Get on Board! (Onboarding Series, Part 1)

Brent Sleeper
Nov. 4, 2015 by Brent Sleeper

There are times when it feels we’re like a golden age for user-centered technology. I mean, how easy is it to download a personal quantification app that a friend recommended to you, or to bookmark a great new productivity web site to investigate when you have some downtime? Easy-peasy, my friends!

But if you’re anything like me, it’s also awfully easy to forget those downloaded apps and saved bookmarks. Maybe I’ll log in once, then get back to whatever I was working on, thinking to myself that I’ll check out this great tool a little later. Or perhaps I’ll get intimidated by a complex setup process for which I just don’t have time at the moment. Or, worst of all, the basic workflow for a site will be lost on me, and the payoff for figuring it out seems to just not be worth the effort.

Unfortunately for the teams behind these apps, each of these scenarios is a potential death-knell for my engagement with their products. Every time I delay taking a step with an app or service, it becomes decreasingly likely that I’ll become an active, paying, and profitable customer. That’s why the onboarding experience is so crucial—the first few moments with an app can make or break an entire customer relationship.

Welcome On Board!

Onboarding is a multi-faceted occurrence that encompasses a range of functional and qualitative experiences. It spans the very first welcome screen, account creation, introduction of features, and alerts that prompt specific tasks in a workflow. When done right, each of the steps represents an opportunity for increasing user engagement—but if poorly implemented or introduced with little forethought, they become hurdles that risk turning a customer away for good.

No wonder, then, that product teams put a good deal of thought into optimizing each aspect of the new user experience. The most successful apps find a balance that makes it easy—seductive, even!—for users to incrementally increase their engagement in a way that feels natural and self-paced, all the while capturing data and other indicators that feed behavioral models that identify profitable audience segments.

While there’s no magic bullet to solving the onboarding challenge, there are best practices that have emerged over the past decade and that reflect a combination of expert insight and empirical evidence.

One of the best of these best practices is the onboarding email. Once relegated to a simple transactional message that essentially said “hey, you joined, here’s a confirmation of your username,” the onboarding email has since matured into a fundamental piece of a product team’s toolkit. Today, the most successful onboarding emails are designed as a series of carefully-timed and triggered messages that help to accomplish several key goals, including:

  • Serving that original functional need of confirming account creation.
  • Reminding the user of key steps required to complete registration.
  • Validating the user’s email address (and, by the way, enabling double opt-in for email marketing).
  • Introducing key concepts in the features or workflow of the app or service.
  • Encouraging active engagement with and investment in the site or product.
  • Establishing brand voice and personifying the relationship a user has with a product.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be honing in on each of these aspects of the onboarding experience and featuring emails that do a good job of meeting each need. Until then, what’s worked (and what hasn’t) for your product team’s onboarding efforts? I’d like to hear from you.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

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