, slideouts, and checklists are the go-to patterns for a reason. Your users are comfortable with them and will most likely expect to see them. Using familiar patterns helps to reduce the overall friction within your onboarding experience.

Don’t Forget the Details

It may not seem like it but even the empty states of your application are a channel for your onboarding experience. When a user tries a new feature for the first time, an empty state can be crucial to helping them understand what it is they can do here as well as what value it may hold for them. Putting in the time and effort to think through and design your empty states can help to reduce the time to value. Sometimes all it is is a simple message and an action button that can give your user their aha moment. Make sure you don’t skip the details.

Consider the Screen

This might sound like a no brainer but you’d be surprised how often an onboarding experience is created that works great on desktop but falls flat on its face on a mobile device. Keep in mind how your users are most likely to interact with your application, whether it’s a phone, tablet, or computer. This will determine where you need to put the bulk of your focus as well as allow you to optimize for the correct device.

Avoid Information Overload

Learning something new can be a daunting task. The cognitive load associated with learning something is already high so make sure you don’t dump a ton of information on your users when they first log into your application. Spreading out your touch points will help keep the extra load low as users get more comfortable with your application.

Test and Iterate and then Test and Iterate

This part of your application is no different than any other. It will require testing and iteration before you hit on the optimal setup for your onboarding experience. Make sure that you’re testing with real users as much as possible and adjust your onboarding experience as needed.

You’ve Reached Your Destination

User onboarding is an ongoing process to help your users find the value your application provides them over the entire lifecycle of the application. It can’t be done simply by using small pieces like product tours on their own but instead requires a wide variety of channels and touchpoints to allow your users to get the most out of your application as possible.

Remember that the stakes are a lot higher than you might think when it comes to user onboarding. It can be the difference between an application that is well used and one that is abandoned quickly. Do yourself a favor and put in the time and effort into creating a great onboarding experience and you’ll be sure to see better adoption, engagement, and retention.

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