Your product’s onboarding experience matters, probably more than you think. A great onboarding experience can increase product adoption, decrease support costs, and decrease sales and marketing costs…all of which contribute directly to your bottom line. So where should Product Managers start, and what are the ingredients of a great onboarding experience? In this post, I share the business case for investing in onboarding, guidance on how to improve your product’s onboarding experience, and great examples from real world products.
Let’s start from the beginning: people don’t buy software, they buy a solution to a problem. So the faster new users can get familiar with how to use your tool to fix their problem, the happier they’ll be.
Onboarding can be thought of as a combination of documents, in-product tools, videos, and any training material that help new users get over the initial adoption hump. It’s a key aspect of the overall product experience, but an area often overlooked by Product Managers.
The chart below is a modified version of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Users go through this hype cycle as they start using new software. First, most users climb to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” hoping the new tool can solve all their needs. The problem is that many applications lack a solid onboarding strategy, so users quickly fall deep into the “Trough of Disillusionment,” and sometimes they never recover.
A good onboarding experience fixes this problem by taking users from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” directly into the “Slope of Enlightenment” and beyond. It also increases the chances that they will rave about your product to friends and colleagues, which means free marketing for your product.
The onboarding experience your product should provide depends on the type of software you build and your company’s business model. For example, in SaaS products, the sales model usually focuses on converting free trials into paid customers. To support this goal, the onboarding experience should help the user quickly understanding your product and evaluate if it is a good fit for their needs.
Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Many products out there just expose all their features without any guidance, and it’s very hard to determine if they actually solve the user’s needs. The user may think, “If it’s this difficult to get started, imagine how hard it will be once I’m trying to do real work.” And just like that, you’ve lost another potential customer.
Many enterprise software companies still believe that since the software has been adopted at a company level, then they don’t need to worry about the individual employee’s user adoption (or user experience). Therefore, the sales process shows a great, polished product, but once the implementation is done, users find out that the software is very hard to use and doesn’t look anything like what they saw on the demo.
The vendor’s response is to sell very expensive training or to point the user to some static documentation that is hard to navigate and often outdated. As a result, the user becomes frustrated. They’ll use your product because they have to, not because they want to. Best case scenario: They’ll tell their friends at other companies about their bad experience and recommend they use another solution. Worst case scenario: If the customer sees its employees wasting too much time and energy struggling with the product, they may cancel the contract.
You may be thinking, “Creating an onboarding experience sounds very expensive. We would rather invest in new features than an onboarding strategy.” But as a business savvy Product Manager, you know that every decision comes at a cost. It is very important to look at the complete cost of a decision to your company, rather than only looking at engineering costs.
If your onboarding approach is: “We didn’t budget for it”, you are only hiding the costs under other departments.
Impact on Support
Engineering might not want to spend the money creating a smooth onboarding experience, but believe me, that’s going to come back to bite you 10 times over in the form of increased support costs. After you launch a product, you can see a clear correlation between a poorly designed/ poorly documented feature and the number of support tickets you’ll receive. So the money you were “saving” by not investing in engineering, you are paying back (and then some) in support. Not to mention the intangible cost of disgruntled customers.
If you work for a startup where the support organization is not very mature, the challenge is even worse. Very often, the escalation path for support tickets goes back to the product team and to engineering. So your team is now responsible for releasing new features and supporting the current ones. This will slow down your team and provide a terrible experience for your users. The result is that you’ll see more churn and customers closing their accounts. If you happen to work in enterprise software, it’ll take no time before the VP of Sales is knocking at your door demanding you take care of her customers.
Impact on Sales and Marketing
If your customers have a hard time ramping up on your product, then you are passing these extra costs to sales and marketing. For example, if your software has a free trial, but your product is not easy to use, then you might not be able to hit your conversion goals. To solve the problem, your company might play the numbers game by spending more money on marketing to increase leads and hopefully get more conversions. In this case, you’d be attacking the symptoms and not the root cause.
This is also true for enterprise software. Big companies look at the total cost of ownership and will evaluate how much they need to invest in training and documentation to onboard their personnel. Many enterprise software companies lose their competitive advantage because they out-price themselves once they add the cost of expensive training. Having a clean and self-serve way to onboard new users is a competitive advantage that will reduce total cost of ownership and will make your product more attractive from a cost and adoption perspective.
How Product Managers can take action
1. Make onboarding a part of feature definition.
Product Managers are usually in control of feature definition and acceptance criteria. Including onboarding in these responsibilities shouldn’t be an after thought. It should always be accounted for.
Overall, it can be hard to sell the CEO on the investment needed to build a particular onboarding feature (such as documentation, in-product tutorials, gamification, etc). The trick is to explain the value of this investment as it relates to the bottom line and overall user satisfaction. Also, make sure to point out the impact of not making this investment.
Product Managers juggle many conflicting priorities, so you might decide to postpone some of the onboarding functionality. Doing so is perfectly acceptable, as long as you make that decision while considering all the possible issues and impact to the user experience. You are deciding to make that trade-off, and you will manage the consequences. That’s what Product Management is all about.
2. Make your documentation meaningful.
Documentation is like insurance. Nobody wants to think about it, but you still need to pay for it. As a Product Manager, you should have a great understanding of your target audience, including what type of documentation works best for them. Is it long documents? Tutorials? In-product help? Something else? As always, user testing and research can help reveal the best approach for your particular users.
Regardless of the format and delivery mechanism, if you have to write documentation, make it meaningful. Focus on documenting “why” something should be done, and the key tasks that users needs to complete. UI documentation, on the other hand, is a waste of time for both your tech docs folks and the user. How many times have you seen something like this?
- To create a document click the “Create Document” button.
- On the “Document name” field, enter the name of your document.
- Click the “Save” button to save your document.
Completely useless. Instead, focus on UX and modern techniques like the ones highlighted in the examples below.
3. Invest in UX.
As you probably have heard from many industry experts, UX is a big trend that Product Managers can’t ignore. Working with designers to understand the right navigation and interactions of our product, goes a long way. I recently read a quote that summarizes this thought:
“A UI is like a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”
The better your UI, the easier it will be for new users to understand what’s going on and start being productive quickly. Granted, some software applications (especially enterprise) can be very complex, and even with great UX, you’ll need to provide some good onboarding tools. So you might not completely eliminate the need for onboarding and documentation, but if you spend the time designing (and testing) a polished UI, that investment will reduce the investment required for onboarding. It should be an easy sell to executives.
4. Invest in user testing and analytics.
Unfortunately, user testing is still not widely adopted by most technology companies. If you are not sure which areas of your product need stronger onboarding tools, or if you are not sure where your customers are struggling, then user testing can really help. User testing can provide great insights in two different stages of the product lifecycle:
- Before you launch a feature: test with real users to see how easy the feature is to use and how quickly they can complete the task.
- Once your product is live: again, test with real users to become aware of the rough spots and what needs to be corrected.
User testing can be expensive, and it requires coordination with your users. An additional tool you should embrace (especially in cloud-based software) is the integration of analytics into your software. With analytics, you can monitor which sections of the software are used more often, where users are struggling, and what areas or features are never touched. With that data, you can prioritize your roadmap to fix existing issues, add new onboarding features, or retire features that are not adding any value.
Not having any analytics is like flying blind. Your feedback will be very biased since it’s coming from sales, support, or those few very vocal customers. Certainly that feedback is very valuable, but by itself, it doesn’t show the full picture.
Examples of great onboarding experiences
Bad or non-existing onboarding experiences are the norm. So what does a good onboarding experience look like?
Here are some examples from very different products and industries. My goal here is to show good implementations that go outside traditional “docs.” Notice how these implementations are not only great experiences, but they are consistent with the product’s brand and target audience.
Dots. A game about connecting.
When it comes to onboarding, business software can learn a lot from video games. Most video games provide a great onboarding experience that is immersed in the game itself, making it even fun to learn and discover the product. For example, the popular game Dots starts with a great tutorial that walks you through the game dynamics.
After a few screens, you feel comfortable with the software and can you start having fun. Dots is a very simple game, yes. But still, the onboarding experience is great. They could have a opted for a “readme file” or a “how to play” screen with text, but instead, they decided to make it interactive. It’s a very nice experience.
Aha! Product Management Software
It’s easy to say that Dots is an oversimplification, and that it doesn’t apply to complex software. Not so fast. Here’s an example from Aha!, a Product Management software. Once you log into the application, the first thing you see is a very clear tutorial screen. After that, most of their screens have call-outs that guide you through the most important aspects of the software. Along the way, they provide wizards, progress indicators, introductory videos, and even a full “getting started” guide as part of their overall documentation.
Why did Aha! invest in creating such a nice onboarding experience? If you think about it, they don’t have a choice. They offer a free trial and are counting on you to like the software in order to convert you into a paid customer. So the robust onboarding process is consistent with their sales strategy.
WP Engine is a startup that provides specialized WordPress hosting. They have partnered with Sidekick to provide one of the best onboarding experiences I’ve seen. Throughout the product, they provide interactive tutorials that use animated graphics to point the user in the right direction, but the user still has to click to perform the operations. This approach is solving the user’s immediate problem and training them at the same time. Brilliant! This strategy likely increases user satisfaction while significantly reducing support costs. The video below shows one of their tutorials in action.
For Product Managers, new user onboarding needs to be top of mind when defining any new feature. It’s the Product Manager’s responsibility to explain to internal stakeholders why it’s important to make this investment now rather than later. Adding onboarding features might not be as exciting as adding new features, but the investment will be returned many times over in conversion, customer satisfaction, and reduced costs in other departments.