Getting on board with onboarding - Cogent

Getting on board with onboarding

Ben Rowe

Ben Rowe

Designer. Dad. Defender of the Universe.


One of the key contributors to a successful product-led business is a great user onboarding experience.

By helping people understand how your product works and how it can help them, you’ll be able to activate more users and turn them into happy paying customers.

As your company grows, a successful onboarding experience helps you move from start-up to scale-up. It takes the pressure off your support team, reduces the volume of support requests, and allows your customer to truly serve themselves.

Onboarding also does wonders for your product’s virality. If your onboarding makes it easy for people to understand your product and the value that they’ll get from it, they’re far more likely to become regular users, and even advocates of your product – spreading the word to other potential users.

And yet – despite the benefits – so many businesses still don’t invest the time and effort into creating a great user onboarding experience. And it shows.

If you’re one of them, I’m here to show you how a more strategic, considered onboarding experience will be better for both you and your users.

This is a two-part blog post. In this first post, we’ll talk about what can go wrong with onboarding. But more importantly – what you need to focus on to get it right.

What great onboarding isn’t.

To explain what a great onboarding experience looks like, I think it helps to talk about where onboarding can go wrong.

More products than I care to mention fall into these buckets:

A fraction too much friction


If your onboarding flow begins with a long and complicated sign-up screen, you’ve missed the point.

Signing up for a new product should feel seamless, not arduous. Onboarding is not the time to be adding friction to the experience.


Nonexistent onboarding


All too often, digital products have little to no onboarding at all.

New users sign-up to a product, in the hope that it will make their lives a little better. But with no onboarding in place, users can easily become lost and confused.

So they leave, never to come back. This is why negative onboarding experiences can lead to high customer churn.

The issue here is that onboarding is rarely considered as part of a minimum viable product. It’s not baked in from the start. Once a product is up and running, we forget to go back and fill in the blanks.


Tacked-on (boarding)


In other cases, products have added some user onboarding, but it feels like an after-thought. It’s prioritised like a new feature, and product teams only get to spend a sprint or two to work on it.

As a result, teams start their onboarding journey by adding tooltips, or perhaps a feature tour to explain the product. Highlight all the features, and send users on their way.

Simple, right?

This approach rarely works. It’s too tactical, feels like a bandaid solution, and awkwardly different from the core product.

What’s more, in the race to explain every feature, and every pixel, users are often left feeling overwhelmed, uninspired, and unwilling to buy your product.

Rather than an afterthought, we need to take user onboarding more seriously.

Great onboarding is never about you.

The other big problem with onboarding?

Too often, your objective is to improve your onboarding flow to better explain your product, or to convert more users through your conversion funnel.

Here’s a hint – it’s not about you.

Like almost every part of product design, it’s more sensible to take a more customer-centred approach to onboarding.

Rather than saying “this is what our product does”, you should be focusing on what the user is trying to do.

  • What is it that they’re trying to achieve by using your product?
  • What progress are they trying to make in their lives?
  • What does their  conversion funnel look like
  • What steps do they need to go through to be successful?

Which is why I like this definition the most.

“User Onboarding is the process of radically increasing the likelihood that new users become successful when adopting your product.”

Samuel Hulick, User Onboard 

Some great examples.

The recent spotlight on product-led growth has led to a huge focus on user onboarding. Here are just a few of my favourite onboarding experiences out there today.

Noom is a hugely successful weight loss app that all comes down a top-notch onboarding experience.

By entering just a little bit of personal info (like age, current weight and ideal weight), Noom presents new users with a customised weight loss plan and a timeline for when they can achieve it. They’ve created a strong hook before asking for signups.

Learn by doing – Grammarly

Grammarly is an AI-powered spelling and grammar checking tool.

I love the way that they onboard new users, starting from sign-up.

To begin with, Grammarly uses a short, animated GIF that clearly explains their value proposition, and exactly how to use their product.

But the rubber really hits the road once you’ve created an account, and are presented with a “demo document” that lets you learn the product by using the product and creates a second “a-ha moment” from the second you’re logged in.

The end-to-end onboarding experience of learning by seeing, followed with some learn by doing, is a thing of beauty.

Another great example of this that springs to mind is Spotify.

I can create a Spotify account in just a few simple steps, and then I’m presented with a simple screen to select 3 or more artists that I like. Ed Sheeran is not my cup of tea, but I can easily search for my favourite bands here.

Once I’ve done that, Spotify generates a custom playlist based on the artists I’ve chosen. It feels like magic.

The key thing that these 3 examples have in common? They are strongly focussed around user value.

Each product clearly understands what part of their offering is most valuable to the user, and wastes no time in demonstrating it.

Understanding what value means to your user.


So the first step to great onboarding is to figure what success looks like in the eye of your customer. What are they trying to achieve by using your product?

Once we understand what our user’s goals are, we’re in a much better position to design an onboarding flow. One that doesn’t just focus on your user interface, introduces your key features and highlights the value that customers are looking for.

But how do you figure this out? How do you understand what progress people are trying to make, and how using your product can help?

The key to this is to learn more about your existing customers, the ones that have upgraded to a paid account. What’s the one thing about your product that encouraged them to stick around?

Do the research

You can use both quantitative and qualitative research methods to uncover this.

On the quantitative side – there’s a lot to learn by reviewing your analytics data. What patterns can we observe about the users that have upgraded to pay for your product? What feature had they used the most before upgrading? What is the first thing they do when they log in?

User interviews, feedback surveys, and contextual inquiries are just some qualitative methods that can help you to dig a little deeper.

Reach out to your existing customers, the ones that have upgraded to a paid account. Take the time to get a deeper understanding of their lives, their businesses, and their day-to-day.

Find out where your product is already adding the most value to them. What’s the one thing about your product that they simply can’t live without?

If you’ve done your homework, you should have some strong insights into when and where your product adds the most value. This can then become the cornerstone of your onboarding experience.

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