Onboarding is Everything

A great product with a poor onboarding experience is worse than a bad product

This is the iPhone user manual. I bet you’ve never seen it before. It has 32 chapters in 196 pages. My wife buys a new iPhone every year. During the unboxing, this user manual goes straight to the trash can. She never regrets it — “are you kidding me? there’s siri”. I pity the technical writers who spend months, if not years, producing manuals no one reads (and they know it).

When we design a product, we look at onboarding as a feature. We start with the assumption that the user does not know anything about the product and we must teach them how to use it. We look at the onboarding flows of popular products and try to steal ideas from them.

Why reinvent the wheel? These products have millions of users, a lot of thought and research must have gone into their decision making. More often than not, I’ve found that to be a bad idea.

Introducing a new product to market, especially a consumer product, is in many ways like introducing a new toy to a child. Children react to toys in mysterious ways. They have a small attention span — they either like it or they don’t. Some toys get abandoned quickly, some get destroyed, some stick — often, for no clear reason.

They don’t read assembly instructions or tutorials — if the toy is interesting, they jump right in and try to figure things out. If they can’t, they leave.

Consumer products are similar. Most products end up in crowdsourced museums — people hear about them, download them, play around for a couple of minutes, and then either forget about them or delete them. Studies show that an average app loses 77% of it’s users in the first three days, and 90% of the users delete the app after installing.

Keval Desai offers some explanation — the web is becoming like TV. Every new product is like a new TV show. If it captures users’ imagination, it will take off. No one can tell in advance what will stick and what won’t. That resonates a lot with me when thinking about consumer products — it’s not just about “solving pain points”, it’s about “capturing user imagination”.

Something is always changing in the world, and there are always opportunities to create newer and better experiences for people.

The iPod didn’t solve a pain point — it created a radically better experience to listen to music. It’s simplicity and beauty attracted a lot more people to it — more people started listening to music on the go because of the iPod. The simplicity and beauty of Medium woke up the writer in me, and I know I’m not alone.

In many cases, consumers don’t realize they have a pain point, until they see a solution. That’s why focus groups are not effective for discovering pain points, but are somewhat effective for validating product ideas. Consumers are busy people, but there’s always enthusiastic early adopters that are willing to try new things.

If they see something interesting, they’ll give it a shot. If not, they’ll move on. Unless they love it and tell their friends, it’s impossible to get scale, no matter how much money is spent on marketing.

So, onboarding is everything.

That means no matter what the product is, hooking the user within the first few seconds is most important — it can make or break the product. That means coming up with an experience that makes the product obvious and delightfully captures user imagination within a few seconds.

They should “get it”, “get to it”, “love it”, and “feel like telling others about it” — all in the first session.

That also means no tutorials, videos, signup forms (unless absolutely required), or any other friction points. Popular products have all of these because they’ve crossed the chasm and have a wider user base. New products haven’t, and cannot afford to have a “normal” onboarding process.

Many argue that you cannot avoid tutorials. For B2B products which require an initial ‘setup’ before the product can show value, maybe. But for consumer products, if the product is not obvious, I think it’s game over right there.

People just don’t have the patience to click through five screens, learn what it does, and then land on a signup form; especially when they’re holding the phone with one hand at a Starbucks.

A simple test: Take your app to a Starbucks, show it to people there, and don’t say anything. If they don’t get it, your onboarding test failed. If they get it and engage, your onboarding is good but the app is likely a failure. If they get an instant “wow!” and show it to their friend, your app has promise.

I am not suggesting that “wow” is more important than “I get it”. I’ve seen many apps that focus too much on fancy animations during onboarding to lure the user. I think both are important, and “I get it” comes first.

I am also not suggesting that other things like engagement and retention are not important. They obviously are, but onboarding is more important than anything else. Good onboarding buys enough time to re-engage. Bad onboarding leaves no room to re-engage.

Good onboarding also buys virality. Things like ‘invite friends’ and ‘referral programs’ aside, we’ve seen that real virality happens offline. If people love something, they’ll talk about it.

And it starts with onboarding.

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