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What Makes a Great Onboarding Experience?

You’ve built a product, you’re pretty sure that it’s great. But every time that people sign up, they abandon it within minutes. Chances are good that you have a terrible onboarding process. But to learn how to fix it, you have to first gain a better understanding of what onboarding is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

What is User Onboarding?

This is an interesting question because the pieces can vary so widely from one company to the next. But the short version of the story is that onboarding is the process that starts as soon as someone presses the “sign up” button, and ends once they’re fully aware of how to use the basic parts of your application. In that regard, onboarding consists of elements of the user interface (UI), the user experience (UX) and even customer support (CS/CX).

That’s a big machine, with a lot of moving parts. So making sure that it’s a great experience is something that is well worth your time. Oh, and if you happen to have deeper features, the entire onboarding experience starts again the first time that your customer goes to use them.

Where Onboarding Goes Wrong

The idea of onboarding seems simple enough. So why do so many companies screw it up? Almost without fail, the answers are easy.

Information Overload

The goal of onboarding is to give your customer enough information to start using your product. The goal is not to give them a comprehensive lesson in every single feature before they’re ready to use them. In fact, that’s a place where we went wrong with FullContact, so it’s an area that we can talk about very well.

You see, when we first launched FullContact to public beta, our onboarding process consisted of asking you to connect your accounts. And that was pretty much it. So people didn’t understand that they could add more address books later. They didn’t understand what a Unified Contact was or what would happen if they chose to use them. We gathered loads of user testing feedback and made the call to put a walkthrough in place. Good to go, right?


Where we went wrong was in going from 0-100 in a single step. We walked new users through every part of the FullContact address book and we were still finding that, weeks into using it, people didn’t know how to accomplish some of the tasks that we told them about in the walkthrough. We had given them information overload, so then we had to fix it.

Surprise Signups

It used to be that when you signed up for a Gmail account, you picked a username, gave them your first and last name and then you had an email account. These days, with the “one Google” idea that the company has enacted, when you sign up for a Gmail account you’re also signing up for YouTube, Google Drive, Google Play, Google+ and a plethora of other services. While that may be ideal for later use, if you happen to already have accounts on any of these other services you’re now buried deep into Google’s UX mess of account switching.

Another surprise signup that many companies do is enrolling your email address into all of their communications just because you signed up for an account. Twitter is perhaps the worst about this, as their new onboarding process signs you up for over twenty different email notifications. While they’re easy to disable, and the customization is well done, having your inbox flooded when anything happens on the service is a jarring experience.

Splash Screens

The idea here is innocent enough – a splash screen after signup will give a quick glance overview of what the user can expect next. But the experience is rarely ever as good as intended. Most users, it seems, just want you to get out of the way and let them use the app.

Difficult Signups

How much information do you really need to let a new user start using your product? If you’re requiring anything more than the bare minimum then you’re probably losing customers at the door. While you may have very good, valuable reasons for wanting more information from your customers, the choice to provide it should be their own. Do everything that you can to invite them in.

User Onboarding Done Right

Now that we know where so many go wrong, let’s spend the last bit talking about how to do onboarding the right way.

Keep It Simple

If all you really need is an email address, then don’t require anything else. In fact, if you don’t even need an email address for them to start using the account, but only to come back and use it later, don’t even ask them for it until it’s absolutely necessary.

As seen in the screenshot above, Instinct is a great example of this method. When you go to the site you can immediately start learning how to play guitar. If you want to sign up for an account, the option is there, but it’s not required.

Be Valuable

As soon as you can, make sure that you’re giving your new user what they want. For us it’s a matter of letting users pull in their Google Contacts on the first step, then immediately going to work to clean their contacts, remove duplicates and enrich the contacts that they’ve shared with us. Whatever your promise is to the user, you want to show them that you’re coming through as quickly as possible.

Get Out of the Way

Once your new user has signed up, it’s time for you to shut up. It’s up to your UX and UI folks to make the first steps blatantly obvious, and if they’re not then you’ve taken a tumble already. At the very most, a small prompt is what you’re looking for, rather than a splash screen, introduction video or other roadblock.

Actions Speak Louder

The best way for most users to get familiar with how your app works is to actually use it. So if you have steps that require their input, start with pre-populated data to give them an idea, then prompt them to actually go through the process to fill in the information themselves.

The best example I’ve ever seen of this comes from Real Mac Software’s Clear app. When you first start the app, you see an example to-do list that walks you through the (literal) motions that you’ll need to use the app on your own. The pre-populated fields are the instructions, rather than generic text.

Talk Only When Necessary

If your app is complex, or as it gains features, you’re likely to have parts of it that won’t get used until much later in the process. This is a great time for you to exercise restraint in your tutorials. While that deeply-buried feature might be something incredibly cool, telling a new user about it long before they’ll want to touch it themselves is asking for confusion later.

Consider taking a different route, triggering the tutorial the first time that a user visits that section of the app. This keeps you away from information overload, and provides interaction when it makes sense, rather than trying to force your teachings onto the user.

No (Bad) Surprises

We all want to surprise and delight our users, but there are a lot more opportunities to mess things up than to get them right. Don’t break your user’s trust by subscribing them to every email you offer. Don’t do things with their information that you don’t tell them about. Do offer them a way to opt out of anything that’s potentially uncomfortable. In fact, when possible, users should always be able to opt in instead.

Be Antisocial

Unless you absolutely need it, don’t force users to connect their social media accounts to your app. We’re seeing an increased push for transparency and privacy when it comes to social, and users need to know that they’re in total control of that data. For us, that means making sure that FullContact’s Five Laws of Privacy are readily available, and that anyone can claim their profile then control the information that we have access to.

Test, Test and Test Again

This is probably the biggest one of all, so I wanted to save it for last. Before you make any significant change to your onboarding process, make sure to test it first. Companies like UserTesting get real people to use your app, recording their actions as they do. You get immediate, verbal feedback from every step of the process so that you know whether or not you were successful in making things better.

There’s probably no worse feeling than building something great, then finding out that nobody knows how to use it. But if you follow a few key steps, the moving parts in this machine will fall smoothly into place.

Have some suggestions of your own? We’d love to hear about them. Just drop them in the comments below, or find us on Twitter @FullContact.

Image Credit: Matthias Ripp via Flickr

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