The topic of how best to onboard new users has come up a few times recently with friends and clients.

My thoughts on onboarding have varied over the years, and honestly there’s just an endless amount of work you can do to try to improve your product. So instead of wasting an endless amount of effort, let’s start with the basics, and then measure what works and improve from there.

New products

If you’re launching a brand new product, your onboarding should be as close to nothing as possible. The best route is keeping the product so stupidly simple that a motivated user can’t help but figure it out themselves. Your so-called “onboarding” should be a hands-on sales process and lots of hand-holding.

You won’t know how to design a great onboarding experience when your product is new. You don’t even know yet what your customers absolutely love or need from you. Figure that out first, and then learn what causes them to get stuck and drop off. Fix those before optimizing for the crowd.

Growing products

Now, what should you do if your product is further along?

People have asked me what type of onboarding I think is best. Whether it's using demo data, nicely designed empty states, a detailed task checklist, tooltips, some gameificaton steps, or any number of ideas you see blogged about around the internet.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Don’t pick an onboarding style just because it sounds good to you in the moment or some product you like does the same thing. A mediocre, randomly selected onboarding process is probably better than no product onboarding... but if you’re going to spend time on it, let’s do it right.

Since you did all those sales and onboarding calls earlier (right? right?!?), you should likely know at this point the moment when people start to just “get it” with your product. The moment when everything clicks for them.

Maybe you’ve heard about this concept in the past. Facebook famously learned users would stick around once they added ~7 friends. So what did their onboarding design focus on? Making sure new users added their first 7 friends. Duh.

A lot of people hear this example and think: "Great! We just need to make a user do the primary action in our app a few times and they’ll stick around!” As if “adding a friend” was the main thing that mattered when using Facebook.

Nope. That’s ridiculous. It was having friends in Facebook that made everything useful.

What your new users need from you is to learn what makes your product different from the other options out there. Not what makes it the same. They’re desperately hoping you’ll teach them what is special about your product.

Let’s say your product is similar to ProductX, with similar features, but also does this one REALLYCOOLTHING? Very cool! Don’t spend a bunch of time showing your users all the same stuff ProductX does also... show them REALLYCOOLTHING, dammit! Get to the point!

Your goal with onboarding is to take that little bit of willpower, while they’re still giving you the benefit of the doubt, and teach them how your product makes them better.

Dig into your notes and research from those sales and onboarding calls. Figure out which single moment or feature just clicked for people. Where their mind lit up with the possibilities of how this product was going to make them better at the thing they needed.

Then use your onboarding to demonstrate that one thing. Do it a couple of different ways if you can, so they can see how it’d help them in multiple situations. You can do this with demo data, a checklist, videos, a phone call, or whatever style of product onboarding you want. But just make sure it focuses on teaching them how to do this one thing.

Once that moment clicks for them, then they’ll be willing to trudge through the other tedious setup steps your product requires.

Far too many product onboarding processes are designed to motivate the user to just check off tasks on a list.

“Do this, then this, and now this. Thank you human for being a cog in our sales funnel.”

Users fight through these lists because they just want to complete them and get it off their plate. But it doesn’t make them feel anything about the product. It’s weak extrinsic motivation which does little to help your users move the process forward on their own.

Great product onboarding is about helping your users cross the chasm to the moment where it becomes clear and obvious HOW and WHY your product is different and better. It takes them to the moment where they start imagining the future outcomes of them using your product and become intrinsically motivated to keep using it.

Carry them to that magic moment, where everything just snaps together and their mental model of your product sets into place.

Then they’ll know what to do with you.