Pulkit Agrawal
August 22, 2016 - 10 min read

10 Onboarding Lessons from Product Experts

We interviewed user onboarding practitioners at top companies and this is their advice.

Lesson 1: Get buy in from the team

A new user's first product experience has substantial implications on whether they will become engaged over the long term. First impressions do last and if your users get to the “aha” moment they will come back. Onboarding new users is therefore critical, but not everyone will appreciate this.

If you’re already reading this then it’s your responsibility to get buy-in from the rest of your team to prioritise this. Some people will believe that a great product doesn’t need onboarding or that intuitive design is enough… they’re wrong. Actually the perceived value proposition and intelligent prompts are also core components of user behavior.

If you’re a product leader or executive within your organization then this might need some strong leadership and direction. There will be lots of priorities and others might believe that a greater feature set or better design is the key to success. You have to rally your team around a holistic way to iterate and improve first-time UX.


Lesson 2: Know the problem and your users

It’s hard to improve your user onboarding without a basic understanding of what you’re trying to solve for and who the target audience is.

Figure out who your ideal users are and create some simple user personas. Then begin with discovery: do user tests (with your ideal customer types) to get a sense of the flow that new users take, where they get stuck and what they are impressed by.

Jessica, Product Manager at Trello, explains: “First do the research to understand where the confusion lies. Do user tests and get the baseline metrics so you can measure the impact of what you change.”

Once you have some ideas then you can test these hypotheses more deeply. You can use surveys or tools such as Usertesting.com to assess how users complete specific tasks. Chris, Design Researcher at Airbnb, suggests “Contextual surveys are critical. Ask about motivation vs. ability, because those are two different problems.”

It’s important to get an understanding of intent from the different user types also. Is a particular demographic willing to read a lot more, or do users from a particular source know exactly what they want to do? Getting an awareness of the goals that different groups of users have will enable you to provide what they need to succeed.

🛠 Tools that can help: UserTesting and Typeform


Lesson 3: Have very clear metrics

To be able to measure success for user activation, you’ll need to be collecting this data. This may need some thinking up front, although using Heap is a great way to track everything and then decide later what’s important.

Once your analytics are instrumented (we recommend doing this with Segment so you can pipe your data to whichever tools you use) then you need to identify the metrics to assess user onboarding.

Pick a few metrics that are important, but one that has short half-life that you can run tests against. Ideally you measure the correlation of this short-term metric (e.g. completing a certain action) against longer-term goals (e.g. 90 day retention) so you can be confident about using the short-term metric as a proxy for overall retention and engagement.

John, Growth Engineering Manager at Pinterest, reiterates “Using metrics that can be measured in shorter timescales helps faster feedback and quicker iteration.”

🛠 Tools that can help: Segment and Heap


Lesson 4: Adapt your guidance

Different users have different needs and you shouldn’t neglect these during their first-time experience. By adapting your experience for these different groups, you’ll lead to higher conversion and lower churn.

Joe, Director of Growth at DocuSign, highlights this difference: “For some users, our approach is to not get in their way. For others we provide a hand-held approach to understanding our product.”

You may wish to segment your users by their persona, their source, their role or their past activity. You can get some of this information based on patterns from other users, or you can ask them during the sign-up process.

The simplest version of this is using triggered drip emails and in-app messages. Intercom allows you to set up campaigns to show different content to different users. You can also use Chameleon to show different product tours to different segments of users.

🛠 Tools that can help: Segment with Intercom and Chameleon


Lesson 5: Focus on the fundamentals

One big mistake product teams make is trying to teach everything or hand-holding new users through every single obscure feature and aspect of the product. Don’t do this! Embrace self-discovery!

Users that are motivated will explore the product and figure out many things. Therefore it’s important to focus first on ensuring they understand the core value proposition to motivate them to explore.

To do this, you’ll need to understand what the fundamental aspects of your product are. Figure out what things a user absolutely needs to know to have a successful experience. Then double-down on making sure those things are clear, and let curiosity do the rest.

Our friends at Amplitude also wrote this great post on finding the key metric for growth.

🛠 Tools that can help: Google Sheets and Amplitude


Lesson 6: Create a framework for iteration

One of the hardest things about having great user onboarding is the framework you apply to ensure consistency and continual improvements.

This should consist of a who (responsible people), when (cadence of experiments), why (clear metrics and goals), where (channels used), what (content) and how (design style). For more sophisticated teams this can contain more specific guidelines on how and how much to target each group of users.

John, Growth Engineering Manager at Pinterest, reveals “Our framework guides the use of tours and tooltips across the site. It specifies how to determine whether a user is eligible to be shown help, the maximum frequency users can be engaged, and how to track impact.”

Keep this framework documented somewhere that people can refer to and where it's easy to update.

🛠 Tools that can help: ReadMe and Frontify


Lesson 7: Give responsibility to a single team

When a single person or team is responsible for new user activation they provide the focus and momentum needed for success. Instead of running improvements on a project-basis, they can continually experiment and iterate.

This might be a growth team or a product team, and ideally will contain a cross-function of roles. It should also take joint-responsibility for improving feature adoption, and work alongside product managers for features to make that happen.

🛠 Tools that can help: Trello


Lesson 8: Use all channels available

Bombarding new users with emails is no longer sufficient; they’re noisy and only good for certain use cases. Instead you have many channels available: in-product notifications; chat; product tours; help docs; webinars; blog posts etc. and you should plan what content goes best where.

Monika, VP Marketing at Zuora, recounts: “We’ve been trying multiple channels, including email and webinars, but they don’t provide the value that product tours do.”

This may require coordination between teams in your organisation. You could set up a regular “user education” meeting or group to build greater coherence. Start by setting out clear objectives for each channel; what is the goal and how does it relate to new user activation.

You can read more about how to use email, in-app messaging and product tours effectively here.

🛠 Tools that can help: Customer.io / Outbound, OLark / Intercom and Chameleon.


Lesson 9: What you learn might be counter-intuitive

It’s important to test and measure because what you learn about your users and your product may not follow all of the conventional wisdom. You can start from established best practice but evolve this for your context.

When Neil, Director of Product at Yammer, ran a project for onboarding he found “Some of our tests have shown that no training was as good as the training we had. We also learnt that removing steps in the onboarding flow actually reduced activation.”

Another interviewee said “We found the upfront flow wasn’t nearly as effective as call-outs that show throughout the lifecycle of the user.”

You should stay aware of the differences between what users say and what they do. This is why it’s important to trust the (quantitative) data.

Chris, Design Researcher at Airbnb, drives this home: “There is no difference in engagement between users who say they know how to use our product vs. those who say they don’t."

🛠 Tools that can help: NomNom and Trello


Lesson 10: Use a platform to build in-product guidance

You can choose to build your onboarding in-house if you have the resources available. A good alternative is to use a platform to manage this. This can provide an easy way to manage content, assess analytics, run experiments, segment based on users and activity and provide independence to the team responsible.

Monika, VP Marketing at Zuora, elaborates how using a platform to build in product tours helps “...[it] saves time for our sales team when engaging with prospects, and gives our product marketing team more control over the in-product experience.”

There can also be other benefits, such as cohesion between channels and improving scalability of your solution.

🛠 Tools that can help: Chameleon 😎


The interviewees

These people have a wealth of knowledge and experience of new user activation. They shared insights to help you create user onboarding that drives activation and engagement.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are based on personal experience and do not represent the views of any company.

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