The Subtle Art of User Onboarding & Adoption

In the last few years, user onboarding has become increasingly popular. But like everything else, things change over time. The “traditional” user onboarding flows and walkthroughs don’t work anymore. For the modern user, they’re overwhelming and unnecessary.

The main reason why a lot of people skip steps and walkthroughs is that they want to explore the product on their own. So, what does the next era of user onboarding look like?

Well, I believe that user onboarding 2.0 is going to be subtle and non-predictive.

By “subtle” I mean that the user onboarding flow will not start until the user decides they want it to. And no, I’m not talking about “click here to start a product tour.” I’m talking about triggered and driven in-app experiences that are shown based on the user’s behavior.

In other words, while the user is exploring the product on their own, short and engaging user onboarding flows will be shown as and when the user triggers them.

That’s how user onboarding 2.0 is going to look.

There are four main concepts you need to think about in order to successfully implement subtle user onboarding into your product and improve your activation rate, retention and user adoption.

Don’t waste the user’s attention

We all know that users have a limited attention span. Don’t try to explain too many things at the same time and don’t force users to activate particular features if they aren’t quite ready for them.

Instead, try to focus only on the most important things and keep in mind that the user journey shouldn’t be the same for everyone.

A lot of different personas will use your product with various starting points and use cases, so make sure your user onboarding can be personalized for each type of user you serve.

Segmentation plays a big role if you want to make the most out of your user onboarding.

Here’s what you should do:

      • Segment. Instead of focusing on all your features at the same time, try to break down your products into different segments. What’s the most important part of it? What’s the most important, core feature of your product? What are the things your users need to do before they feel the value? These are the things you will need to keep in your mind. If you’re building product tours it’s always better to have more product tours with fewer steps (2 – 4), than fewer product tours with more steps (above 4). Instead of building one “general” product tour across the entire product, try to build more product tours for each of the most important features.
      • Redirect the user’s attention. Sometimes the user’s willingness to explore the product on their own is a dangerous thing – they can easily get lost in your product. You should try to use relevant tooltips and in-app experiences to redirect their attention.
      • Divide users into different segments. Carefully research your ideal customers and create different groups and segments based on their data and behaviors. What are their starting points? Have they already used a similar product to yours before? Do they have experience in your industry? What’s their persona (demographic, job, title, company, age)?

You need to know all of these things in order to create personalized in-app user experiences for each segment.

A great way to deliver personalized in-app user onboarding flows is to understand your user’s goals and desired outcomes. To make sure you won’t miss anything out, the best approach is to use some user onboarding software.

A great example of learning more about your users in-app behavior and goals comes from Limecall.

Limecall shows different sets of in-app experiences depending on the choice the user selects. Everything is tailored to their goals in order to boost their attention and help them to learn more about the product.

In other words, Limecall’s user onboarding helps its users to learn more about the things they need and the goals they want to achieve.

Always stay relevant

General product tours are the biggest distractors of your users’ attention. As I mentioned above, users are more willing to explore the product on their own instead of following predefined steps.

That means you shouldn’t show in-app experiences that are not relevant to the user’s current stage.

Instead of showing one extensive walkthrough around the entire product, try to build a few smaller product tours (with 2-4 steps) for different pages or features.

Make sure that your user onboarding is relevant to the user’s existing flow and behavior.

Show relevant in-app experiences and tooltips only when your user has contact with them or visits a particular page.

When you’re paying attention to your users’ stage and current behavior, and show them the relevant in-app experiences, they will be extremely grateful. It will help them to learn and adopt your product faster.

The key takeaway: Wait for your users to go to a certain page, and only then show them the relevant tooltips, in-app experiences or product tours.

Nudge your users through the user journey

There is no point in pushing your users towards a feature activation point if they’re still not ready for it. Give your users the time and space they need to explore. This will make a little more sense if we take a deeper look at it:

After your users create an account, is it more relevant to teach them about your secondary features or to teach them about how to set up their account?

Or in other words:

There is no point teaching your users about “Feature B” if they didn’t activate “Feature A.”

We can better explain this illustration in the example below:

Hubspot’s user is already familiar with “Feature A,” sending email sequences. The user often copy/pastes their email bodies while using “Feature A.” HubSpot recognizes this, and so it shows him the modal about “Feature B,” creating email templates.

In order to make the most out of this, you will need to track events inside your app. After a certain event occurs, it’s more relevant to push specific features to the user. Users are more likely to adopt a certain feature after a particular situation occurs, or when they feel the need for it.

For example, if you have a product for sending drip email campaigns, it’s more likely that your users will send the email campaign (which can be considered as the main user activation point) after they connect their email provider with your product.

The key takeaway: Create different user onboarding flows, and make them play smoothly with each other. When the user finishes one user onboarding sequence, it should automatically trigger the second one (or sometimes, the second user onboarding sequence should be triggered even before the first one is finished, depending on the user’s journey through your product).

Use the appropriate UI patterns

Choosing the right UI patterns (or in other words, the in-app elements of your user onboarding), is one of the most crucial things.

User onboarding 2.0 is going to be subtle, so you need to make sure that your product-led strategies are aligned with this.

There are different UI patterns you can choose from, and each of them are more suited to certain situations.

      • Modals. Modals are the tabs that are shown inside your product. They cover the entire screen and so they are considered the most aggressive UI pattern. We saw a modal in HubSpot’s example above. Because of their aggressiveness, modals are often used for showing the most important information.

      • Slideouts. Slideouts are smaller tabs that are usually shown in the bottom-right or bottom-left corner. Because they are less aggressive, they are used for less important information or for in-app experiences (like checklists).

      • Hotspots and Tooltips. Hotspots and tooltips are small UI elements that are usually placed alongside particular in-app elements. They can be used to provide more detail about a particular feature or page inside the product.

The bottom line

The key concept behind the subtle art of user onboarding is that it should be invisible and unpredictable.

The four main pillars of user onboarding 2.0 are:

      • Keeping the customer’s attention
      • Being relevant
      • Showing the right message to the right persona at the right time
      • Choosing the most appropriate UI patterns

So, when you start planning to optimize and refine your user onboarding, be sure to go through the following things:

      • Understand your users. Learn more about them, who they are and what they are trying to do. Divide them into different segments and groups based on different categories, use cases, starting points, and personas
      • Create a plan for your product and decide on the core and secondary features. Make sure you carefully plan the user journey for each of the user segments and create smaller product tours and in-app experiences for different user journey stages
      • Make sure to be relevant and subtle. Show your in-app user experiences only when your user truly needs them. Don’t be overwhelming and don’t push users. Give them time to learn and adopt the product on their own. User onboarding is only there to help them do that faster
      • Only lead your users towards feature activation when they’re actually ready for it
      • Be sure to choose the right UI patterns that suit your in-app experiences and user behavior
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