A failed first mile cripples a new product right out of the gate. Your product may get lots of downloads or sign-ups, but very few customers get on-boarded and primed to the point where they know three things: (1) why they’re there, (2) what they can accomplish, (3) and what to do next (note: users don’t need to know how to use your product at the beginning, they just need to know what to do next!). Once a new user knows these three things, they have reached “The Zone.” Fantastic businesses are built when the majority of users that express interest in a product are able to get on-boarded and into The Zone.
In a world of moving fast and pushing out a “minimum viable product,” the first mile of a product’s user experience is almost always an afterthought. The welcome/tour, the onboarding, the explanatory copy, the empty states, and the defaults of your product make up the first mile. Ironically, these crucial components of initial engagement that make up the “top of your funnel” for engaging new users are typically addressed in haste as a product is launched. In some teams, I have even seen these pieces outsourced or delegated to a single engineer or designer to figure out on her own.
Many people will use this principle as a way to refute any attempts to add extra steps into the signup or onboarding process. This can be a mistake. If you make it clear to the user why you are asking them for a piece of information and why it will be valuable to them, you can actually increase activation rate because it increases confidence in the value to be delivered, and more actual value is delivered later on. Principle #2: Remove all friction that distracts the user from experiencing product value Retention is driven by a maniacal focus on the core product experience. That is more likely to mean reducing friction in the product than adding features to it. New users are not like existing users. They are trying to understand the basics of how to use a product and what to do next. You have built features for existing users that already understand the basics and now want more value. New users not only don’t need those yet; including them makes it harder to understand the basics. So, a key element of successful onboarding is removing everything but the basics of the product until those basics are understood. At Pinterest, this meant removing descriptions underneath Pins as well as who Pinned the item, because the core product value had to do with finding images you liked, and removing descriptions and social attribution allowed news users to see more images in the feed. Principle #3: Don’t be afraid to educate contextually There’s a quote popular in Silicon Valley that says if your design requires education, it’s a bad design. It sounds smart, but its actually dangerous. Product education frequently helps users understand how to get value out of a product and create long term engagement. While you should always be striving for a design that doesn’t need explanation, you should not be afraid to educate if it helps in this way. There are right and wrong ways to educate users. The wrong way: show five or six screens when users open the app to explain how to do everything — or even worse, show a video. This is generally not very effective. The right way: contextually explain to the user what they could do next on the current screen. At Pinterest, when people landed on the home feed for the first time, we told them they could scroll to see more content. When they stopped, we told them they could click on content for a closer look. When they clicked on a piece of content, we told them they could save it or click through to the source of the content. All of it was only surfaced when it was contextually relevant.