Update July, 22, 2015

A few months back, one of our Account Directors received an excellent example of an on boarding tactic and we thought it would be helpful to share it.

Nordstrom made changes to their card holder site and let their card members know ahead of time with an email. They shared a few of the upcoming changes like improved navigation and mobile-friendliness. An email announcement helps get buy-in and prepares site visitors for changes — very helpful tactics when thinking about launch success.



And now back to the original post.

User onboarding has really been on my mind a lot lately, especially with regard to launching a website (or application) redesign. It is really easy to get caught up in the shiny and new and forget that while we’ve all been talking about these changes for months, our users were out there using the old with absolutely no idea that everything is going to change on them tomorrow. For loyal customers that can be alienating, even for “small” changes where a favorite feature could suddenly function in a completely different way.

In practice, user onboarding is important for two user groups/situations:

  • New Users – newbies who are (hopefully) flocking to our experiences daily
  • Returning Users – those devoted souls mentioned above, coming back to the experience after a redesign

Depending on what type of project you have, these new vs. redesign situations may both need to be considered, and these users probably need to be met with different solutions.

Defining User Onboarding

In the past, the concept of onboarding has usually been applied to hiring new employees: “Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.” (Wikipedia)

This is actually a really useful way to think when considering the “new user” group. Our objective is to get a new person socialized to the way the organization operates, which is the foundation of the customer/user experience. I’m talking about things like:

  • the names the organization gives things, and why
  • the order to do things, and why
  • the things the organization values, and how that manifests
  • the micro-culture of the organization, and what that affects 

Onboarding for an interactive experience, then, is the mechanism through which users acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective usersIt is the ways in which we (as the ones guiding the user experience) help users understand and succeed at using what we make for them. 

Is Onboarding Tactical or Strategic? It’s both.

In addition to the differences between new user and returning redesign user situations, we can also consider the level at which we socialize our users:

Doing (Tactical)

How does the user use (and know how to use) the interface? That is: How does she know where to manage her account? How does he know what the core functionality of the application is? How does she discover key features?

Caring (Strategic)

Why does this matter to the user? That is: How does the culture of the application (or organization) become part of the culture of the user? How can the experience help accomplish organizational socialization?

For some companies, the Caring/Strategic level of onboarding maybe doesn’t seem as important. For others, it can feel like the Doing/Tactical onboarding aspects have been overlooked. For example, Apple has nailed the Caring/Strategic aspects of onboarding – they focus a lot on communicating the culture of Apple and owning an Apple device, but I think the Doing/Tactical aspects are neglected (possibly because of the culture). I just don’t think you should need a buddy to figure out how to close the open apps on your phone. But Apple doesn’t think providing an operation manual is an important onboarding tactic for their users. Instead Buzzfeed needs to fill you in on how to become an effective user.

Basically, user onboarding = kindness.

In the end, onboarding is just being nice. Being mindful of the user’s first experiences with our brand/website/application lets us focus on what kind, shiny pebbles we can drop along the way in the user experience so that we ensure users arrive quickly to a place of feeling “at home” with the interface and its functionality. Find “pebbles” by asking questions like:

New Users
  • What is the first thing a customer cares about when they arrive at the application?
  • What has the customer been promised about the application previously?
  • Are there certain moments when a specific feature has greater meaning or value?
  • What affordances can the user experience give a customer who has a differing mental model?
Returning (Redesign) Users
  • How and when does an existing customer/user first learn of an upcoming change?
  • What can the user experience do to retain the customer/user’s trust in the product/site?
  • How can we help the customer feel excited about changes?
  • Can we help the customer feel ownership of changes?

…And if you’re on board with onboarding, geek out about these awesome critiques of the onboarding processes of big-name applications.