Product Management Sales & Marketing | 7 min read

Harvesting the low hanging fruit of user onboarding

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Startups are knee deep in customer acquisition metrics. Click through rates, cost per click, cost per lead, conversion rate, cost per acquisition, and more.

It’s worth remembering that recovering a lost signup is worth just as much as capturing a new one.

They wade through the data looking for easy tweaks, hoping that changing a red button green, or adding words like “Free” and “Now” to landing page headlines will add another 0.01% to their funnel. At best this Fisher-Price psychology gets them a few quick wins, at worst they spin their wheels for weeks simply pushing complexity around from one screen to another, all in the hope of  growing sign-ups.

What happens to the users who sign up?”, you ask. Well that’s the funny thing: most of them disappear, but that gets less attention in this game of Whack-a-Metric. It’s worth remembering that recovering a lost signup is worth just as much as capturing a new one. Of the hundreds of Intercom customers I’ve spoken with, they all have a variation of this problem: people signup, click around, and disappear. That’s where user onboarding comes in – turning new signups into loyal and engaged customers.

With each successive generation of onboarding the focus has shifted slightly from what the business wants to what the customer needs. Early onboarding was outside of the product where help manuals, and later websites, were offered to users – externally and out of context – in the hopes they would use them instead of contacting support. Since then, onboarding has slowly moved inside the product.

Signs on signs on signs: Onboarding 1.0

The first attempts focused heavily on the user interface, as if to say “Hey! Look at what we built. Go click this please”. This style of onboarding begins with the product and tries to reverse engineer user desires from each piece of interface. While better than nothing, for most interfaces this amounts to tool tips pointing out buttons and menus that should actually be self-explanatory if the designers did their job right. If you can’t read the words on this button, why don’t you read the words in this dialog instead?

Completeness meters: Onboarding 2.0

The next era of onboarding was made famous by LinkedIn. Gamified progress bars shepherd users through a series of hoops, not too dissimilar to how trainers get their poodles to win top prize at a dog show. Essentially this approach consists of identifying a set of tasks you want every new user to do, arbitrarily giving them a percentage score for each task and then bugging users until they hit 100%. Gamification: the billion dollar industry that never happened.

To some extent it is quite effective but still internally-focused. It ensures the user does what the business wants, but not necessarily that users achieve what they want.

For simple well-defined products there’s little difference between a user’s immediate desire and the metrics the business uses to record progress. But for anything more complex (e.g. B2B SaaS products) this can result in force-feeding configuration options to a user who simply wanted to manage some tasks, or requiring a user to invite their team before they’ve finished assessing the product. For example, many products ask users to invite additional friends who aren’t on the service before they show a user’s onboarding as complete. Does this benefit the business or their customers? Rather than relying solely on emergent metrics and then forcing users to hit some business targets, modern onboarding focuses on the user and what they want to achieve.

This begins with continually asking newly signed up customers what they are hoping to achieve with your product, learning what the functional goals (e.g. organize my team’s tasks), the personal goals (e.g. let me feel in control), and the social goals (e.g.impress my boss) are, and ensuring each new signup believes they are on a path to achieving them. This is what successful onboarding does. Slack does this well – Slackbot guides new users through setting up their account by asking them a series of questions. Not only does the user set up their account but they are learning to use Slack at the same time.

Other effective implementations of Onboarding 3.0 include CoSchedule, an editorial calendar for WordPress, which gets new users to create and schedule an article during the onboarding flow. DuoLingo, a language learning site, has new users translating a sentence into their chosen language before it even asks for an email address.

Onboarding your customers for success

The purpose of a trial is to convince a potential user your product will deliver what they need for a price they can afford. It’s about getting them to those “successful moments”. It’s important to remember this is their success, not yours, and has nothing to do with filling in database fields to complete their profile.  Onboarding is the key here.

Here’s five steps to improve your onboarding:

1. Understand the different jobs your product is hired for
You might regard yourself as being in the “project management” category, but people who sign up might actually be trying to “improve productivity” or “get better at remote working”. Yes, your product solves these problems through the lens of project management, but it’s important to know what use cases, examples and copy will motivate your customers versus what will fall on deaf ears.

2. Understand what success looks like for each of these jobs
People aren’t using your analytics tool for the sake of it, they’re using it to get promoted, or to prove their worth, or to rally a team behind a common problem. A very simple step here is to ask new sign-ups what they’re trying to achieve with your product. Once you know that, you’ll be amazed at how many onboarding changes you want to do instantly.

3. Design a path guiding them through the features that help them achieve this
Once you know the end goal(s) of your target users, you can design a flow to guide them to it. If there are end goals that are mutually exclusive (e.g. I want to share my design work vs I want to get more design gigs), it’s best to let new sign-ups declare their desire up front so that you’ll never be tone-deaf.

4. Communicate with users to help them get there
Sadly most communications during trials are badly targeted, usually using “time since signup” as the key. But in reality just because it’s been 7 days since I stared using your product, it doesn’t mean I’ve done anything useful. Similarly I could have signed up yesterday, spent all day in your product and be fully ramped. Activity matters, usage matters. Understand where I am, where I’m going, and send me messages that help me get there. Intercom’s Smart Campaigns feature makes it easier to send messages that do just that.

5. Have an early warning system for new users
Most products wait until a customer cancels, or fails to convert, and then the apologetic pleading messages begin. “How can we get you back?”, they send to a customer who has already checked out. That’s like waiting until you see divorce papers before checking how your spouse is doing. Instead, know what failure looks like and start the conversations before it’s too late.

Collectively these steps won’t solve everything, and it’s a fair criticism of onboarding as a discipline that it mostly maps back to Good Product Design™. But as we discussed at the outset, you can go back to tweaking button colors, or you can try something new: help your customers be successful. Do that and you’ll find there’s low hanging fruit, and lots of it.