Onboarding for online products

Dec 11, 2013

Table of contents:

  1. The problem with onboarding
  2. Onboarding problems in Consumer applications
  3. Onboarding problems in Enterprise applications
  4. Solutions to onboarding problems
  5. Conclusion

It’s common wisdom that first impressions count for a lot. When we meet someone for the first time we automatically make a snap judgement and create a mental image of that person in our minds. The exact same phenomenon happens whenever you use a product for the first time.

Onboarding new users or customers on to your product is the crucial first impression that you will have with that person. If you make a bad first impression, it is highly likely that you will lose that potential customer or user advocate for life.

Users will quickly lose interest in your product if they are not presented with an engaging first run experience. If you lose a user’s interest they will just flick away to a different website or dump your app into a folder never to see the light of day again.

In this post I’m going to look at the problem of onboarding, how it effects consumer and enterprise applications, and what you can do to provide an amazing first run experience.

The problem with onboarding

So as I outlined above, there are many things that make onboarding new users difficult. When a user is first exploring your product, they don’t know where all the menus are, what the icons mean, what the short keys are or even, what they are supposed to be doing there.

A lot of products that don’t invest time into their onboarding experience will simply dump a user off at the main screen after they register as a new user. However, the main screen of an application is usually only useful when the user has been engaging with the product for a while and she has context and content to interact with.

If a user becomes lost or confused when she is using your product she will simply leave and probably won’t come back. This is a massive problem because you can’t afford to be churning through users like that.

The simple solution to this problem is, think about the best way to give immediate gratification to the user so that she understands the context of the application and her purpose for using it.

What follows is an overview of the more specific onboarding problems in Consumer applications and Enterprise applications and a range of possible solutions for you to integrate into your product to make your first run experience as engaging as possible.

Onboarding problems in Consumer applications

The problem with onboarding users into Consumer applications really comes down to the density of traction that you have within your target user base.

By this I mean, a user will have a much better first run experience if a high enough density of her contacts are already using the application. It is many years since I first signed up for Facebook, but I can imagine that the first run experience of seeing everyone you know already using Facebook is probably pretty compelling.

However, early on in the life of your application, your early adopter users won’t open your application and see all their friends. Instead they will be presented with a blank social feed and an empty friends list.

In recent years, a number of new applications that are trying to grow aggressively have used a number of techniques to try and solve this problem. One is to use a “full world feed” where a new user is able to access the content of the entire user base. This means that whenever a new user first lands in your application, they will be able to see at least some user generated content.

The second technique is to curate the “best” of the application’s content and make it sticky on a user’s feed so that they are presented with high quality content straight away. I believe Viddy tried to do something along these lines in the early days.

Whilst these two techniques do provide solutions to the empty screen problem, they usually don’t make the application feel very personal. Seeing random content from the entire user base is good because it very quickly shows what other users are creating or how they are using and experiencing the application. And sticky content is a good way to show the “best” of that content.

However, trying to grow aggressively and using these two techniques feel very hollow and I don’t believe they are good tactics for building a loyal and engaged user base.

Onboarding problems in Enterprise applications

Enterprise applications have a very different type of onboarding problem compared to Consumer applications because their users are usually there for very different reasons. Whilst a user of a Consumer application is looking for personal gratification, an Enterprise user is usually looking for productivity gratification and so you need to appeal to those different goals.

One of the big problems with Enterprise applications is when they just drop a user off at a blank “New document” screen. The User probably already knows what is possible with the application and what they are hoping to achieve, but being presented with a blank screen can be intimidating when you don’t know where to begin.

Enterprise applications usually have their own set of tools and their own specialised interface for dealing with the problem they are trying to solve. Whilst both these User Interface decisions are likely to be well thought out for solving the problem, they are often unfamiliar to new users. This can present the user with a steep learning curve.

When a user is trying to solve a productivity problem, they need to feel like they are making progress almost straight away. This means you need to provide a very quick mechanism for delivering instant gratification for what they are doing.

If it is going to take a long time for the user to get any value out of your product, it is highly likely that they will start looking for a different solution.

Solutions to onboarding problems

So I’ve outlined the general common problems of the onboarding experience and I’ve went into detail about the specific problems for Consumer and Enterprise applications, now I’ll go through some of the solutions that I like to see in new applications, how they work and what are the benefits from them.

Whilst onboarding is a problem for almost every application, it is generally a fairly easy problem to solve. One industry that has totally nailed the onboarding problem is the casual, social gaming industry. If you really want to see an amazing onboarding experience, try installing one of the top social mobile games. These applications are highly focused on onboarding new users and converting them into highly engaged new gamers.

With that being said, here are the things I would do to ensure an amazing onboarding experience in your new product. The first two are aimed at Consumer applications and the following four are for Enterprise applications.

Focus on tiny niches to begin with

As I mentioned above, when you try to aggressively grow a Consumer application, you often end up in a situation where you are signing up a lot of new users, but only a tiny percentage of them are active daily. Whilst this is good for boosting your vanity metrics, it isn’t going to be sustainable for long.

Instead, focus on one tiny niche and try to get a high density of users from a community who are all interested in one specific thing. When new users who share that interest start using your product, they will discover an application that is highly catered to their interests with a lot of valuable content and users straight away.

Once you are totally dominating this niche and you have acquired as many users as you think is possible, move on to an adjacent niche to expand your potential user base. Always make this an adjacent niche so that your current users are also likely going to be welcoming for your new users. For example, if you target the one particular subset of online gaming, then move on to another very similar subset as your next niche, don’t just jump straight to the biggest available niche just because you are showing the first signs of traction.

Don’t rely on Facebook’s friend graph early on

A popular method for signing up to new products is to use Facebook’s authentication. This is beneficial because it allows a user to sign up in one simple step and it will give them instant access to any of their existing friends who happen to also be using the application.

However, relying on Facebook authentication to try and guarantee an early social graph is only going to work in very rare circumstances. The problem with Facebook is, the majority of users are connected with such a random assortment of friends and people they know from all parts of their life. When you are targeting very specific niches, Facebook connect is often not going to be very useful for many users.

Instead of looking to grow through existing user’s social graphs, aim to target existing communities that are focused in your first target niche. This might mean writing content around that topic, or hanging out in forums or IRC. Whatever it is, it is going to be a lot better than Facebook Connect in the early days of your product’s life.

Follow the scent

When a new user begins to use your Enterprise application, it is usually because they are trying to solve a very specific problem they are facing at work. If you can capture what the problem each particular user is trying to solve, you can offer a customised interface and a more targeted solution to try and make each user’s first run experience more engaging.

For example, say you are using Content Marketing to acquire new users. You create an Adwords campaign to target accountants who are trying to solve their Project Management problems. By tagging the link to your landing page with a particular parameter, you can mark this new users as been acquired from this specific campaign. When that new user first logs in to your application, she can be presented with specific screens, information and tutorials all focused on using your application to solve the problems of Project Management for Accountants.

By “following the scent”, you can very easily provide a highly customised first run for each of your new users.

Gradual engagement

When a user begins to explore a new application, she will often be reluctant to go through the hassle of creating an account and following through a registration procedure before she is convinced on the benefits and value from the application.

Gradual engagement is a process where you allow a user to follow through a series of steps to provide instant gratification before you request that they create an account.

Hopefully by the time they have reached a stage where they want to “save” their progress, they should already be convinced about the value that your product will offer them.

This is a useful technique if your target users have a problem that they are unsure how to solve. Your application probably has a fantastic solution to the problem, but if the solution is unfamiliar to the user, converting cold traffic to new sign ups will usually be extremely difficult.

By using gradual engagement you can provide instant gratification and a compelling reason why a new user should sign up for your product.

Walk through to achieve first goal

A technique that is used extremely well in social gaming is to walk the user through achieving their first goal.

When the interface or tools of production are unfamiliar to a new user, it can often be extremely overwhelming to figure out how to achieve the desired goal.

A user walkthrough will take a user through the process step-by-step and introduce each tool, button or interface one by one to show how they can be used to create value.

By the end of the walkthrough, the user should be familiarised with the new tools and be confident to start exploring by themselves. Hopefully during the course of the walkthrough, the user should also have seen the possible value of using the application.

Walkthroughs typically use popups, on screen indicators, message boxes and video examples to illustrate how to use the new tools. Again, if you want to see this sort of thing in action, download and install just about any social game.

Provide a finished editable project

And finally, a way to combat the empty screen problem is to provide the user with a finished project when they log in. Instead of facing a blank canvas, they can start playing around with the finished project to see it in action, see how it works and see what is possible using this application.

Whilst this technique is usually not powerful or compelling enough for new users, it is a very important thing to consider. Does your application lend itself to having default example projects when a user first signs up?

By having these example projects, you solve the problem of the blank screen, but you also give your users the motivation and inspiration to start using their new tools.


As I mentioned above, onboarding is a problem that all new products face, but it is really a very simple problem to solve. I don’t thing any of the techniques that I have mentioned above are very difficult, and they all should be very easy to integrate into your product.

It is often not the technical challenge, but rather, understanding your users and how they will first start using your product.

When you build a new product, its easy to get wrapped up in your own creation and start to exclusively use the power tools that are meant for experienced users. However this is a bad mindset to have because it makes you susceptible to alienating new users.

Instead, you should aim to sign up as a new user to your product once a week to always keep that flow fresh in your mind. How can you improve the new user flow from what you have discovered about your users so far and how can you create less friction and provide more immediate gratification for new users?

This post and many of the techniques were inspired by Patrick McKenzie, one of the best online marketers on the Internet. Patrick writes a fantastic email where he talks all about the tools and techniques for selling online software. So if you are interested in the content of this post, you should probably go and sign up for his email list!

Philip Brown


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