Zen and the Art of User Onboarding

Recently I purchased a new pair of binoculars. They were generally well reviewed, although a few people did mention having some difficulty attaching the strap. Undeterred, I placed my order and eagerly awaited their arrival. The next day, I returned home from work excited to try them out around the property. Before doing so, I decided it would be a good idea to attach the strap.

Things went downhill from there. The instructions were poorly written, the diagram illegible, and the lens-cap tethers were already attached to the eyelets, preventing the strap from being inserted. I was stumped. I read and reread the instructions, looked online for answers, and tested various hypotheses before finally getting them attached in a manner of my own devising. Of course, by the time I was done, darkness had settled in. I cast them aside, and now, weeks later, I still haven’t picked them back up.


A few of the problematic diagrams.

What happened? My initial enthusiasm quickly spiraled into frustration. My interest faded, I moved onto other things, and now those binoculars have some work to do to get back in my good graces.

Why am I going on about my own inability to follow instructions? I’ll get over my initial frustration with the binoculars — they’re of high quality and I’m sure I’ll get years of enjoyment from them. It’s because this simple example illustrates a larger point: Your product never has a second chance to make a good first impression. And with many products — especially software, mobile, and other interactive experiences — users can all too easily walk away and never come back. With more complex systems, they may never learn properly, creating workarounds and compounding their errors as they go.

Clearing the Path

As the products we use every day become increasingly complex, the art of user onboarding has taken on greater significance. Mobile apps, software, and websites have accustomed us to being greeted with feature tours, coach marks, contextual tips, even “gesture practice.” But there’s more to consider than simply front-loading your product with all the information your users might need to know:

1. Think Upstream

People start to develop mental models — concepts of how they think things work — long before making a purchase or using a product. It’s important to set expectations accurately from the beginning. Advertising, packaging, imagery, reviews, and word of mouth are all things people use to shape their understanding of a product and to decide whether or not it interests them. Helping potential users create accurate mental models by setting appropriate expectations upstream is an essential, and often overlooked, step in effective onboarding.

I once observed user testing for a product I was working on at the time, a portable scanner. Over and over we watched people insert the paper upside-down, often repeatedly, despite having failed the first few times. We soon realized all the advertisements for this product, including the images on the box, showed the paper being inserted the wrong way because it made for a better picture. The people in user testing had already formed an inaccurate mental model based on these images of how to use the product — and that model was so strong it persisted despite obvious failure.

2. Be Considered

Any good design will keep in mind the needs of new, intermediate, and advanced users throughout the process. It can be tricky to meet the needs of any one of these user types without stepping on the toes of the others. For complex or frequently used interfaces, it becomes more important to optimize workflows for experienced users — often to the chagrin of the new.

A proper onboarding experience offsets this imbalance by explicitly acknowledging it. As trade-offs are made in designing workflows for each user type, consider how these decisions might impact onboarding. If you notice the list of things that will need to be explained growing too long, rethink the prioritization of each user type in the overall design.

Novel interfaces and interactions are yet another consideration. Most of us have come across the “gesture practice” step the first time we launch a new mobile app. Swipe left to do this; tap and hold to do that. Many gestures have become standardized, and many more are on their way. These types of interactions can be great timesavers and can optimize workflows, but often the discoverability is low and they need to be demonstrated up front. The more gestures or novel interactions there are to explain, the less room there is to introduce other important concepts.

3. Give, Don’t Take

Some product experiences begin by asking for all possible information to create an account or complete a profile. Often this information is necessary, but take a moment to rethink what is needed, and when. Focus instead on what the product can do for the user, and ask for essential information only as needed — the rest can wait until later.

The best onboarding experiences deliver a quick win for the user. Ask yourself what’s motivating someone to get started with your product. What is he trying to do? Can you guide him through accomplishing this goal, teaching along the way? If so, you’re going to have a satisfied user who’s well on his way to understanding how to use your product.

As long as you’re moving users toward accomplishing a goal, the amount of time it takes becomes unimportant. It’s like driving — most would prefer to drive on back roads for an hour than to sit in traffic for half that time. I’ve tested goal-oriented onboarding flows that seemed at first glance to involve far too many steps, only to hear users delight at “how easy it was.”

Make sure the goal you guide users toward is something they’re ready to do. I attempted to “set up” my binoculars because I was ready to start viewing things at 8x magnification right away. If I were setting up a fancy new oven, it’s unlikely I’d have a pot roast ready to cook. My goal in that case would be prepping the oven for when I’m ready to use it.

4. Make Less

Of course there are times when gathering information or offering some initial instruction is unavoidable. In these cases, brevity is key. Divide concepts across multiple steps, and ruthlessly edit the copy. Don’t cram several concepts or tasks into one step, hoping to reduce the overall number of steps. Similar to the driving analogy above, six simple steps are more palatable than three convoluted ones, not to mention better understood and retained.

inline_eckhart_1 An Example

Several years ago I worked on a wireless touchscreen scanner capable of sending documents directly to various cloud destinations — without the need for a computer. The on-screen interactions were easy and clear, but there were still a few steps to take before users could get up and running. We decided to make use of the touchscreen for initial setup. While we still included a manual, we peppered these simple instructions throughout the packaging and on the device:

1. Plug in
2. Turn on
3. Follow the on-screen instructions

Now what? We learned that most often the impetus to set up the scanner was the user’s desire to scan something. So after presenting the prerequisite steps (connecting to WiFi, entering credentials for a cloud account) as simply as possible, we guided users through the process of making their first scan. For each step, we provided brief instructions paired with visual cues.


These instructions move users toward the goal as quickly and simply as possible.

When we tested with users, no one bothered with the manual. I’ve never seen people get up and running so quickly. Once they started interacting with the touchscreen, it was already a small victory for them. Quickly moving toward completing their scanning goal was an even larger one. Even though there were quite a few steps to move through, to the users it felt like the three steps listed above were all there was to it.

It was by far the most successful onboarding process the company had ever implemented. Reviews of the product praised the simple setup process, and call volume related to setup was drastically reduced. Focusing on the initial interaction resulted in tangible, measurable benefits.

Win the Heart

Our first experience with a product can create a lasting impression that colors our cumulative experience — positively or negatively. This is in our nature — once we decide we like something, we tend to commit ourselves to that decision and become increasingly willing to overlook other flaws we might encounter. Of course, the inverse is also true.

Well-designed products that employ great onboarding experiences tend to create a loyal base of brand advocates. Users who have poor initial experiences do the opposite, warning people away from the brand and authoring negative reviews. Some might even go so far as to write an entire article about it.