This following article is a guest post by Jackson Noel. Jackson is the Co-Founder of Appcues, a SaaS product that allows you to create in-product experiences without changing any code. You can follow him on twitter: @jacksonjonson.
Since I joined a startup that focuses on user onboarding, I’ve had half a dozen conversations just like this one:
Startup Friend: “Dude I need to talk to you about our user onboarding.”
Me: “Okay, what’s up?”
Startup Friend: “We’ve changed it 3 times now. Can’t figure out how to get users to engage.”
Me: “Gotcha. Well what are you doing to change it?”
Startup Friend: “I’ve gone through every one of Samuel Hulick’s teardowns like 10 times. We’re just trying to get ours to be more like Slack’s.”
Me: “Have you looked at any of your own data?”
Startup Friend: “Nah, it’s too early to have anything insightful in there. We only had like 250 users sign up last month.”
Friends in early stage startups have come out of the woodwork to talk about their user onboarding experiences. And every time I tell them the same thing: completely ignore your user onboarding experience (for now).
Why your startup shouldn’t focus on user onboarding
To my friends, this advice usually seems *counterintuitive*. After all, it’s coming from someone whose business model hinges on people focusing on onboarding. But bear with me for a moment…
Great user onboarding makes users say, “WOW, this is awesome,” and recognize that your product is a must have experience. But these WOW moments don’t come easy. And the mechanics by which you onboard users is just a small part of whether or not they fall in love with your product.
The more substantial part of the equation is the value your product delivers to your user: something in their life that must get easier, faster, cheaper, more productive, more fun, etc. because of using your product. Otherwise, why would they switch?
And that’s the difficult part to create. That’s the part that requires customer development and experimentation. It requires you to test your assumptions, to pivot, to try new things.
Once you get that part right, building a silky smooth onboarding experience to deliver value to your users quickly will become far easier. But if you focus on onboarding too early, two bad things can happen:
Your team will have less time to build something that truly delivers value (which again, is the much more difficult and important part of scaling user growth)
You’ll create “product baggage” that makes it harder to build and experiment. Now you have to worry about your onboarding flow with each product change you want to make
After I explain this to my startup friends, I usually get a response along the lines of, “but wait, if I don’t have a good onboarding flow how am I ever supposed to know whether my product is delivering enough value?”
Indeed, we have ourselves a classic chicken or the egg conundrum.
Instead, onboard your customers manually
In lieu of investing your development time in user onboarding, you should do whatever it takes to help your new users achieve success. Reach out to them personally via email, install a live chat product, set up demos, etc.
Yes, this approach doesn’t scale. But it will save your startup’s most scarce resource, developer time, and accumulate your startup’s second most scarce resource, information.
Here are 4 things you should do:
Talk to each new user who signs up to learn about their goals and offer to help get their account set up successfully
Reach out to all of your existing customers and find out what they love about your product
Touch base with every single user who signed up but never adopted your product (usually an email after 60 days of zero activity works well)
Track your usage data very closely (Mixpanel/KISSmetrics are great tools for event tracking, Inspectlet is great for recording user sessions). Make sure to cross-reference all your qualitative findings (from customer conversations) with quantitative data.
Bonus: Here are two google docs with email templates, 3rd party tool recommendations and more to help you onboard users manually.
This manual onboarding process is not easy. If your product is still in the early stages, you’ll probably see concerning data and get a lot of negative feedback. It can be demoralizing.
But it will make your team stronger and your product better. You will better understand the motivations and anxieties of your users, identify points of confusion, and figure out why unengaged users didn’t stick around.
This information is a gold mine for an early stage startup. It gives you the information you need to thoughtfully iterate and pivot your product to get more users to say, “this product improves my life”.
When is the right time to prioritize your onboarding experience?
Once you have a high degree of certainty that users are getting great value from your product, you need to fire yourself as onboarding czar and hire your product. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule about when this time is for every startup.
But there are generally two types of measures you should keep your eyes on:
Measures of product value. This could be your NPS score, churn, or Sean Ellis’ 40% rule.
Measures of volume. Try to avoid a vanity metric like total number of users. Use something more meaningful like # of highly engaged users or # of paying customers.
At Appcues, we’re waiting until we have over 100 paying customers with greater than a 40% score on the Sean Ellis question to fully optimize our user onboarding experience. But your criteria should be unique to your situation.
When the time is right, you’ll have all the right information to optimize the in-app path that leads to user success based on what you’ve learned by onboarding users manually. Take a look at the user onboarding academy to help you build it the right way, and make sure you’re ready to commit to it for the long term.
As Samuel Hulick points out, user onboarding isn’t a feature. You can’t set it and forget it. Onboarding requires the same thoughtful iteration and pivoting as does the rest of your product.
The bottom line
With more products attempting no- or low-touch sales funnels, user onboarding has become a hot topic over the past year. And for mature products that have validated their value proposition and customer demand, it is a hugely important part of your funnel to optimize.
But for early stage startups that still have much to prove, optimizing your onboarding experience can be a monumental mistake. It will slow you and your team down, distracting you from truly solving your customer problem.
So completely ignore your user onboarding experience (for now). Instead, replace it with yourself. You’ll learn, build and address your customer pain faster.