What is user onboarding?

Good user onboarding helps your users and reduces friction, thus increasing your product’s value. In this article, we'll show you why it's important, and highlight the benefits of having a strong user onboarding process.

What is user onboarding?

Customer onboarding is the process that new users go through to get acquainted and established with your product. While it includes sign-up, account formation, product demonstration, and tutorials, it’s not quite as simple as that.

The products we’re referring to include online and mobile software, apps and services, like Hinge, Docusign, Slack, and Trello. A lot of user-experience professionals tend to say that defining onboarding – or customer onboarding – is complicated. That actually couldn’t be further from the truth. User onboarding is easy to define; what is not easy to explain, however, is the single best way for onboarding to work across various product categories.

Think of onboarding like this: 

Step 1: You view a job advertisement. The brief description looks amazing! You’re excited to talk to someone about the position and the company. You send in your resume with basic information about yourself.

Step 2: At your job interview, you engage with the HR representative. She describes basic highlights about the position, summarizes your specific duties, and also provides information about employee benefits. You won’t get all the information about the job and the company, but rather, just enough for you to understand what you’re signing up for.

Step 3: The first day of work is the hook. Your supervisor gives you job training and a general tour of the office: This is your desk, here are the tools you can use to do your job, here’s the mailroom and your email setup so you can communicate with those inside and outside the company. Then you’re given a task and left to do your job.

That’s what user onboarding would be like if the process occurred between two humans rather than a human and a user interface, or UI.

The reason we get caught up in defining onboarding is because it’s different for each product and user. For example, the onboarding process for a task management app like Basecamp is going to be different than the onboarding process for a social media app like Facebook and a broadcast entertainment app like Hulu. However, there are user onboarding best practices that can apply across various category channels.

Just to be clear, onboarding is a performance – like a tango. Your goal is to gracefully lead the customer through various choreographed prompts that, together, are designed to:

  •     Describe the product
  •     Provide a product preview and brief tour
  •     Prompt users to create a task in order to springboard toward conversion and engagement

Anyone can slap a Google form onto a web page and call that “onboarding.” But the “performance” we’re describing here is another way of saying user experience – or UX. The purpose of UX is to improve a person’s ability to use and understand your product. When different elements are integrated in a creative way that flows well – including forms, content, color, and graphics – it helps guide users through an unfamiliar experience and minimizes the negative emotions associated with doing new things. Fear and anxiety, aka negative emotions, are the friction that gets between the customer and conversion.

With each step the user takes toward your goal (i.e. conversion or engagement), information about how your product works gradually emerges. When the user reaches the end of her initial onboarding experience, you will have demonstrated the various reasons why your product is an indispensable and irreplaceable tool for her specific needs. 

Onboarding is not just:

  • A sign-up and payment page
  • A way to show off your product’s features
  • A quick product tour
  • A way to tell people how to use your product
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Benefits of good user onboarding

We may have explained why a good customer onboarding process is so beneficial to your business (because it converts leads to users!), but that isn’t the only reason you need to create a well-designed, new customer onboarding experience.

[Onboarding] begins before a user even signs up and it extends past the point they convert to a premium account. –Pulkit Agrawal

When a lead becomes a trial user or premium member, that’s still just the first steps of the conversion process. Have you prepared for how you’re going to convince the person to stay hooked? Because if you haven’t, chances are that your new user will lose interest in your product. It turns out that most apps expect to lose nearly 80% of new users, according to Andrew Chen, Silicon Valley VC and user growth expert.

By the end of one month, 90% of people who installed a new app are inactive. “[T]he average app mostly loses its entire user base within a few months,” says Chen.

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