A content-first approach to product onboarding

Knowing your user’s story is central to a great onboarding experience – but how do you actually tell that story?

At some point you need to write the content of your onboarding: words, sentences, value props, the works. Ultimately, it’s the content that helps your users achieve their goals. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for just a few bits of text. As it turns out, writing your onboarding is a real job, and it’s often harder than you might think. The hardest part of all is figuring out where to start.

In this presentation, Jonathon Colman shares an approach and a few tools that make it easier to write a great onboarding experience.

Jonathon Colman – A content-first approach to product onboarding

The four basic interactions of the universe:

  • gravity
  • electromagnetism
  • weak nuclear force
  • strong nuclear force

The four forces that act on people who are considering moving from one solution to another:

  • push – away from what you have
  • pull – to the new
  • anxiety – about leaving
  • inertia – change is hard

Let’s consider what content is – if Jon was to ask everyone we’d all have a different answer. So the most minimal definition of content: “it’s the stuff I came here for”.

Content first? Design from the content out, not the canvas in – Mark Boulton

Think about the way the responsive web works – it really expects the content to respond to the space available to it. Which often breaks – great example of a headline being truncated and changing the meaning.

Content-first flips that – the layout needs to expand to fit the content.

Design without content is just decoration. – Zeldman

Most onboarding is created as decoration. Little pointers and hints scattered over what you already have.

Stop decorating! Start narrating.

Conceptual model for a narrative: Exposition → Inciting incident → Rising action → Crisis → Climax → Denouement → End. Star Wars follows this narrative arc perfectly.

Users go through a narrative when they use your product. You can design onboarding with these stories in mind.

resource: concept story worksheet

Story matters – we are connected to stories and we live through them.

Kathy Sierra – “Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras, build better photographers.”

You don’t sell your product, you sell the vision of the person you could become using the product. “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.”

At Intercom they use Jobs To Be Done (JTBD), which is a useful model for building stories.

Think about how to translate the four forces into feelings:

  • Understand the push
  • Strengthen the pull
  • Calm their anxieties
  • Overcome the inertia

Speak to feelings, not mechanics.

Example of bad mechanics – light switches that need extensive documentation. Light switches!

Product problems cannot be solved with content.

Focus on benefits not features.

example: introducing formatting tools in a chat client. The content is ok but it does mostly talk about the mechanics, what to click and what the buttons do. What people really want is for people to actually read and act on their messages!

Empty states are onboarding – you are missing a huge opportunity if you’re not using them. Talk about what the user will get by using the feature – the why, why should they use it. Then move on to how to do it and what will happen.

why/how/what comes from the book: Start With Why – Simon Sinek

  • Understand the push
  • Strengthen the pull
  • Calm their anxieties – how will this make you and your stakholders successful
  • Overcome the inertia – what’s the best, shortest path to success

Six key messages of onboarding, based on Jon reviewing hundreds of onboarding flows:

1. Welcome – acknowledge customers and make them feel valued
2. Identity – show how the customer should consider interacting with the product, establish your voice
3. Problems to solve – lead with the benefits of your solution and show how they address my needs
4. Explicit value proposal – set clear expectations for what your customers will get using your product
5. Show the mechanics – walk customers through how they can get the most out of your product
6. A call to action – don’t just explain the product, get me to start using it effectively

Onboarding is not a feature. Don’t build as decoration or an extra feature.

Onboarding is a product and ideally a team. Intercom has a dedicated onboarding team to build, measure and improve onboarding.

When you handle the four forces, magic can happen – and users see a world of possibilities.

@jcolman | Jon’s slides and resources | Four Forces | Tell The Story