The User Experience of Onboarding

The Onboarding Experience

Mastering the art of user onboarding

A column by Himanshu Sharma
January 22, 2024

For an experienced professional who, like me, transitioned from marketing to User Experience, user onboarding is one of the most crucial aspects of both Customer Experience (CX) and User Experience. A well-designed user-onboarding process helps users understand a product’s value proposition, learn how to use it effectively, and achieve their desired outcomes quickly and easily. This leads to a positive customer experience because users feel confident and successful in using the product. Plus, a good onboarding process can help to improve a product’s user experience by identifying and addressing any painpoints or usability issues that people may experience.

Therefore, it’s strange to see how onboarding remains an afterthought for most product or UX teams. Working on the HSBC’s world-class account-opening team, focusing on onboarding, opened up new horizons for my thinking about crafting compelling user onboarding experiences and what this means for product teams, customers, and users. I had not previously thought that an onboarding experience could provide a strategic lever for the success of a digital product and play a key role in customer adoption as well as retention.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

General rhetoric about onboarding revolves around enabling users to reach their Aha! moment with a product as soon as possible, without obstructing their workflow. Some call this time to value. However, accomplishing this is easier said than done. While the science of onboarding is always of interest, the approach always depends on the product team’s perspectives and mindset.

Onboarding Versus Long-Term Support

The best way to teach someone is to give them instructions. But, when you’ve bought a new product and were in the process of unboxing it, how many times have you read the entire manual? Probably never. Most people prefer to try things out, using whatever knowledge they think they already have about the product; doing something by trial and error; or thinking through things they’d forget to notice in a small user manual—things that UX designers have thoughtfully designed to help them learn about a product.

The problem is: most teams design product tours—whether through video, tutorials, or ToolTips—based on the assumption that people would view them before they try out a product. They see them as product orientations. However, if they lack context, users won’t adopt them.

Similarly, when a company onboards a new employee, they give them a formal tour of the resources that can help them manage their day-to-day activities. However, strong companies do not leave their employees on their own at that point. They provide an extended period of onboarding that could span for a year or two. The result: better employee retention and less attrition.

A Product Orientation Is Just a Warmup

First and foremost, onboarding is more than just a new-user orientation for a product. Onboarding is a process, while orientation is just a single event—just the first step in an onboarding process. Consider orientation a warmup, while onboarding requires a longer-term plan.

Many perceive product onboarding as some limited form of orientation such as a tutorial, setup process, slideshow, or sign-up flow and, thus, often misconceive of it as being a single feature or workflow. With this understanding, teams tend to make the onboarding experience an afterthought rather than giving it its due. But the onboarding experience is whatever lies between the new user who is just trying out your product and a power user of your product.

Ignore User Onboarding at Your Own Peril

Customer-acquisition costs are rising, so it’s more important than ever for businesses to endeavor to keep their existing customers. One study found that increasing customer-retention rates by 5% can increase profits by 25 to 95%.

However, the rise of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications has made it easier than ever for customers to switch to a different product. If customers fail to see the value of your product right away, they’re likely to abandon it and move on to something else. No matter how many new features or updates you have planned, if customers do not immediately feel the benefits of your product, they won’t stay around to experience them.

Therefore, it’s cheaper and more profitable to keep your existing customers than to acquire new ones. Because your customers are likely to switch to another product if they don’t see the value of your product right away, it’s important that you focus on providing customers with value as quickly as possible.

The Goals of User Onboarding

Going beyond the vanity metrics of retention and adoption, onboarding should aim toward the following five goals

  1. Establishing credibility
  2. Communicating and acclimatizing users to core value
  3. Setting up and configuring a product
  4. Committing to regular usage
  5. Signposting and encouraging users at every stage until they reach a steady state

Goal 1: Establishing Credibility

Onboarding should help users feel confident in the product or service and the team behind it. You can establish credibility through clear communication, transparency, and user-centric support.

For example, HubSpot offers a free trial to new users, as shown in Figure 1. This gives users a chance to try out the product before they must commit to buying it. The company also provides clear, concise support documentation and offers live-chat support to answer any questions that users might have.

Figure 1—Free trial for HubSpot’s CRM software
Free trial for HubSpot’s CRM software

Goal 2: Communicating and Acclimatizing Users to Core Value

Onboarding should help users learn about a product’s key features, functionalities, and benefits through guidance, informative tutorials, and interactive demonstrations.

For example, the Headspace app, shown in Figure 2, communicates its core value of mindfulness throughout the onboarding process. It starts by teaching users what mindfulness is and why it’s important. Then it provides users with a variety of guided meditations and exercises to help them practice mindfulness in their daily lives.

Figure 2—Onboarding for Headspace
Onboarding for Headspace

Image source: UXArchive

Goal 3: Setting Up and Configuring a Product

Onboarding should help users quickly and easily set up and configure a product or service by providing clear instructions, streamlined workflows, and other easily accessible resources.

For example, SmartThings onboards users through a simple, easy-to-understand process that helps users quickly and easily get started with their new smart-home system, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—SmartThings onboarding process
SmartThings onboarding process

To get started, users simply need to download the SmartThings app, then create an account. Once users have created an account, they can begin adding their smart-home devices to the app. SmartThings makes it easy to add devices by providing a variety of different setup methods, including the following:

  • automatic device discovery—SmartThings can automatically discover new devices on the user’s network and lets the user add them to the smart-home system with just a few taps.
  • QR-code scanning—Many SmartThings devices have a QR code that the user can scan using the SmartThings app to add them to the smart-home system.
  • manual setup—For devices that do not support automatic discovery or QR-code scanning, SmartThings provides manual setup instructions.

Goal 4: Committing to Regular Usage

Onboarding should encourage users to invest time and effort in exploring the product or service further by emphasizing the benefits and long-term value of continued usage, providing personalized recommendations, and setting achievable milestones.

For example, Nike Training Club offers a variety of 30-day challenges, including challenges for weight loss, muscle gain, and overall fitness, as shown in Figure 4. The app also provides personalized recommendations for workouts and meal plans based on the user’s fitness goals and preferences.

Read more about Nike Training Club Workouts.

Figure 4—A workout in Nike Training Club
A workout in Nike Training Club

Goal 5: Signposting and Encouraging Users at Every Stage Until They Reach a Steady State

Onboarding should be an ongoing process that helps users gradually advance through different stages of product familiarity and proficiency. Offer progressive guidance and support, proactive recommendations, and continuous-learning opportunities.

For example, Duolingo is a popular language-learning app that uses a game-like format to make learning fun. As Figure 5 shows, users earn experience points and badge, as they complete lessons and challenges.

Figure 5—Duolingo gamification and badges
Free trial for HubSpot’s CRM software

Read more about Duolingo Fandom Achievements.

First Impressions Count

Just because user onboarding is a journey doesn’t mean first impressions don’t count. A good first impression encourages and inspires users to continue exploring your product. In contrast, a bad first impression would likely result in users leaving your products for those of your competitors. 

Senior UX Consultant at Publicis Sapient

Potsdam, Berlin, Germany

Himanshu SharmaA seasoned product designer and onboarding UX consultant consultant with more than 12 years of experience crafting easy-to-learn, engaging user-onboarding experiences. He has helped drive user adoption for major brands such as HSBC, Michelin, IBM, and Publicis Sapient and is passionate about unlocking a product’s true potential through best-in-class onboarding practices. Himanshu also holds an MBA in Marketing and International Business.  Read More

Other Columns by Himanshu Sharma

Other Articles on User Experiences

New on UXmatters