Why harder onboarding can lead to better users.

And how Betty Crocker learned this years ago.

by Brenden Mulligan


I recently met with an entrepreneur building a tool that large organizations will use to visualize complex workflows critical to their business. When he was walking me through the product, it seemed complicated, so I asked him to show me the new user experience.

We then sat and chatted about the balance of creating an engaging on-boarding experience that makes new users invest time in creating something special and convinces them to come back to continue to use the tool. It’s a delicate balance, and it reminded me of a story about cakes.


The instant cake new user experience

The story is about Betty Crocker Instant Cake Mix. Most of us are familiar with the stuff. Bought in a box at the grocery store, all it requires is the addition of oil, water and an egg. Mix then bake. Voilà! Let them eat cake!

This seemingly simple process is the result of a lot of customer insights and user testing. When the product was first released, the preparation process was actually simpler. The mix contained dehydrated egg and oil, and the user (usually a homemaker) only had to add water. The cake tasted exactly the same, but what the Betty Crocker company saw unimpressive sales and a product category that wasn’t growing. They eventually discovered that these homemakers didn’t feel like they’d baked. It was too easy, and they weren’t proud of the result.

So they turned to user testing (which I’m a big fan of). During these tests, they varied the amount of ingredients the study participant was required to add. Some just added water, some water and an egg, some more. Then they interviewed them about how satisfied they were with the result. Keep in mind that every cake, regardless of the ingredients required of the participant, tasted exactly the same.

The result led to the formula we all know today. When the participants were asked to add water, oil and an egg, they felt like the cake was theirs. They felt like they’d baked. They were proud of their creation and continued to come back for more.

When there were fewer ingredients, it was too easy and they didn’t come back. When they were asked to add more ingredients, it was too much work and they didn’t want to do it again. The sweet spot was water, oil and an egg. And millions of cakes later, it still is.


Cakes applied to startups

So how does this apply to startups? What does baking, or a 50 year old cake study, have to do with building web and mobile products? To answer that question, we need to reframe the cake. Think of the baking process as new user on-boarding. Think of the ingredients as steps to fully use and understand the product. Think of the cake as the utility of your product.

When people use your product for the first time, it’s your goal to delight them. This usually means doing something that makes their life easier. And this is accomplished with giving them something that they’d want to use again and again.

Common logic would lead you to believe the best way to make their life easier is to remove as many steps as possible. The user should need to do as little work as possible to get the reward you’re offering them.

But sometimes, especially when building tools for people to use to move their business forward, it doesn’t click right away. And if you make things too easy for them, they might not come back. This happens for two reasons:

  1. If it’s too easy, it must not be valuable
  2. They don’t invest enough in the product to pull them back for more.

I made this mistake with Onesheet

When I launched Onesheet, I made it possible for musicians to create a self-updating website in under two minutes. 10,000 musicians signed up in the first month. It was pretty incredible, and I’m allowed to pat myself on the back because building it that way was a mistake.

Sure, the ease of use helped create buzz that led to more users. But the users weren’t sticky. They came to kick the tires, which I made incredibly easy, but they didn’t return. And because I promised their site would stay up to date, they didn’t feel like there was a reason to.

A competing service, with a more complicated product, didn’t have this problem. When a band invested the time to set up a page (which could have taken several hours to get right), they felt like they’d created something real. They wanted to show it off, because they’d been part of the site’s creation.

Luckily, Onesheet was a phenomenal lead generator for that service, and they acquired it in 2013. But the lesson stayed with me.


At Cluster, we added complexity to teach

Making the on-boarding experience a bit more complicated can also be beneficial when trying to teach a new user about what exactly your app does. At Cluster, we spent months running extensive user testing sessions to find the balance of making the new user experience educational but not too much.

When we initially launched, setting up a new group album was one tap. But after watching users go through the process, we realized many didn’t know what to do next. So we made the initial setup a bit more laborious in order to teach them what the app was for and how to use it.

By forcing new users to do things like invite people and post an initial note, we emphasize that the app is for sharing content with a set group of people. After adding this flow, 100% of user tests successfully on-boarded meaningfully, where before only around 60% completely understood what they should use the app for.

Also, because creators took the time to carefully select who they wanted to invite and what content they were going to be posting, the people they invited were welcomed with compelling content. This led them to post more, which resulted in a more meaningful album. This in turn has resulted in twice the amount of invites sent and boosted our activation and retention metrics.


When building a product, it’s a wonderful goal to make the on-boarding easy and delightful. But make sure you’re also giving your user something to invest in. If you make it too easy, it’ll be harder to retain them. But if you can get them to spend the time to set up something they value, they’ll stay a user for a long time.


About me: I’m co-founder and designer at Cluster, which builds web and mobile apps that enable users to create private sharing environments for groups, travelers, classrooms, and more. I previously created and sold ArtistData and Onesheet.

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