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User Onboarding vs. Intuition: How to Welcome New Users

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Read Time: 6 mins

To date there have been two big approaches to user onboarding: either there is one, or there isn’t. In this article we’ll explore why user onboarding can be useful, and if intuitive design can avoid the need for a user onboarding process.

A Bit of History

When we look back at the last 10 years, there has been an incredible evolution in terms of technology. We’ve seen plenty of new hardware and software products which have changed our lives and how we use software significantly.

Usually that kind of innovation also brings new types of design language. Interfaces are manipulated in new ways by users. One such example was the introduction of touch devices.

When a new design language is introduced, people need to learn how to use the product. When a product initiates a learning experience for users, we call this user onboarding.

Peach User OnboardPeach User OnboardPeach User Onboard
Screenshot from Useronboard’s teardown of Peach’s onboarding process

To a certain degree, every single new product a person uses, whether it’s software or hardware, introduces a new design language. A new user has to understand and learn this until a new design language becomes standard. For example, on the whole we no longer need to “learn” how to use a touch device, it’s become common practice for much of the world.

The above is a high-level introduction to why the notion of a user onboarding exists. Originally, every design language is new. Today, the landscape is different and the objective for having a user onboarding has shifted more towards other reasons you can learn more about below.

It’s interesting that to date there have been two big approaches to user onboarding: either there is one, or there isn’t. Let’s take a specific example: Apple’s iPad doesn’t provide user onboarding–it relies on intuition.

Apple's iPad is a product example which lacks onboarding.

Why is a user onboarding (sometimes) necessary? Perhaps the larger question is even: Can you avoid one? Without further ado, let’s dive in.

The Case for Intuitive Design

The idea of designing an intuitive product means that you design a product in such a way that it should reduce the need for user onboarding. It’s designed in a way that a person immediately understands how the product works.

The general notion is that products which are less complex require less user onboarding.

The Intuitive Design Checklist

The following tips can assist you with making a product easier to understand and interact with:

  • User call-to-actions should stand out in the interface. This can be achieved by working with contrasting colors, for example.
  • Ensure that the design of your navigation and the information architecture of your product is consistent.
  • Think about the 80/20 rule. What features are most being used by users? Ensure these are prominent in the product.
  • Spend time on typography. This ensures that the readability of your product is on point, and it helps to create a visual hierarchy.
  • The copy for your interface should be clear and concise. For example, notice how the instruction “Place order” is more direct than “Continue” on the final screen of a checkout flow. Copy matters as it sets expectations with the user.
  • If you’re working on a mobile app, learn more about the design standards of both iOS and Android. If you are an iOS user and are about to design for Android for the first time, pay careful attention to the design differences between both platforms.
  • Use a grid. It helps with consistency and reusing interface elements across different platforms and products.

So, design an intuitive product and you’re all set. Or not?

The Need for User Onboarding

The status quo is to provide first time users some form of user onboarding in digital products. It’s quite common, both for mobile as well as for the web.

The goal of doing so is usually to achieve the following:

  • Provide insight in the functionality of the product.
  • Explain what certain (or all) features do.
  • Guide the user through using the product effectively.
  • Create engagement with the product.

A user onboarding intends to help the user find their way within the product. There are multiple ways this process can be designed as well:

  • Provide tooltips while using the product.
  • Providing an interactive guide when the user uses the product for the first time, showing them how to use certain features (like a tutorial).
  • Provide an explainer video or graphics.
  • ... and many more!
 Onboarding screen on Dribbble by Ionut Zamfir

Typically, products with a heavy onboarding experience have certain commonalities which simultaneously explain why you would require a user onboarding:

  • The information architecture of the product is complicated: there are a lot of features and it’s not always easy to access them.
  • The product is revolutionary: it introduces new required interactions or a design language people need to get accustomed to. For example: Snapchat’s tap and hold to view a photo, or Facebook’s Paper navigation through the app.
  • Product depth: the product contains many shortcuts aimed at power-users. The goal of the onboarding here is to transform a regular user to a power-user.

The above reasons are good arguments as to why you would require a user onboading when your design is less conventional.

Is Needing a User Onboarding a Bad Sign?

To begin with, there are definitely complex and non-conventional products out there where a user onboarding is required. One could surmise that the necessity of a user onboarding depends on the following:

1. The nature of the product

Certain products are just complex because of the nature of what they do (think of accountancy software, for example).

2. The information architecture and user interface

Some interfaces are designed to be more complex than others (the Apple Watch is an excellent example).

However, thinking that user onboarding is only relevant for complicated products is the wrong conclusion. When we identify the need for user onboarding based on the nature of the design of the product and assume that intuitive design would mitigate the need for user onboarding, we may be wrong. 

The benefits for user onboarding go beyond teaching people how to use the product.

Thinking Beyond Intuition

As much as designers want to create an intuitive product and might want to avoid an onboarding experience, it’s proven that adding onboarding techniques increase the retention and engagement of users as it optimizes a user’s first impression of the product.

Even the best possible designed products can still use a little bit of help to get users onboard and help them get settled. Take Slackbot in Slack for example!

Slack has a brief onboarding to help a user set up their profile.

Wrapping Up

By designing a quality onboarding experience your product will always benefit. Relying solely on intuition means missing the potential to tap in the engagement of your users. To help you get started with designing an effective user onboarding, take a look at How to Design an Engaging Onboarding Experience.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments, or say hello on Twitter!

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