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Seven ways to design a frictionless onboarding process

Author: Mike Dunn

As part of a recent project, I’ve been researching how products and services onboard new customers. We’re interested in finding out the best ways to onboard users when a service spans both physical and digital.

Smart speakers, voice assistants, fitness wearables and connected TVs have become a normal part of our lives. Getting the onboarding process right means less friction for the user during initial setup and first use, and more chance for the product to become useful.

A really good onboarding process for a physical and digital service needs to help you:

  • Understand how the app works
  • Understand how the physical product works
  • Understand how the two work together
  • Explain how your data is used
  • Help you create an account
  • Let you start using the service

…all while reiterating the value of the service, reminding you you’ve made the right decision, and without becoming overwhelming or boring.

Here are some of the most important things we’ve learned about how to get new users onboard with your product or service.

1. Onboarding begins before you click ‘Buy’

There’s a chunk of the onboarding process that begins even before you’ve begun using a service or have a product in your hands. In Spanish, instead of ‘onboarding’, they say ‘welcome plan’ – a much more human term:

Thanks to David D’Souza

Think about the last time you bought a new product online or signed up to a service. What happened next? Did you receive a message welcoming you, or just a basic confirmation email?

How about when the product arrived? Was it in sturdy, yet eco-friendly, packaging, or stuffed into a plastic envelope? Did the packaging open easily, or did you have to wander around looking for scissors then hack it apart?

And how did you feel when you finally opened the box?

Emotion and feeling play a central part in how people perceive onboarding experiences. You want to feel like a real person, not a faceless customer. A welcoming email while you wait for delivery, attractive packaging, and clear instructions to get started once you open the box can all help make the first stage of onboarding positive.

Amazon does a great job of this when you buy a Kindle, using your account information to make sure your new device (literally) arrives with your name on it:

Think of onboarding as beginning from the moment someone clicks ‘Sign up’ or ‘Buy’ – not from when they first open your app or switch on your device.

2. Onboarding isn’t a feature tour

Onboarding doesn’t just mean ‘teaching people how to use your product’. In fact, if that’s all you’re doing you’re not really doing onboarding – you’re giving a feature tour.

Onboarding should be about helping someone to understand a service and begin using it successfully. It should strike a balance between informing them about how to begin using the service, without overwhelming them with features and options.

Within an app, the onboarding needs to explain how the app fits into the service it’s part of much more than it needs to explain how the app itself works. The evolution of Headspace’s onboarding process is a great example of this. In earlier iterations, onboarding was a detailed explanation of how to use the app – check out User Onboarding’s tour from 2016 to see it in action:

User Onboarding’s 2016 review of Headspace’s onboarding shows how heavily it relied on explaining app features

More recently, Headspace has shifted to a process that starts by asking its users what they want to do:

It’s the difference between saying ‘here’s everything you can do’ and asking ‘how do you want to use our service?’

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3. Making it engaging…

Helping new users get onboard with your entire service is great, but sometimes you just have to sort the basics. With healthcare services, this often means asking things like height and weight. But it is possible to do this in an interesting way. Fitbit does away with your phone’s default input controls in favour of full-screen inputs that are in keeping with the Fitbit brand:

4…but keeping it easy

Healthcare and fitness services like Fitbit face a unique problem, as they often need quite specific information (like height and weight) to function. But what happens if someone can’t provide this right now? You don’t want the whole onboarding process to break down for a lack of a set of scales or a measuring tape.

We expected more apps to offer graceful fallback options, like ways to estimate your weight if you don’t know it exactly:

Waist circumference diagram via Wikimedia Commons

But this doesn’t happen very often. Fitbit’s height selector is elegant and simple, but it expects you to provide your exact height or come back another time. What happens if you guess? There’s no way to tell.

What else could a product or service do here? One option might be to prime people at the beginning of the onboarding process – telling them all the information they’ll need before they begin.

Another might be to offer ways to continue onboarding without the right information. Perhaps the app could help you estimate your BMI as a stopgap if you don’t have a measuring tape or scales to hand. Or perhaps it could offer the option of a reminder to supply this information when you do.

5. Offering a way out

Speaking of graceful fallbacks, what happens if someone doesn’t want to be ‘onboarded’? During our research, we began to map out about all the ways a full onboarding process wasn’t appropriate. How many of these scenarios could be applied to you at some point?:

  • You’re just checking out a service, but not committing to signing up
  • You’re already using the service, but want to add another device
  • You’re already using the service, but got a new phone
  • You’re selling an old device, and want to make sure it’s no longer linked to your account
  • You’re setting up multiple accounts or devices (think family tech support at Christmas!) and don’t need hand-holding each time

Apple’s Health app doesn’t offer a way to skip the onboarding process.

Let people make up their own minds about whether they need onboarding. A simple ‘Skip’ button is enough to give them this control.

6. Levels of commitment

Something we’ve found in user research is that participants are willing to spend a surprising amount of time setting up a service that includes a physical device.

Considering the steps involved – downloading an app, creating an account, agreeing on terms and conditions, confirming communication/notification preferences, setting up and pairing a device, understanding how to use the device and app, and more – it’s striking how rarely people become frustrated or bored.

This could be down to the research conditions – there are fewer distractions in a research session than in normal life. But participants also point out that if they’ve committed to buying a device, they’ve committed to setting it up.

By the time someone is setting up their new device, they’ve already decided the service is right for them. This is quite different from onboarding for a free app or online service. These cost nothing to briefly try and then reject. (Of course, using solid design principles then iterating and improving through user testing helps a lot here too!)

(The flip side of this is of course buyer’s remorse – the regret we sometimes feel after an expensive purchase. Mitigating for this is one reason many products you purchase online come with a no-questions-asked money-back guarantee.)

7. Maintaining the relationship

We have so many apps and gadgets competing for our attention, it’s easy for things to fall into neglect. And sadly, even physical products we’ve paid good money for can end up forgotten in a drawer.

So making onboarding an ongoing part of your service is vital. Just as you should assume onboarding begins before sign-up, assume it keeps going – forever. Emails, notifications, or in-app messages can all be used to maintain and develop a relationship with a customer or service user. The key is to make these useful, unintrusive, and the least annoying they can be.

Remember, in software, there’s more value after the sale than before. You want to give people the chance to become a loyal, engaged customer or user. Don’t rest on your laurels just because you’ve got someone on board. Helpful explanations of more complex functionality or secondary features, reminders of core functionality, or prompts to update contact information and privacy preferences are good. A constant barrage of special offers or new ways to spend more money with you, not so much.

In summary

There’s a lot more to onboarding than just telling people how to use your product.

Remember to:

  • Make your new user feel welcome as soon as they click ‘Buy’
  • Use onboarding as a chance to get people using your service successfully – not show off all the features
  • Make it interesting, but make sure you have a fallback plan
  • Let people opt-out
  • Take your time, if you’re offering a paid service
  • Make onboarding an ongoing process
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