User Onboarding Etiquette


User onboarding is a UX term used to describe the initial first-touch interactions between a customer and a digital product. Through tutorial content, product tours, tips and tricks, the typical goal of onboarding is to introduce the key features of the product and get the user up and running as quickly as possible. First impressions are critical to product adoption and retention, and designing an effective onboarding strategy requires careful strategy, audience analysis, and a deep understanding of user needs. But too often, user onboarding is included as an afterthought – thrown in at the tail end of the design process to quiet the internal pre-launch anxiety (…Will they find it? Will they use it? Will they like it? Will they come back?). It should therefore come as no surprise that a lot of companies miss the mark by treating their users as captive subjects, rather than as voluntary and valuable audience members. So, rather than spouting out a list of best practices I halfheartedly agree with, I’d like to introduce the concept of user onboarding etiquette—not tactics to execute, but a code of conduct for how to treat your users when welcoming them to your product.

Somewhere along the way, this technique became the norm, and now almost every app on the market forces the user into a swipe-through slideshow tutorial on first launch. The “tutorial” is usually some quippy, conversational reinforcement of the value proposition and a few screenshots of the interface. I get it – you want to build some hype for the big reveal. But before you do, think about the last time you were at a performance and the announcer said “Alright, everybody in the house tonight, y’all ready? Then make some noise!” How did that interaction feel? Did it feel like forced fun? Or perhaps an overdone, outdated cliché? That’s how the onboarding slideshow feels. Please stop.

Once I have to start searching for an exit, I feel like I’m in a casino where the entire experience is designed to get me to stay whether I like it or not. When that happens, I feel manipulated – this is not how you ever want users to feel. Make it an easy exit. Allow the user to re-visit the onboarding flow on their own time. There’s a good chance the information or onboarding flow is useful – it just may not be how they want to start their interaction. As customers actually use your product, they’ll likely have questions that only emerge in the context of that use. So, after the onboarding process, don’t bury the information contained there. Make it easy to find and reference in a way that doesn’t disrupt use. By supplementing my experience with help, you’re improving it. And I’ll appreciate that.

Onboarding familiarizes your user with the product and allows them to get started as quickly as possible. This is valuable time you shouldn’t waste by adding friction in the form of mundane and trivial tasks (e.g. type your email address again, make sure your password isn’t “too weak”, go check your email, and don’t forget to look in your spam folder!). Doing so further separates your users from experiencing the app or service itself and depresses user experience. Avoid creating a bottleneck on the road to an “aha moment” by forcing the user into account creation. You just met, after all.

We often fail to give users enough credit – or worse, we don’t know our users that well at all. This often leads to over explanation, or oversimplification. While simplicity and clarity may be a good thing, you have to remember that every moment spent with your product is part of the overall customer experience. If you speak down to your user or assume anything about the knowledge and experiences they bring with them to the product, you’re starting the relationship on a bad note.

The flip side of talking down to users is assuming they know too much. No one likes to feel they just don’t know enough to use a product, or that they have to work to use it. If your app or experience requires a specific awareness or vocabulary, be sure you take care to explain complicated concepts simply and quickly (or make that information available). A lot of this can and should occur during the user testing phase – where you test your concepts with target user types to ensure you’re not over or under explaining.

The best way to approach onboarding is to provide the bare minimum that allows the user to interact with the app without getting lost. Then, iterate on that bare minimum once you are able to do some user testing and find actual pain points. By doing so, you save time and development resources, and avoid creating an experience that may annoy the user and cause them to leave the app. Every superfluous onboarding task introduces a new point of friction, and thus, the potential for a negative experience. Ask yourself: What’s necessary to start using the product? Work to cut everything else out of the process. By eliminating friction, you can increase your product’s adoption and retention, and deliver a better customer experience for your end user. You’re also likely to make much better friends with me.