Start where your users start

Q&A with Samuel Hulick, founder of the site ‘User Onboard’

Jeni Miles
Jul 18, 2018 · 6 min read

Samuel Hulick is the author of The Elements of User Onboarding and the UX designer behind the website User Onboard, where he publishes “teardowns” analysis of the onboarding processes of some of the most popular apps.

He defines user onboarding as any time there’s an opportunity to increase the likelihood that users are successful when trying to adopt your product and his motto is start your designing where your users start their using. Sounds simple enough right?

We spoke to Samuel to understand how he thinks user onboarding can be done to retain more signups, reduce churn, and engage people to use your app and subscribe for the long-term.

What is the most common user onboarding mistake you see when reviewing apps?

I try to avoid saying anyone is making a straight-up “mistake” when I’m evaluating a product from the outside, since it’s hard/impossible to tell how well something is working without access to a workflow’s conversion numbers.

With that said, though, when I’m working directly with teams, one mistake I see very often is a tendency to want to over-invest in the onboarding “interface” right away. For example, stapling a tooltip tour or welcome video onto a product that otherwise couldn’t stand up on its own merits.

While I’m thrilled that more and more people are finding user onboarding to be so important and wanting to get theirs right, jumping straight into adding “more interface” to an already-broken interface is kind of like adding even more seasoning to a chili that’s already too spicy.

Adding additional interaction cues gets more people to do more things, but figuring out what people should be doing to begin with is really what’s paramount.

Should people upload a photo first or invite a team member first, or something else entirely? That can be investigated in a number of ways, and takes time. Once it’s in place, though, you then have a very sturdy foundation on which to build with confidence.

What should be the first step in designing a great onboarding experience?

Just like above, the first step should involve getting an understanding of which user actions most directly correlate with long-term retention. That can be approached in a number of ways, like via quantitative analysis of the behaviors of users who are already using your product, or in qualitative research sessions used to get a better understanding of how your product fits into people’s lives to begin with.

Either way, garnering an understanding of what people are trying to get out of your product (and how to position your product to yield a maximum return for their energy) is the name of the game.

One way I love to kick off either kind of investigation is by leaning into lifecycle emails. Often, they’re one of the least-territorial parts of the company’s resources, and you can get some meaningful data very quickly if you approach it with an experimental mindset!

Lifecycle emails versus onboarding experience: which one works better for which instance?

I think of lifecycle emails as being a critical part of an overall onboarding experience, so it’s difficult to separate the two in my mind from jump street.

In both cases, you want to identify the sequence of high-value activities for a user to take in their path to real-world progress, and systematically assist them with each step of the way. That almost definitely won’t all happen in the first session alone, so planning your in-app onboarding UX and lifecycle email efforts around the long game is in everyone’s best interest.

Ideally, both work together to create a custom pathway to value for each individual signup your product receives.

What is the main information or instructions that should always be present in the in-app onboarding phase?

I wouldn’t say that there is anything that should “always” be present in an onboarding experience, and I’d say that’s especially true for instructions — ideally, your product is positioned in such a way that it doesn’t NEED instruction at all.

When providing extra, context is helpful. A great thing to focus on is how someone will benefit by investing their effort in the activity you’re requesting them to do.

For example, if you’re asking for someone to enter their phone number, there are ways that are a lot more motivational than simply saying “enter your phone number”. Instead, adding even a simple rationale like “so your friends can find you” or “to protect your account” can go a long way towards unlocking someone’s enthusiastic consent.

Should developers seek to drive purchases in the onboarding experience?

Developers should seek to drive purchases when those purchases are clearly relevant to the user. That might happen within the first couple minutes of use, or might not take place for a month or longer.

The idea is much more around building a system that takes signups in whatever state they arrive in, and helps them with each necessary step in their journey to becoming a person who’s ready to invest in a purchase (or even invest more of their time in finding out).

How do you know when someone’s ready to buy? When they firmly believe that what they’re receiving is more valuable than the money they’re paying for it. Most people probably won’t show up in that state, so getting them to that state is our job as product creators.

As superstar investor Chris Sacca is known for saying, “create value before you ask for value back.”

What is your top recommendation to reduce churn?

Just like the above answer: make sure people are receiving a steady stream of value.

Customer success teams all around the world monitor their accounts to identify ones who are tapering off so they can step in and intervene before they churn, and you can think of your product as something that does that “at scale”.

In fact, I like to begin the entire design process with orienting everyone — the product team and the users — around the value that the users will be gaining, and making that crystal clear in every facet of the product experience. This keeps “the value that the users are receiving” top of mind for everyone touching the product.

With enough attention, you can even aim for a state of “net negative churn”, wherein your existing users are producing more revenue (via upgrades, referrals, etc.) than the churning users are taking out. That can be a lovely thing, and quality user onboarding is a crucial first step toward it.

How should subscription apps with strict paywalls think about onboarding users who aren’t yet willing to pay, if at all?


People are coming to your app to attain some meaningful advancement in their life, and “using your product” is just one of many ways to make that happen.

If your product is a team collaboration app, for example, think of all the ways that you can build brand affinity (e.g. “a customer relationship”) with someone by providing courses on how to manage projects well, or blog posts on effective resource scheduling, or public-facing tools for tracking time, etc.

If someone isn’t ready to pull the trigger right now, they always might be a little further down the road. Try to find other ways to be helpful in the interim so their customer mindset is all but locked in for when that time does come for them.

When done well, the lines between marketing, onboarding, and product design can become very blurred — and that can be a very good thing when it happens.

If you are interested in finding out more about improving retention and churn, you can learn further to ‘Future proof your subscription business’ and in ‘How to win back subscribers who cancel’. Also, discover UX game design insights from ‘How to build mobile games with people in mind’.

What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on the best user onboarding experiences you’ve had? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.

Google Play Apps & Games

Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.

Jeni Miles

Written by

Passionate about how tech & behavioral insights can help us be happier & healthier • Book-devouring Londoner • Apps business development @googleplay, ex-@amazon

Google Play Apps & Games

Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.

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