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Thoughts On User Onboarding

09 May 2014

Lately, I’ve put a lot of time into thinking and researching the process of onboarding a user into a digital product. Onboarding is an essential instrument of a product that conducts a user into knowing the product and understanding how the product might improve their lives.

The American Psychological Association defines an effective onboarding procedure as an organizational socialization. They define the procedure as such:

“..refers to the mechanism through which new employees (users) acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.” [1]

Now, consider that statement through the lens of a digital product. Onboarding is, then, the conduit through which a user goes from being a newcomer to being an effective user of the product.

Heavy task it seems. Let’s break it down into two segments: understanding the user and applying effective onboarding procedures for that user.

Understanding The User

If you’ve been in digital product design, development or management you’ve probably run across the term personas. A persona is a fictional character that represents a subset of the market the product wishes to address[2]. In other words, an ideal user for the specific product you’re trying to build.

Creating one or two personas in your product development process is key because it allows to focus on a specific situation. I’m not speaking about a specific trait or attribute of a persona, but rather focusing on the situation or problem the persona is currently in.

“Attributes are not causation, that’s the key thing. Attributes do not cause you to do things, it’s your situation that you’re in that triggers your causality.” [3]

— Ryan Singer

A user does not pick your product because his/her hair is blonde. A user is going to use your product because he/she sees it as value to a specific situation or problem he/she is trying to solve. Attributes play a role in the consequential situation he/she finds itself in, but it is ultimately the situation of the problem itself that leads the user to desire your product’s value or solution.

Applying Effective Onboarding Procedures

As the product owner, manager, designer or developer, it’s your job to hone exactly what problem you are trying solve, and how useful one user might find your product.

Let’s consider the situation to effectively onboard a user. One of two things must have happened to the user to reach your product’s onboarding procedure:

One, he/she just signed up and is curious to see how your product might help his/her current situation.

Two, he/she is an existing user and is curious to see how your product might continue to help his/her situation, possibly exploring a different platform your product exists on (ex: iOS, web, android, etc).

What might an effective onboarding process look like for these users? Without going into the details of visual design choice, interaction preferences or copy adjustments, let’s simply tackle this question with a high-level view of the product and the user.

Let’s look back at the definition of onboarding[1]. I believe, simply, an effective onboarding process is the one that delivers a user the necessary knowledge of how might this product solve his/her problem.

To dive into research on how some products are currently tackling the onboarding process I suggest you check out Samuel Hulick’s Onboarding website. Also, I highly recommend watching Facebook Paper’s engineer, Madelaine Boyd, talk about Facebook’s unique approach to onboarding a user.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onboarding#cite_note-orgsocial-1

[2] http://www.romanpichler.com/blog/persona-template-for-agile-product-management/

[3] https://www.useronboard.com/ryan-singer-user-onboarding-jtbd/