User Onboarding: Principles and Guidelines

January 10, 2022

Onboarding is the process of helping new users to get started with your product, service, or app by guiding them through your product’s features and functionality and enabling them eventually to fully embrace all of its capabilities. The onboarding process should help your users to understand a product’s promise and learn how they can realize it.

Some believe that, in most cases, users prefer to explore a product or app on their own rather than by following onboarding guidelines. Nevertheless, displaying a few friendly tips and reminders during a user journey can be comforting and helpful to users.

An effective product-onboarding process reduces both users’ and the business’s painpoints and improves the product’s usability, helping to increase user retention and loyalty, brand value, business growth, and profit. So let’s take a deeper look at user onboarding.

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Principles of User Onboarding

What principles should you observe to achieve good user onboarding?

1. Stress the user’s needs.

Those who have downloaded your app are not yet your loyal users. It is your responsibility to help them realize that your product is right for them. Show your customers how they can benefit from your product or app and how it can satisfy their needs—the needs that motivated them to download the app in the first place. Onboarding should highlight these factors. For example, you can provide slides that showcase the benefits of the product or perhaps a fun quiz that describes the scenarios and problems that you’ve designed the app to address. Onboarding should encourage users to take action immediately based on their response to it.

2. Provide brief, engaging guidance.

Onboarding messages should neither be long nor overly informative. Simple tutorials could actually diminish people’s interest in the app by making it appear complicated. Onboarding should be as engaging and interesting as possible. A brief, introductory animation or video can educate users about how the app works, giving them the confidence to begin using the app. This is always better than a long tutorial.

3. Inspire users to set goals.

Onboarding should rely on a common trait that people share: working to fulfill a commitment when they’re well motivated. Encourage users to set goals and update them as they make progress—for example, by checking off completed training sessions or making to-do lists.

4. Train users to improve their performance.

Effective onboarding should make users feel that, by using your app, they can improve their life and skills. Training works best for apps that are technical in nature. In your onboarding, provide glimpses of tutorial videos and offer assignments and practice sessions that can help users gain a better understanding of the app.

5. Encourage users to go beyond first-time-use.

Good onboarding should give thought to what happens every time your users use the app. Focusing only on first-time use won’t be sufficient. Your aim is to engage users and get them excited about using the product each time they come back to it. For example, you might update users about what features they have yet to use.

Techniques for Effective Onboarding

Let’s look at some techniques for effective onboarding.

1. Start simple.

Use simple language and methods of explaining the product and how it works. The more complicated you make the product seem, the more users would feel like searching for an alternative.

2. Understand the user’s context.

Always try to understand your users and their context before planning an onboarding sequence. You need to understand how tech savvy your users are, how much knowledge they already have about the product or app, and how much money they’ve invested in the product. Your decisions about onboarding depend on your having all this information.

3. Use the Show > Tell > Do > technique.

Providing product tours or demonstrations that show and tell users how things work, then getting users to try them out by themselves seems to work best when teaching users something new. This approach familiarizes users with the app even before they actually start using it. This method works best when the tasks users need to complete are linear or there is a particular sequence in which they need to learn them.

4. Design blank canvases that drive action.

Seeing a blank space in an app can seem like a dead-end to users. But, in some apps, users can generate content only through usage and interaction. In such cases, including some content that provides a clear call-to-action can motivate users to make progress in using the app and give them a better understanding of how the app works.

5. Reward progress.

Recognizing and celebrating users’ achievements and milestones as they proceed with their tasks using the app can be very encouraging to them. This encouragement can prompt users to come back to the app and use it more often. For example, you could simply post a congratulatory message or come up with innovative ideas for rewards.

6. Implement a system of progressive learning.

Research reveals that, once users get near to achieving a goal they’ve set, they’ll be more motivated to complete their task. So providing indicators such as checkmarks beside completed tasks or training sessions can be helpful in indicating that users are progressing toward their goal.

7. Help users to become productive as soon as possible.

The best onboarding should give the user less learning time and more productive time. Accelerating users’ progression toward productivity helps them to perceive the value of the product and understand that it is right for them. This makes the user more satisfied and engaged.

8. Test and optimize.

To enable your app to adapt to user needs that keep changing over time, you should collect data such as software-usage statistics, user feedback, and data about market trends. You should also design and test variations in onboarding strategies and training approaches.

Users’ Progression Through Onboarding

It takes a while before a new user can become familiar with an app, then eventually become an expert user. Onboarding that combines the right content, momentum, and flow helps users progress through the different stages of the customer lifecycle. At each stage, the user should experience added value and feel the urge to move forward.

1. Preview Users

For first-time users to find value in your product even before using it, you must provide enough information to convince them to sign in and try out the app. Therefore, the process of  onboarding starts when you’re marketing your product. Presenting case studies or testimonials that are relevant to the user helps to communicate the app’s value proposition.

Your landing page should offer relevant content, explainer videos, advertisements, and blog posts that enable you to reach prospective customers through different channels such as social-media platforms and other networks. This information can motivate the user to sign up for your product and learn more about it.

2. Committed Users

At this stage, users are no longer new to your product, but neither are they yet regular users. You must work toward fulfilling the promises you made to users during the previous stage. Onboarding should help users to achieve their goals by conveying your product’s critical concepts, explaining high-level functionality, and describing specific use cases for your product.

You can provide ToolTips, product tours, in-app messages, or lifecycle email messages that highlight your app’s functionality and efficiency. Thus, you can teach users how to use the app, and this knowledge increases your chances of driving them to your product on a regular basis.

3. Proponent Users

At this stage, you have loyal users who use the app on a regular basis. Your content and information channels connect with the user at a personal level.

Deepening your relationship with the user is what matters here. Responding to users personally and maintaining your online relationship with them helps you develop and maintain a positive relationship with your users. You can use social media, conferences, and your company’s Slack channels to keep users in the loop.

Types of User Onboarding

There are three key types of user onboarding.

1. Progressive Onboarding

One of the best onboarding practices, progressive onboarding displays new information on the screen while also allowing users to navigate through the app. A step-by-step process directs and encourages the user to take action. All of the information that the app displays on a page is relevant to the specific context of that page and the task corresponding to that page.

2. Function-Oriented Onboarding

Function-oriented onboarding focuses on educating users about the functionality of the app and explaining ways in which users can use its functionality. This approach demonstrates some common, rudimentary actions that users can take using the app, ensuring that they clearly understand the functionality of the app.

3. Benefit-Oriented Onboarding

Choose the benefit-oriented approach to onboarding to communicate the benefits of using the app and the value that the product can add to the user’s life. The primary focus of this approach is on increasing conversions, but it can also provide an overview of the app’s functionality without going into details.

Guidelines for Designing a Perfect Onboarding Sequence

Now, let’s consider some guidelines that can help you to design effective onboarding sequences.

1. Prioritize your product’s value proposition.

Highlighting the value that your product or app provides to users and the benefits it offers to them reassures users that the app would be useful to them and serve the needs it claims to satisfy. This encourages users to use the app because they feel that you’re prioritizing their needs and care about their satisfaction.

2. Provide only mandatory information.

Add only the content that is most relevant and crucial to users, and ask users only essential questions. Providing too much unwanted information or asking questions that would drive users away, to the extent that they might quit or even uninstall the app, would defeat the purpose of onboarding. The key to improving user engagement is to keep everything precise, concise, crisp, and brief.

3. Provide a compact onboarding experience.

Users find long, text-heavy content and extensive onboarding processes exhausting and overwhelming, which could cause them to stop using the product. Therefore, you should adopt a progressive approach to onboarding. For example, using screenshots of the app or illustrations of its processes, showcasing a single feature on each page, or providing tutorials can help users familiarize themselves with the app, engendering ease and comfort.

4. Create a concise, simple sign-up process.

Providing users with easy options for signing up, perhaps using other networks such as Facebook or Google, is one way to cut down the time that users must spend onboarding. This also reduces friction in the user-onboarding process while following all the rules of the sign-up mandate.

5. Request the user’s permission.

Requiring users’ consent before using their personal data or their device’s functionality is a crucial aspect of business ethics. Asking users for permission to access the functionality of their device or their private data—for example, their microphone, camera, or files that are stored on the device—builds their trust in your service. They realize that you won’t access their functionality or data without their first agreeing to share it.

6. Provide a preview of the app’s content.

Giving users access to information that highlights the features of your app before you ask them to sign up can be an effective onboarding technique. This information helps motivate users to keep using the service. Users perceive your trying to get them to sign up before they know anything about your app as an obstacle rather than as motivation.

7. Provide visual hints for guidance.

Strategically placing visual hints where you think users might get stuck puts them in charge and works much better than providing lengthy, tedious instructions.

8. Promote personalization.

If your app provides personalized services or content according to an individual user’s preferences, you should inform the user of this at the time of onboarding rather than at a later stage. Personalization and customization are key features that any user would want to know about. Showcasing these capabilities right at the beginning of the onboarding process drives the user toward the app or product.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Designing an Onboarding Sequence

Finally, let’s consider some common mistakes that you must avoid when designing onboarding sequences.

1. Delaying the Planning of Onboarding

Planning and designing the onboarding process should be a top priority—not happen in haste, at the end of your design process. Plan on designing onboarding in parallel with designing each feature of your app. A well-planned onboarding process that is integral to a product gives users the necessary clarity and understanding.

2. Having Multiple Teams Design Onboarding

Treat onboarding as a product: it should be the concern of a single team that is responsible for working on its design and development. Having multiple teams work on the onboarding process prevents your team from focusing on this process, and the absence of a unified design pattern results in user confusion.

3. Ignoring Personalized Goal Setting

When you’re planning onboarding, assume that your users have different needs and goals that you must address. You should guide them toward their personal Aha! moment. Asking users questions about their personal choices and how the app can fulfill their needs, as Pinterest does, helps convince users that you care about their needs.

4. Failing to Prepare a Plan B for Improving Onboarding

If, in the planned onboarding process, users are not completing the tasks that would lead them to their Aha! moment, you should plan a follow-up action that might encourage users to stay and help them to progress in their use of the app. Plan for this from the beginning. A pop-up or personalized message can do the job.

5. Standardizing Time-based Communication with Users

Any messages that you send to new users should be tailor made for them, according to their activities within the app. Because each user’s knowledge and experience differ, sending a general message is not sufficient. Contextual messaging during the onboarding process goes a long way toward eliminating confusion among users. 

Growth Manager at WowMakers

Kochi, Kerala, India

Cibin KSAs a growth manager at WowMakers, Cibin focuses on user research for digital products. He has developed user-centric strategies that meet product goals. His five years of experience in UX design and marketing enable him to speak the language of both the marketer and the UX designer.  Read More

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