Onboarding New Users Is Harder Than You Think

What happens right after sign-up makes or breaks any web product.

Some new users expect you to welcome them and show them around the place, while others prefer you to get out of their way as soon as possible and let them figure things out for themselves. The problem is that in order to be a top site with tens or even hundreds of millions of active users, you’re going to have to successfully onboard customers from across this spectrum. On top of that, users don’t necessarily want to do the things you need them to do in order to be successful. You need to balance the user experience of onboarding with the friction of necessary steps such as account creation, user education, and data gathering. No small challenge. Here’s 7 trends in designing effective onboarding.

1. Social Login

Social login offers users one-click sign up. It lets them create an account with pre-existing social profiles like Facebook, Twitter or Google.

One-click registration and sign-in combats “account fatigue” according to Janrain Consumer Research. Their 2013 survey on The Value of Social Login says 92% of people have left a website instead of resetting or recovering login information, while 1/3 do so frequently. If your goal is any form of virality, social login is a must, as it increases your Monthly Unique Users (MUU) to Monthly Active Users (MAU), meaning a returning visitor is already in a position to take sharable actions.

Social Login also offers the ability to access and connect to the user’s contacts. A majority of those surveyed (52%) believe that Social Login leads to a better, more personalized online experience. The network effect from creating user accounts with social profiles also has potential upsides for user and revenue growth. According to the same study, 78% of people say they have navigated to a website after seeing it mentioned on their social network, and 72% said they would consider buying a product based on positive recommendations from their friends online.

Top sites Quora, Pinterest and Vimeo offer Social Login as an option alongside the option to create an account with an email and password.

According to Social Login provider Gigya, Facebook (52%), Google (24%) and Yahoo (17%) are the top 3 choices of their customers overall. But, as they point out, the right choice for your application depends on your target market.

2. Required Tutorial

Nir Eyal says that all successful consumer apps have created habit-forming experiences called “desire engines“, so-called because the more often a user completes these experiences, the more likely they are to “self-trigger”.

If completing these desire engines helps users form habits that will keep them coming back to your application, then obviously you want them in play as soon as possible. Let’s look at some.

The most obvious, frequent example of this is to-do apps that offer you a sample checklist to mark as done, thus planting the seeds of the habit. In the more complex case of Pinterest, that desire engine is pinning images of things a user finds interesting.

It’s no surprise then that the Pinterest tutorial walks users through the process of searching for and creating their first pin. The goal is to give them their first taste of success, and kickstart the “desire engine” so they keep on pinning. In the world of education this is known as scaffolding i.e. providing students just enough support to accomplish a task they can’t yet complete independently.

It’s also important to note that Pinterest sets aside time and space to introduce the concept of pinning itself. Even when users have successfully pinned an image, they’re probably at greater risk of not returning if they don’t understanding the larger concept. It’s logical for Pinterest, and any application with a new or unique concept, to be sure that new users don’t leave until they understand it. This is likely why Pinterest requires users to complete their tutorial before they are free to explore on their own.

3. Clear Path To Completion

Offering users a structured set of steps to walk through helps reduce abandonment. Psychologically speaking, this makes a lot of sense. If new users know how many steps they must complete, they’re more likely to complete the process. This transparency earns websites more patience from users because uncertain, unexplained waits feel longer than known, finite waits (PDF).

Quora, LinkedIn and Facebook all provide numbered steps to preview and track new users’ progress through the entire onboarding process:

4. Generate Early Value for The User

For a new user to become an active one, they must experience value from the application – and the sooner, the better. Churn rate is proportional to the distance between sign-up and value. That is why top sites focus on steps they know are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for user retention. By focusing on these KPIs, onboarding experiences are designed to set the user up to experience value from the product quickly. This increases their probability of remaining engaged.

Twitter is a great example of an onboarding process designed to generate value for new users based on their KPIs. Whether or not a user follows other people on Twitter is an important indicator for user retention. So, Twitter requires you to follow at least 10 other users before you can begin using the product on your own. New users are first shown a list of the most popular Twitter profiles and they must follow 5 of them. The next five follows are chosen by topic. New users that follow people and topics of interest to them are more likely to continue using Twitter, that’s why Twitter helps them do that right from the start.

Facebook is about connecting with friends. Making these connections gives Facebook users the most value. It is also the basis of their desire engine – that urge to answer the question: “What are my friends doing right now?” Facebook puts this value builder front and center as the first step in their onboarding process. Simply put, users with friends are much more likely to return, be engaged and drive ad revenue for Facebook. When was the last time you logged into that fake profile you made for that thing? Exactly.

A recent focus of LinkedIn has been the sharing of content. To introduce new users to this feature, they’ve built it into the onboarding process. Much like Twitter, LinkedIn presents popular profiles, or “influencers” to follow. Adding this to their onboarding process indicates that LinkedIn sees content sharing as a big key to future growth.

Dropbox’s onboarding focuses on making sure new users install the Dropbox sync software on their computer. As the first step, it’s a higher priority even than asking them to create an account. Yes, Dropbox has a web app, but the real magic and value comes from auto-syncing files from your laptop to the cloud. Dropbox does not worry about a product tour until the installation is complete and a new account is created. New users who fail to install the software on their computers do not get the full value of Dropbox. They’ll be less valuable customers. They’ll upload fewer files, use less space and be less likely to pay for more storage. Dropbox focus on the installation first to drive user and revenue growth.

5. Progressive Profiling

Another way to increase the success of onboarding is to reduce friction in account creation. To do this, Janrain Consumer Research suggests sites allow users to progressively build their profiles. You do this by requesting only the most important and necessary information during registration. It’s an important balance. Ask too much of new users and they may not complete the process. Don’t ask enough and users are less likely to get value out of your product and churn. Requiring just enough increases the odds of retention.

Just enough does not necessarily mean enough to result in the most complete experience from your web app. You can see this tactic in the way LinkedIn, Facebook and Tumblr give users easy opportunities to build their profiles over time.

LinkedIn approaches Progressive Profiling by assigning user profiles a strength rating. The rating is displayed on every user profile with a call to action to “Improve Your Profile Strength”. Users who click the CTA are given the chance to complete elements of the profile they left incomplete during their initial onboarding. This approach is progressive because it lets users complete the entire profile all at once or step by step. With each step they complete, users are rewarded with an improved strength rating.

6. Opportunity to upgrade

Brand new users are motivated users. That makes onboarding a great time to convert freemium user to paying customers.  Spending time to create an account and install software is a pretty good sign someone believes your tool will help them complete some job-to-be-done. So, it makes sense that top sites with freemium models, like Dropbox and Vimeo, give new users a chance to upgrade during onboarding.

As discussed above, the focus of Dropbox onboarding is to get new users to install their sync software. Dropbox users get the most value when they can sync data between their desktop and the cloud. A user who can sync data is more valuable to Dropbox. Syncing data means they’re more likely to reach their data limit and upgrade to a paid account.

Interestingly, there isn’t a strong call to action here—just a question. However, anyone who doesn’t know that 2 gigs of storage is not much these days may still be able to pick up on the subtle visual cues in this upgrade screen.

If your product is as simple as Dropbox, you might only need three different sized boxes to explain the benefits of upgrading your plan. As you can see here, Vimeo plans require a bit more explanation. But the idea behind the plug is the same: convert while the motivated user iron is hot.

7. Automagical Registration

What if you didn’t need to register before you used an application? Well, do you believe in automagic? This rare, 100% friction-free account creation process is used by Tripit and Square Cash. The only onboarding friction here might be the time you spend trying to wrap your head around how these services work.

TripIt organizes travel plans into an itinerary that has all of your trip details in one place. All one has to do to create an account is forward travel confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com. Using these emails, TripIt automatically builds an itinerary for your trip that you can access online. Your account is created for you with the email you sent your trip details from, and a confirmation email is sent in reply to complete the login.

For those less inclined toward belief in the automagic, TripIt also offer a traditional email and password account creation option.

At no point before, during or after using Square Cash do users create an account. To use this money sending service, users simply open a new email and address it to the person they want to pay, include cash@square.com in the CC line, and write “$” followed by the amount they want to send in the subject line.

Square then emails the sender a link where they provide a debit card to fund the payment. Once this process is complete, the recipient gets a similar email asking for their debit card information. Square Cash is then able to transfer funds between the two accounts at no charge.

This account-free approach by Square Cash may actually offer a more secure way of sending money. Where there’s an account there’s a target for hacking, after all. Still, offering a sense of security around an application where you send cash via email without a password is a hurdle they’ll need to overcome. The friction of a login and password may be the kind of security blanket online users expect for some time to come when it comes to their money.

The right way to onboard your users

In the end, the right kind of onboarding for your site depends on your business model—and the answers to a few important questions:

  • What do you need to know about your users to provide them with a great experience?
  • What do they need to do to get hooked on using your service?
  • What are the costs and benefits of adding friction to your onboarding process?
  • How will you motivate users to complete it?
  • At what point in your users’ lifecycle does onboarding need to be completed?
  • What actions must your users take regularly for your company to profit?

The answers to these questions will take time and experimentation to uncover.  Hopefully these examples from some of the top sites today give you a sense of where you might start.

What do you think is important to building an effective onboarding experience? What do you think of current onboarding practices? Let us know in the comments.