Product Secrets
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Product Secrets

Pictured: the first screen a user encounters when launching Cover — part of their awesome onboarding workflow.

5 Ways To Improve User Onboarding

Interested in learning about onboarding? After you read this post, join @mayafish and me at our next Product Secrets meetup on August 12th, 2014. Tom Wahlin, lead product designer at Cover, will be sharing some best practices and learnings that led Cover to the fantastic onboarding experience they have today.

One of the most discussed topics in product development these days is onboarding, otherwise known as the very first encounter a user has with your product. If you nail your onboarding experience, you’ll be well on your way to positive engagement and retention. If your onboarding sucks, you’ll quickly leave your users feeling cold, helpless, confused… and deleting your app.

A great onboarding experience is difficult to deliver, but luckily, there are some proven (and simple) best practices out there that should give you plenty of inspiration for improvements. Here are five of my favorites:

1. User-initiated permissions

Need to access your user’s photo library for your app to function properly? Displaying a contextless permissions dialog as the first thing your user encounters inside your app probably won’t get you that access. Instead, make the user initiate the permission request themselves and only show it once you’re all but certain the user will grant access. Also, make the copy inside the dialog super descriptive and explain exactly why your app needs access. Something vague is just going to confuse your users. Here is a terrific article by Brendan Mulligan that outlines this entire method in great detail. If the user still decides to deny your request, make sure the app is not only functional, but worth using and makes a case for why the user should enable permissions later. For example, if you’re a photo app, this means showing sample photos instead of the user’s. If you’re trying to access the user’s location, let them input it manually if they’re not comfortable with you detecting it through the location permission.

Timehop does a great job of providing descriptive context around why the app needs permission to the user’s photos. When the user clicks the “Got it” button, the app is confident that the user will accept the native iOS permissions.

2. One-click login and payments

Typing on a phone is hard. Instead of making your user fill out a bunch of tiny text boxes to collect info like username, email address, and a password, let them sign up with Facebook, Google, or Twitter. Similarly, if your product exists behind a paywall (and you’re not using IAPs), consider using an existing payment service like Google Wallet or Amazon Payments. This will let your user pay with one click rather than having to enter their credit card information (again).

Anil Dash, Gina Trapani, and the ThinkUp team let users sign up with Facebook or Twitter, then pay with Amazon Payments instead of making them enter their credit card information. This not only saves the user time, but also makes them feel secure in using a service they already trust.

3. One thing at a time

If you do need your user to enter information manually, keep them focused on one thing at a time. Don’t overwhelm them with lots of small tasks or text boxes on the screen all at once. Cover does this by only letting users tackle one text box at a time during signup. They make it super clear exactly what they need you to do and why.

Cover keeps users laser-focused on one thing at a time. This user can’t even start typing in a password until they enter a valid email address.

Reminder: Tom Wahlin, Cover’s lead product designer (the guy who designed the flow you see above) will be speaking about onboarding at the next Product Secrets meetup on August 12th. Join us if you live in NYC and want to hear some trade secrets from the Cover crew.

4. Contextual tool-tips

If you have to educate your users about specific functionality, use contextual tool-tips instead of one big, slightly transparent overlay that points to many different buttons and UI elements, all at the same time. Secret does a great job of this. As you use the app and scroll through your feed on first launch, the app pauses your workflow to point out specific pieces of functionality and explains exactly how and why to use them.

5. Get your users invested early

While it’s incredibly important to educate your user during onboarding, it’s equally important to deliver real user value in that same experience. This gets the user invested in your product early. Here’s an example: does your app rely on user-generated content to thrive? Make real content creation part of your onboarding workflow. When the user is done learning how to use your app, they’ve already got content they can start using and sharing with others. French Girls, a strange, yet very fun app where users draw portraits of other users’ selfies, accomplishes this by forcing the user to contribute both a selfie and a drawing the first time they use the app. This guarantees that for each user who makes it through onboarding, they’ve not only learned how to use the app, but they’ve also contributed content to both their profile and the community.

The shirtless artist who serves as French Girls’ mascot forces the user to take a seflie and then draw another user’s selfie before proceeding into the app. This gets the user learning functionality, contributing content to their profile, and adding content to the community all at the same time.

Hopefully this was a helpful overview and gave you some ideas on how to improve your onboarding. Feel free to add a note here if you have any other great examples or come see Maya and me next week if you’d like to chat! We’ll be posting more tips and examples of great onboarding experiences all week, leading up to the Product Secrets onboarding meetup on August 12th. Check out @productsecrets on twitter to follow along!

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Michael Mignano

Michael Mignano

Co-Founder, Anchor and angel investor to 50+ startups. Former head of talk audio at Spotify.