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In this series, we’re getting to know the authors of The Customer Onboarding Handbook, our free ebook on how to create experiences that lead to meaningful long-term engagement with a product or service. 

Kicking off the series is an interview with Chris How, head of experience design at strategic design and innovation consultancy Clearleft, where he helps clients create meaningful audience-centered digital products and services through design leadership, strategic thinking, and robust research. 

Chris is passionate about using design to improve people’s lives and transform organizations for the better. Here he tells us how you can figure out if your customer onboarding experience doesn’t work, how you can start improving it, and what to do to measure the performance of the customer onboarding process. 

How can you tell if your customer onboarding experience needs work?

There are a couple of signs that tell you if your customer onboarding experience is sub-optimal. 

Most products and services have key moments or features that you want to expose your users to. If you look at your data and realize that those are not being found or used, it’s a good indication that you need to find ways to allow people to discover them.

The other way of understanding if your onboarding is working also comes through analyzing your data, and that's looking at your churn rate—the number of people coming to experience your product and the number of people who are actually sticking around to keep using your product. That’s definitely more applicable and more important when you have subscription or SaaS products when your revenue and your future development is based on not just attracting but retaining people to use your product.

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What kind of mistakes do you see businesses make with their customer onboarding and how can you avoid them?

I commonly see clients lifting and shifting somebody else's onboarding experience onto their product. That might be through copying something that they look at and admire or by using third-party systems to provide that onboarding experience. 

When people think of onboarding, they often create product slideshows that users need to go through. Whenever I've seen people in usability testing sessions get to those screens that introduce them to features in the product, they just want to get them out of the way. The slides are often much more aligned to the features that the product development team wants to push on to people rather than helping users understand what the product can do to help them.

The other feature that I often see is a third-party piece of software that provides the little overlays that again give you a tour of the interface, and you have to skip them to get through to what you want to do.

I’m not saying that these two methods are always wrong, but they are an ill-thought-out way of onboarding people to your product. I always like to get clients to take a step back and look at the outcomes that they want from somebody using their product.

Don’t just look at the first-time use, but also at how you can get people to use your product. Engage them right away—and when they come back, encourage them to learn more about how that product can help them in what they're trying to achieve. In taking that approach, you don't start with the mechanism for delivering promotional advertising for the features. You are much more nuanced and subtle about how you can find the moments that introduce ideas to a person that helps them gain that traction with your product.

There is a balance between being confident enough to get people started with your product and then, as they move deeper into their engagement, to introduce new features and new ideas to them, while holding back from just blurting out everything that the product or service could possibly do for you.  

What’s your chapter in The Customer Onboarding Handbook about?

The chapter that I've written is about an approach of how to design for onboarding and to look at onboarding as a series of moments over a period of time to help customers get the most from your product.

I deliberately haven't given a definitive way of onboarding. I've looked at approaches from a design perspective—how you can identify the "personality" for your onboarding, how you can identify the moments that matter that you want to introduce people to, and how you can go about designing an onboarding experience that is appropriate for your product.

“Appropriate for your product” is the key with onboarding. There's no one way of onboarding people but there are ways of introducing people to your product and the features within it and how they can help them. I’m looking at how you can maximize that value exchange by giving people a reward for taking time to learn the features of your product without making the process feel like a burden on the user.

How can customer experience professionals get started with improving the onboarding experience of their products and services?

There are a few key ways in which you can evaluate, review, and redesign your onboarding experience. The first one that is often missed is to go through the onboarding experience yourself on a regular basis. It’s easy as a customer experience professional to know all of the the things your product can do in detail, and the version you probably have set up on your computer is a logged-in version that’s full of data—fully featured and fully functional.

I would recommend to regularly start at the beginning with that first-time experience for a customer, just to check if the things that you are wanting to promote are evident within that experience. Check how invitational that experience is, and take the time to walk through it.

I would also extend that to new members of your product team—people who are not familiar with your product or service. Get them to experience the onboarding first-hand, and review that process.

The third way is to have contact with your users. Making sure that you have contact with people who are going through or have just gone through the onboarding process is invaluable for identifying how users will perceive it. And also seeing what are the moments that matter to them that help them engage and deepen their engagement with your product. They are not always the same moments that the development team, the marketing team, or the product team focus on. 

So, figure out what users care about, and what their "light bulb" moments are. What are the moments that secured their opinion that your product was the one that they were going to stick with? Make sure that those moments are evident for new people who are coming on to the onboarding experience.

How do you measure the performance of your onboarding process? 

There are some immediate CX metrics that you might want to look at: churn rate and adoption of particular features. 

They're things that you can build into the product and get feedback from. There is a temptation at that point, though, to measure everything and be overwhelmed with measuring the success of your onboarding in a granular way.

We had a client who had a really complicated SaaS product, but through user research combined with hunches from the product team, they managed to identify the key features that acted as proxies for deeper engagement. They saw that if people took the time to get a few particular features set up on their system, it was a really good indicator of long-term engagement. So they measured if people could discover those features and how long it took them from initial use of the product to using those features. That gave them an idea of how they could shorten the time from the initial visit to setting up those features and then analyzing how many of those features were used on an ongoing basis.

Most products, however complicated, do come down to some killer features, some absolute critical moments. If you get those right, people will stick with your product.

We see this phenomenon with products that we use personally on a regular basis. For me, Spotify’s Discover playlist is still a moment that keeps me with that subscription, while Slack does a really good job of introducing you to the rudimentaries of using the tool. The more you use it, the more evidence there is that you're getting value from it. The designers have patience in allowing you to discover, in your own time, how Slack might help you. And I think that's probably the secret: that sense of patience of inviting people to discover your product without overwhelming them too early.

Can you give us an example of how improving the onboarding experience has made a difference to a client you worked with? 

At Clearleft, we recently successfully onboarded people on a piece of accounting software—a SaaS product that had a lot of competition within the market. The work that we did was around very explicit onboarding, finding moments to suggest what somebody could do in order to get more value from the product. 

We did that with a series of features. Every time you came to the product, for example, we would make a recommendation on something to do with that product. We were very explicit about it and explained the benefits of spending a period of time on it. Those setup suggestions were based around what we knew people had done and what their setup was on the system. So we were recommending the things that they hadn't done, which added value to the customer with small incremental improvements. 

The second example from our work wasn't as explicit. It was a microsite for an international museum’s wildlife photography competition. There were a lot of features and functionality within this microsite, but instead of giving people a walkthrough and prompts to discover them, we took the view of highlighting the interface with better UI design.

One of the nice touches within the system was a deep zoom of photography, and instead of just telling people to try it out, we gave nudges in the interface to help people discover it. Through usability testing we found that when people came across that feature they really loved it, and our job was to make it more discoverable.

You could also create your own journeys through this big archive of photographs, which was another really valuable but not apparent part of the exhibition. We created some collections that, for example, would in one click show people all the black and white photography of mammals taken in Asia. These pre-made collections showed users the benefits of dividing the archive up through the facets they cared about. It encouraged them to start playing around and creating their own version of the archive.                  

So onboarding doesn’t always need something obvious like an instruction manual, sometimes it can be about improving the UI. This kind of non-explicit onboarding—just starting with the UI and measuring whether people are discovering and using specific features—is a great way to onboard customers.

Are there any customer onboarding tools and resources that you’d like to recommend?

I have a couple of go-to people with excellent resources for onboarding. Krystal Higgins recently published a book called Better Onboarding. She's also got a great website and is a great speaker. I would definitely recommend reading anything that she's produced and watching videos of her talks. 

Then there’s Samuel Hulick, who runs a website called UserOnboard, which features regular teardowns of onboarding processes, usually that first engagement with a product. While I don't think you should copy somebody else's onboarding experience, you need to find what's appropriate for you, and Samuel’s teardowns provide really good insight into what doesn't really work and what is more marketing- than user-driven. I highly recommend following him and signing up to his newsletter.

Learn more about all our authors and download The Customer Onboarding Handbook for free!

Hannah Clark
By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The CX Lead. After serving over 12 years working in front-line customer experience for major brands, Hannah pivoted to a career in digital publishing and media production. Having gained a holistic view of the challenges and intricacies of delivering exceptional experiences, Hannah aims to help CX practitioners 'level up' their skills by amplifying the voices of today's thought leaders in the space.