How Instacart onboards thousands of shoppers every week

himani amoli
Feb 20, 2018 · 9 min read

hopping for someone else’s groceries is much harder than you would expect. Every week, thousands of new shoppers across the country shop and deliver their first orders for Instacart customers. These initial orders are the best opportunity to familiarize shoppers with the ins and outs of shopping on the Instacart platform. The goal is to get new shoppers comfortable with the platform so they can get up and running quickly and maximize their earnings

A tale of a broken onboarding

Previously, new shoppers attended an in-person session where they watched how-to videos to familiarize themselves with the Instacart platform. Despite these in-person sessions, we noticed that many shoppers struggled on their first order. This resulted in frustrated new shoppers, increased call volume to our help centers and the biggest problem of all: many shoppers abandoning the platform after only a few orders.

Shadowing Instacart onboarding and first time shoppers

The onboarding experience we’d created was underperforming for Instacart, for shoppers and for customers. We quickly identified three main areas of failure:

Timing — The video content was front loaded during the shopper sign-up experience. The shopper was viewing this content, on average, 5–7 days before shopping their first Instacart order. Additionally, the in-person sessions only happened 1–2 times a week. This was not an effective process as it added more time between the shopper signing up and them shopping for their first order.

Tracking — The effectiveness of the onboarding content wasn’t being tracked. We couldn’t tell if any of the content was helping our shoppers.

Consistency — Local operations teams would update the content as they saw fit which resulted in inconsistent onboarding across regions.

Research, research, research!

At first, the best way to solve our ineffective onboarding experience was elusive. The unanswered questions seemed endless. What information must every shopper learn, and what was the sequence of this information? What method of delivery would resonate best with shoppers? As Instacart continues to grow, how would this process scale and still be effective?

Due to the lack of pre-existing insights and metrics, we developed a comprehensive research plan to explore what our current onboarding and shopping experience was like for Instacart shoppers.

A shift lead conducting an in person session

Auditing current onboarding content — We shadowed shoppers at local in-person onboarding sessions. These sessions provide detailed information about the complicated task of grocery shopping for a customer. From base definitions like, “what is Instacart?” to more detailed descriptions of “How and when you will get paid?” and a seasoned shopper’s “Tips & Tricks” on fulfilling an order.

Traditionally, this information was delivered in a lengthy, hour and a half, presentation followed by Q&A. Hearing the types of questions shoppers asked was exceptionally helpful in filling in the gaps of scant or missing information in the content provided during the presentation.

Overall, while there were many great points conveyed during these in-person sessions that we hoped to preserve, we walked away with a keener understanding of the pitfalls and flaws to this process. Also, field ops teams from various cities helped us execute this user research plan in regions across the country so we came away with a more holistic view of the current state of shopper sign up and onboarding.

Model grocery store at HQ

Identifying moments of opportunity — The last step was to identify the pain points in the shopping experience, without being biased by our existing onboarding content, to better prepare shoppers for their first order. To pinpoint those moments of pain, we recruited subjects from a list of people who had initiated sign up but hadn’t become active yet, i.e. prospective Instacart shoppers that weren’t familiar with the shopping process. We brought them in to our model grocery store at the Instacart office and asked them to shop and deliver a demo order without any instruction on how the Instacart platform works and without any help in accepting, shopping and delivering an order. We took note of the moments during the journey that caused confusion or were difficult for a “shopper” to get through. These were the moments we wanted to explicitly cover in the onboarding process, so we could eventually transform frustration with the experience into delight.

Improvement opportunities in shopper onboarding

Designing a better onboarding experience for shoppers

Now that we knew what we needed to cover, we started thinking through the how? For inspiration in creating immersive onboarding tutorials, we turned to video games.

What would the Mario Bros onboarding look like 🤔

Video game tutorials follow a few rules; we created four onboarding design principles to match those:

Just-in-time content— Our goal was to not overwhelm shoppers with information like we were previously doing in our in-person onboarding sessions. Throwing a lot of information at the shopper right away could lead to them forgetting what they saw, lead to confusion or, worse yet, they could get bored and skip through it. When presented in manageable increments, the shopper could move through the onboarding quickly and begin applying the lessons immediately.

Personalizing the experience and priming the shopper about what to expect on their first order and how to start shopping for the customer’s order.

Based on these guiding principles, we created the first version of our in-app onboarding. We determined trigger points for each learning moment, so the shopper would be presented with the information when relevant. For example, we created a tip about weighing produce when the first produce item has to be selected, and we created a tip for what to do if an item is out of stock when this first arises.

Fun fact: The shopper goes through all of the learning moments by their third order!

For example, the tip on the left below is shown to the shopper when they first need to weigh a produce item. We learned through research that shoppers get fixated on getting the exact weight the customer ordered, which is difficult with produce. The goal here was to impart ‘as close as possible’ to the shopper in terms of the customer’s request. (So, 2.1 lb., for example, is close enough to a request for 2 lb. of bananas.) The tip on the right is in response to a learning we noted while shadowing shoppers — many shoppers were unfamiliar with the analog grocery scale. This tip helps show them how to read a scale in case they’ve never done it before.

Just-in-time tips on how to weigh produce items

Be concise — In an attempt to better connect with the shopper, we made our content clipped and interactive. Too much text, we found, kills pacing and destroys an immersive experience.

For example, the tip on the left below addresses the shopper having to stage an order for the delivery driver for the first time. The staging area is a foreign concept to a new shopper and is often located in a different area for every store. Our goal here was to guide them to the staging area immediately after check out by visually leading them into finding it. Similarly, the tip on the right uses animated illustration to depict how to prep the bags in the staging area for the driver.

Just-in-time tips on how to prep the delivery bags for the drivers

One major area of confusion for shoppers during their first shop involved printing custom labels for the order and arranging the bags on labeled shelves for the delivery driver. Many new shoppers struggled with this step. They were unfamiliar with QR codes, which Instacart uses for printing out labels. Our goal was to show not tell the shopper on how to complete this step.

This ended up being the most complicated but effective animation we created. Not only we were able to illustrate what a QR code was, we were also able to show shoppers the tools they’d use in the process (a scanning gun and a printer in the staging area) and what the resulting label would look like. The final tip shows the shopper how to place the bags in the designated area for the driver to find.

Just-in-time tips for how to print bag labels and where to place bags for delivery drivers.

Make it fun — People are more engaged and demonstrate better retention when they’re having fun. Instead of using pictures or static illustrations for onboarding, we turned it into an opportunity for using motion to convey a message. Part of it was just looking for those moments in the product where we could start to introduce better storytelling to acclimate shoppers to a new flow or a new task. Animated illustrations helped us convey the message without any excess copy. These small touches made the learning moments less mundane and more delightful.

For example, the tips below guide the shoppers on how to check out once they’re done shopping the order. The shoppers need to alert the cashier that they are from Instacart. Additionally, they need to use their Instacart credit card and know how it works.

Just-in-time tips for a new shopper going through checkout for the first time

Reinforce learning through action — This helps the shoppers understand how to apply the tools they learned in the onboarding and apply it when actually shopping for a customer’s order.

For example, when the shopper experiences their first out-of-stock item, we inform them on best practices for picking a replacement. These tips are are based on feedback from Instacart customers.

Just-in-time tips for a new shopper experiencing their first out of stock item

Right after we deliver this message, we have shoppers go through simulated replacement scenarios, so they can apply the lesson.

Reinforcing learning through action — simulated replacement scenario.

Our team shadowing shoppers while testing the new onboarding experience

Streamlining the future

The onboarding experience is tailored for new shoppers for when they encounter specific situations and we’re nowhere near done. Every time a shopper completes an order, we learn more about their shopping behavior and collect valuable feedback from them on their shopping experience. Our goal is to eventually create personalized onboarding content based on struggles gleaned from tracking shopper behavior.

Share of households reached as a result of market expansions

We’ve been blown away by the results! After testing in a few markets, we were able to launch the new onboarding experience nationally. Additionally, we provided a way for Instacart to to launch new markets without the need of a field operations team in every market — while maintaining our quality metrics. In just a short time, we’ve expanded from 30 to 190 markets. We’ve created a way to expand the Instacart offering to new markets in a more scalable way.

But, there’s still so much to be done! If you are interested in working on one of the many challenging problems we have at Instacart, check out our careers page at careers.instacart.com.


🙏 We would like to thank the Lottie team at Airbnb that made the process of adding motion to this project a scalable and seamless experience. And most of all, we would like to thank the shoppers for their invaluable feedback. Thank you, thank you, thank you! 🙏

Thanks to Kaushik Gopal, Nima Zahedi, Jeremy Stanley, Max Mullen and Melissa Gould for editing and suggestions!

Instacart Design

Stories and ideas from designers working at Instacart

himani amoli

Written by

Product Design @ Instacart

Instacart Design

Stories and ideas from designers working at Instacart