An Interview with Samuel Hulick

Lessons Learned From Dozens of User Onboarding Teardowns

Marketing

Today’s interview is with Samuel Hulick, the brains behind useronboard.com. At the time of this writing, Samuel has completed over three dozen user onboarding teardowns including popular apps like Slack, Apple Music, and Basecamp. We sat down with him to talk through the ins and outs of user onboarding.

Q&A with Samuel Hulick, User Onboarding Expert

1. What’s the big deal about user onboarding? Why should companies spend their time and energy focusing on it?

My textbook answer is “user onboarding is the process of increasing the likelihood that new users become successful when adopting your product.” Without it, you’re leaving customers to figure out your product on their own and decreasing the chances they’ll make your product a part of their daily life. This costs your business time, money, and energy.

It’s like the grill I bought to start cooking outdoors. I bolted on the legs, screwed on the wheels, and assembled it perfectly according to the manual. But it’s a waste if I let the grill sit on my patio without ever using it. In the same way, if users don’t get value or anything of substance from your product they won’t come back. This is where user onboarding comes into play.

2. How should companies think about user onboarding?

Think of onboarding less in terms of introducing a product and more in terms of introducing people to a new way of life. The mindset behind this is that people don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.

A few examples to illustrate:

  • If a boutique design firm is signing up for Basecamp, odds are they are looking for a better way to manage projects
  • If a newlywed couple signs up for Wealthfront, they are probably trying to invest for their future together
  • If you sign up for Netflix, you’re likely trying to binge watch unwind after a long day of work

People are accustomed to doing things one way, but the above products (and your product) require users to build an entirely different set of habits. Your job with user onboarding is to naturally introduce users to this new way of life and help them become better versions of themselves.

3. What’s the roadmap you give to SaaS companies you consult with on their onboarding?

The roadmap varies from one company to another, but here’s the high-level approach. The first thing to get crystal clear on is how your product improves people’s lives in its own particular way (like Basecamp and Wealthfront in the previous question).

The next step is to define the bare bones milestones users must complete to begin experiencing that better life. In the case of the grill, it could be cooking up my first steak. Or in Basecamp speak, it might be something like creating a project and adding a team member.

After defining milestones nail down how you will help users recognize they are becoming that better version of themselves. What are strategic ways you can show progress? What’s a positive feedback mechanism that lets people know “Congrats! You’ve done X,Y, and Z. Now you’re three steps closer to why you signed up in the first place.”

It’s easier to reverse engineer a successful user onboarding experience once you’ve established these foundations.

4. You’ve done over three dozen user onboarding teardowns. Which companies do you think are nailing it?

I always wrap this in a caveat: I don’t have access to conversion data, I don’t know what internal pressure product teams are facing, and I don’t know what constraints are being handed over from legal, so I don’t typically hand out grades for onboarding experiences. With that said, there are experiences I’ve found that resonate with the principles I advocate.

Duolingo does an amazing job of folding the onboarding experience seamlessly into the natural product experience. When I was making the Duolingo teardown, it was really hard to say “Okay, this is where the company’s onboarding stops and starts” or “This is where the onboarding picks back up again.” The whole experience is seamless.

Side note from the interviewer: Samuel’s teardowns are quirky, visual, and super helpful. Here’s a peek at his Duolingo user onboarding teardown

Duolingo user onboarding teardown

Slack’s user onboarding experience is also gold. The company adds personality to all of the little bumps in the road I’ve seen other products ignore (or not even be aware of), things like confirming your email address or generating a password. Perhaps this is why the company is worth billions of dollars?

5. What’s a quick win for companies that are busy and don’t have time to overhaul their whole user onboarding experience right now?

A quick win is to freshen up your onboarding copy to make it sound more natural. Imagine a person walking into your office and saying “Hey, I would like to try out your product.” How would you talk to them? What kind of tone would you use? Which words would you use? Users respond to (and understand) warm, welcoming and personable copy.

The good news is refreshing your copy doesn’t require a whole lot of engineering time. It’s low development overhead with the potential for significant gains.

6. How do lifecycle emails help with user onboarding?

User onboarding is less about getting people set up as it is about getting people back. Even for the best onboarding experiences, and especially for poor ones, lifecycle emails are perfect for pulling users back into your product to take the next steps toward the better version of themselves.

I like to say that “On the highway to user/product love, lifecycle emails are road signs for timely guidance, not annoying billboards.” And they are magic pixie dust for user onboarding.

7. Do you have any thoughts on the psychology of user onboarding? Is that even a thing?

Two things immediately come to mind.

Keep in mind that you are educating people. Education doesn’t just have to be this rote thing with prescriptive, robotic instructions. The best onboarding experiences empower people to learn by exploring on their own, which can help users wrap their head around your product and pick up the idiosyncrasies of how your interface works. It’s like Einstein said: “Play is the highest form of research.”

You’re trying to change a user’s habits. When people use a new product, they have to adopt an entirely new set of habits. It’s hard to take on a different way of doing things. So keep that in the back of your mind as you craft your user onboarding experience. Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch is a good resource to learn more about habit change.

8. Does user onboarding ever end? Why or why not?

Let me put it this way: Anytime there’s a gap between what a user is currently doing and what they could be doing with your product, that’s an onboarding opportunity. It’s not just about railroading people through activating features or taking a tour of your product. That’s just scratching the surface. Until a user is as capable with your product as you could possibly help them become, then there’s still onboarding to do.

What user onboarding tips do you have? Any burning questions you’d love to ask Samuel? Let us know in the comments.

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