A content-first approach to product onboarding

(funky electronic music) - Hey, everyone, how is it going? (audience cheering) (Jonathon cheers) How are things here in Sydney? - Yeah! - Yeah! I love that, all I have to do is say the name of the place, right, and people cheer, I love it. I'm gonna run you through so much stuff today. So, I'm gonna go really fast. There's so much for us to cover. Onboarding is a massive topic. At times it will feel as massive as the universe. Speaking of which, there are four forces that guide everything in our universe. Physicists actually call these the basic interactions, which is why they appeal to me as someone who does the interaction design. Those four forces are gravity, so the attraction between bits of matter, and how they're drawn together. Electromagnetism, so the force that draws charged particles together, or repels them apart, based on their charge. The weak nuclear force, which is poorly named. It's actually quite strong. This is what causes radioactive decay, which actually creates new isotopes and new kinds of matter. And then, the strong nuclear force. This is literally the thing that binds us all together. It holds all of our particles together. So if you have a bad hair day, or you're feeling a little out of it, check your strong nuclear force, I hope you do. Now, you may be thinking that you've somehow stumbled into a physics lecture, that is not the case. We're talking about onboarding. But just as there are four basic interactions, four forces that are fundamental to our universe, similarly, there are four forces that act on people, who are considering moving from one product to another. So when you have an existing solution, and you or in this case, your customer, are considering a new solution, what are the forces that might act on that person? Well, they are push, so the push away from the existing solution. The pull towards the new solution, the anxiety someone might feel about leaving their current set-up or current solution. Let me tell you, anxiety is a real thing, I know all about that, speaking on stage. And, finally, inertia, because change is hard. There's even a law of physics, right, that says, "An object at rest will tend to stay at rest." Same thing with people moving from one product to another, it's always safer to stay with what you know. These are the four forces that we have to take into account, whenever we're trying to understand how people move from one product to the next, but especially, when we are taking a content-first approach to onboarding, which is the subject of this talk today. I'm your host in this journey, my name is Jonathon Colman, I'm a senior design manager at Intercom in Dublin, Ireland, but I was made in America, which is why I have this amazing accent. I know, it's like grating on your ears, isn't it? Sorry. (audience laughing) You can find me on Twitter @jcolman, and I've already sent out this link to this deck, so you can get this deck right now, right now. Go.inter.com/contentfirst. I've grouped together all of the resources that I'm going to be mentioning throughout this talk, so you don't have to feel compelled to take notes, write things down. Everything I'm about to mention, you can get at this one location. User experience, I hear it's a thing. (audience laughing) So, let's move on. Content-first approach to product onboarding. First, we have to talk about what content is. I think we all know what content is, but if I took each one of you individually, and asked you, "Hey, what do you think content is?", you'd probably each have a different answer. So, here's what content means to me. If we strip it back to its basics, what is the most minimal thing we can say to help everyone get on the same page and understand? I recently heard this definition, which I really, really like. Content is the stuff I came here for. It's the stuff I came here for. It's not just the words, not just the text, it's the entire experience, the entire service. It's the thing that solves my problem. It's the stuff I came here for. That definition comes to us then, no less, the luminaries than Kristina Halvorson, Erika Hall and Mike Monteiro in one of the latest episodes of the Mule Design podcast. So good. If you listen to it, and I hope you do, it's a brilliant episode. The stuff I came here for. Now, if we take a content-first approach to design, then what does that mean? Well, Mark Boulton came up with this definition that I also really like. It's the act of designing from the content out, not from the canvas in. And let's do a little deep dive on what this means. So, in a lot of design set-ups you'll have someone like a designer put together the container, it's a box. And then, perhaps that designer, perhaps a product manager, perhaps someone else, like a content designer, will come in and write some words. And they will make sure that those words fit the box. And there you go, you have some sort of container with some sort of language in it, job done, everyone go home, fantastic. Well, sometimes, though, the needs of those containers change. Sometimes you get containers of many, many different sizes and shapes and formats, and then, the content has to adapt to that set-up. Maybe you're moving from desktop to mobile, maybe you're doing desktop, mobile, and the mobile app. Maybe you are changing platforms. Who knows what's going on? The problem that you get is that when your content doesn't fit your container, (audience laughing) you end up with something like this. Now, I'm no good at maths, I think we've already established that with my physics ramblings, but I'm gonna say this does not sound like a good deal, turning $40 into 10. Karen McGrane calls this a fundamental strategy error. She says, "Truncation is not a content strategy." So, sure, we can design containers, and then flood content into them. We're always going to run into problems like these. We have to do better than this. When we start with the content first approach, then we figure out what are the ideas, what are the concepts, what do we need to do to solve this problem first, before we start building out the container. Then, the container ends up being properly sized to whatever that messaging needs to be. And content first doesn't mean that we write everything out first, it means that we figure out what are the concepts involved first. So, the reason why we need to do that, we can turn to Jeffrey Zeldman for a great rationale here. He says that content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration. Decoration. Decoration. (audience laughing) I really want this to hit home, because in a lot of scenarios, in a lot of teams, this is how product onboarding is built, as decoration. And you'll end up with this sort of peppering of little pointers and animations and videos, and whatever else, just sort of scattered throughout your product as decoration. I wanna show you that you can do better than that, and I wanna challenge you to do better than that. We should not be decorating. Let's stop doing this, and instead let's start narrating. Focusing on narration, the user's journey, the story involved. And I'm gonna show you how to do that. Donna Lichaw has written this excellent book called "The User's Journey. "Storymapping Products That People Love". It's a brilliant book, it's an excellent book, and for those of you how are eagle-eyed, you will notice that the forward was written by someone who is currently speaking to you right now, who shall remain unnamed. (audience laughing) I just want to like, be explicit and say, I make no money from this book, this is not a paid endorsement, it just is a really good book for people who build product, and that's why I wanted to write the forward to it. So, Donna's book is awesome, everyone should get it. When you take a look at this book, you'll see this conceptual model for a narrative. This is a story arc, and it has these steps. Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, denouement and end. Let's take an example and just see what this is like. Imagine a story about, say, a farm boy, who is living with an uncle out in the desert. But then, tragedy strikes. His family is killed, his home is burnt down, and so he decides to seek his fortune amongst the stars, let's say. But then, on his journey, he makes some friends, they're on their way along, to accomplish a goal, let's say. And they're attacked, and it's very exciting. This is that incitement. So, they have to first, get past this hurdle in order to make more progress in their story. But then, oh my god, the boy's mentor is killed by an enemy. And he loses this fundamental foundational force in his life, he has to make his way forward on his own. (gasps) But he does! And he eventually destroys the enemy headquarters. Oh my gosh, super exciting, everything has been leading up to this, this boy has gone from being a farm boy, to succeeding something he never could've dreamt of. He and his friends are celebrating, they're all safe and sound, except for that one guy. (audience laughing) And they're celebrating, and then, for some reason, they all get medals at the end. (audience laughing) This is how every story works. To some degree, every story you've ever been told or have told, follows some narrative arc like this. And in the products you build, your customers are going through story and arcs like these all the time. When they first start using your product, when they upgrade, when you release a new feature, and they start adapting that. When they're approached by competitors and might consider leaving your product, story, after story, after story, after story. You can design your onboarding with these stories in mind to be more effective. Now, because you have so many different stories going on in your product at any given time, Donna Lichaw says you need to come up with a concept story. This is a customised arc that will fit the situations in your product. She even has this great worksheet that helps you do that. I'm not gonna go through this in detail, but it essentially helps you fill out that narrative arc for any given scenario on your product, and you can get that at donnalichaw.com/toolkit. Again, don't need to remember that URL, 'cause I've grouped it all together for you. So, story matters. We're engineered for stories. That's why they connect with us, that's why we all go see movies and read books. We are constantly just living through stories. We're making our own stories all the time. So, Kathy Sierra has written this great book called "Badass, Making Users Awesome". And this is the story she's telling. The whole goal of how you design onboarding, but even more than that, how you build products for people, is to upgrade them. "You upgrade your user, not your product", she says. So she says, "Don't build better cameras, "build better photographers." It's a great way of thinking about what products do for people and the value they provide. You've probably seen this image before, if you've ever focused on onboarding, but I wanna walk you through it. This is from Samuel Hulick, who runs the useronboard.com site. So, he walks us through this conception model, where there's a person, who is a potential customer of yours, and then, they encounter your product. Well, that's exciting. And they start thinking about what they can do with it, and they become, by virtue of using your product, an awesome person, who can do rad shit. Hope I'm not offending your tender ears. Of course, in Ireland we do say shite. (audience laughing) And what Samuel Hulick says is that you might think that you sell your product, that's not what you sell. You don't sell that. If you think you're selling that, you're thinking you're selling the wrong thing. What you actually sell is that vision, that story, of the person who can do the rad shit, that awesome person. That's the story you need to tell, especially in your onboarding. So when someone has purchased your software or your product, your application, whatever it is, your onboarding is what actually moves them to realise this vision. So, Sam says that people don't buy products, they buy better versions of themselves. This is just like what Kathy Sierra said. They buy better versions of themselves. So, at Intercom we use Jobs to be Done. This is not a one-stop shop solution for everything. Jobs to be Done has its place alongside other forums of user research, and I'm not gonna go into it in depth, but I do wanna get back to this model, because Jobs to be Done has a lot to do with these forces. So, we talked about this earlier. It's an existing solution, and there's a potential new solution. So, I talked about the four forces. What pushes people away from their existing solution, what pulls them towards your new solution, the anxiety they feel about change, and the inertia that is there just because it's easier to stay with what you have. So, these are directional forces in terms of what brings you closer to the new solution, and what drives you away from it. Jobs to be Done tells us that these forces are fundamental to figuring out how to tell the story of your product, so that people understand why they should buy it, and what it will do for them. How do they get to be that better version of themselves, the awesome person who can do rad shit. So, if we just look at these forces, we can translate these in a way that get closer to people's feelings. So, when someone is being pushed away from their current solution, your job as a product person is to understand what's pushing them away and towards your solution. Your job as a product person similarly, is to strengthen the pull that brings them to your solution. Your job as product person is to calm their anxieties and to understand why they might be worried, and this is obviously something you can speak to in your onboarding or in your sales. And then, to help them overcome the inertia, to actually get them to make that final click to convert and then to actually get the most out of your product. So, when you design onboarding, really the thing to know is that you have to speak to feelings, and not mechanics. If you're just decorating your product with a bunch of pointers, talking about "First click this, "then click that, this goes here, that goes there", you're not really speaking to people's feelings. Let me show an example. This is a real light switch, a real light switch in a very well-known Silicon Valley company that I'm going to say rhymes with mace-dook. And this is actually not the light switch, these are a printout of instructions that someone posted next to the light switch, because the light switch was so hard to use, that it required give or take around 70 words. 70 words of explanation for someone just to turn the lights on or off. There's a slightly different light switch that required a little bit less documentation, but still, it had one job. The job was to turn the lights on or off, and that was it. And people still couldn't figure out how to do it, 'cause the design of the switch was just so crazy. So here's the thing, if your product is broken, the best onboarding flow in the world, not to mention really bad documentation, will not save your product. Product problems cannot be solved with content. Stop trying to do that. Especially, when the solutions have been around for decades. Like a dimmer switch. Here's a slightly more modern one, in case the first one is just too '70s for you. This has been a solved problem for a while. We don't need to disrupt this. (audience laughing) So, you don't wanna focus on features, you do wanna focus on people's feelings, and that means that you have to focus on benefits. These things that strengthen the pull to your solution. These things that help calm anxieties, or overcome inertia. Focus on benefits, not on features. You focus on features, you're just decorating. You focus on benefits, you're speaking to those four forces. So, here's a bit of onboarding I just saw yesterday, in a very well-known messaging product, that I love incidentally. But I want to point out some things that I think could be better about this. Now, while I love the video animation, this is great, it actually shows me how to use this new feature. The messaging here is really focused on features and not on what I can do about them. So, introducing message formatting. I don't really know what that means. Adding bold, strikethrough, using an icon to hide the new formatting tools. This is all about logistics, mechanics and features. The closest we get to a benefit is that I can spruce up my messages. I'm not sure, that sounds good, I guess. But why am I doing that? Why would I wanna spruce up a message? What I really wanna do, as a business user of this product, is make sure my messages get read, and maybe even acted on. That's the job of this onboarding flow. But it's indirect, it doesn't help me realise that. Imagine if this focused on helping me get my messages read more often, or getting more reactions, not just digital reactions, but real-life reactions with the people I work with. Now, that would be valuable. That would get me to use this feature. At Intercom we built an onboarding tool called Product Tours, and I wanna show you just with the empty state how we've tried to address value and benefits here. So, even if you don't consider an empty state to be onboarding, it is. And if you're not thinking about empty states as part of your onboarding flow, you're missing a huge opportunity to show people the value and benefits of your product. So, right at the top we talk about how this product drives faster user adoption. Drives faster user adoption. As a product person, it's probably something you want. Likewise, whenever a template helps you onboard new customers. This is an outcome-focused message. This tells you what you will get, if you use this template. Likewise, launching a new feature is probably something you're likely to do every once in a while. So, we're talking about the benefits, we're showing you value, we're focusing on outcomes, not just walking you through features or showing you how they work. So, what we're trying to do, when we talk about value and benefits, is to start with the why. In this case the why is to drive faster adoption for your product, and then, only after we've really gotten you to the why, and make sure you understand it, then we'll talk about the how. The how is to onboard people to your product, or to show them new features, do this walk-throughs. And only then, only then, do we get to the what. Hey, the what in this case, it's easy with Product Tours. You should try one now. If you start with the what, chances are you're gonna lose people before you get to that value, to the benefit. Because you'll just be talking about features. So, this model's called the Golden Circle, this comes from Simon Sinek, who wrote this great book called "Start with Why". And he's really focused on helping leaders improve their visions, and how they communicate them and get people lined. But this concept of start with why also really appropriate for product onboarding. Because Simon Sinek says, "People don't buy what you do, "they buy why you do it." They don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. When you speak to people's why, and when you make that why the core of the story that you tell them about your product, they will get more engaged. Because it speaks to these feelings. Understanding what pushes them away from their current situation, strengthening the pull, calming the anxieties and overcoming inertia. So, when you do this, this essentially gives you a recipe for writing out your onboarding flow. So, let's start with understanding the push. The question to ask yourself here is what are the pain points that we can solve for. What is that customer experiencing that's causing friction, delay, pain, maybe a lower quality outcomes that they want. You can address those things in your onboarding. Likewise, how do you strengthen the poll of your product versus all of your competitors? The question to ask here is what are the benefits associated with each onboarding task. So beyond showing me where the thing is, or how I can use it, speak to me about the outcomes. Tell me about the benefits. What do I get, if I actually complete this step of your onboarding? Likewise, calming the anxiety. The job of most products is usually not so much to, let's say you're building an analytics platform. You might assume that the job is to show someone data about something. And yeah, sure that's part of it. But the real job is probably something like get someone promoted, get them a raise, get them recognition or some kind of reward that they really value. And the way you do that, is to show them this data. But showing the data alone, that's the output, that's not the end goal. The outcome is getting someone that promotion. So the question to ask here is how do we make you and your stakeholders successful. That's the question to address in your onboarding flow. And finally, overcoming inertia. What is the best, clearest, shortest, quickest path to that success? How do you get to that outcome of success for the person and for the stakeholders? If you address these four questions in your onboarding flows, your customers will, first of all, they'll have these four forces addressed, they'll be more likely to adopt your products, and they'll be less likely to turn over time. You can learn more about this in this great blog post from my colleague Robbie Allan. Go.inter.com/fourforces. So, as part of building Product Tours at Intercom and developing a Product Tour for Product Tours, which is a nice bit of meta excitement, I reviewed a give or take 200 to 300 onboarding flows from all sorts of SaaS companies. And I found that give or take they all had these six key messages within them. The first is some sort of a welcome. And this is where these companies would acknowledge customers and help them feel seen, recognised and especially, valued. Let's look at some examples. So, like Slack. I don't even need to zoom in on this, because you can see Welcome. It is the single largest thing on the screen, much larger than their logo. It's got a waving hand. This is the first thing someone will see, when they start onboarding into Slack. They're made to feel welcome, like they belong there. For Dropbox, when they introduce Dropbox home, again, the first, the biggest thing on the screen is this welcome message. So they're making sure that people understand that they're in this new experience, and that in this case, the company values their presence there and is here to help them out. The second key element I saw in all of these onboarding flows are messages about identity. In this case, it's the identity of the product or perhaps the identity of the company that's building it. In any case, you're trying to show how the customers should consider their interactions with the product. You're essentially setting context. Here's an example in Slack where you have this interaction with the Slackbot. Every time you join a new Slack, Slackbot will be there and will tell you a few key things about the Slack. It's customizable, it gets you used to the conversational interactions, and essentially, by messaging you, it shows you how the product works, how you can get more out of it. So, when we zoom in, you can see that Slackbot is introducing itself as a character, and it's got this icon, it speaks about itself in the first person, "You can ask me simple questions". So, this sets those expectations for how a person is going to interact with this product, all built into the onboarding. Likewise, any Figma users out there? Figma? Yeah! I think I'm more excited about that than you are. Okay, in any case, Figma, similarly, has this welcome message. And you can see, like, there are different fidelities, and different, let's say, volumes of the design involved here. This is a very simple dialogue, but it welcomes you to Figma, and they talk about themselves using we. "We're different from other design tools "in really special ways, so we'd like "to walk you through them." They're establishing a voice. And voice is all about the things you say and how you say them. This is something you can do in your onboarding flows as well. The third thing we saw is that all of these onboarding flows address some key problems to solve. And the most effective ones lead with the benefits of the solution and show how they address someone's needs. So, here's an example from Geckoboard. First of all, I love all these cheering avatars. They have the welcome message, but then they say, "Help your teams hit their goals with live TV dashboards." This is the kind of a dashboard you'd set up in an office, probably involving some sort of activity analysis or analytics to help teams understand what's going on with their product. So, they address that need right away in the first screen of their onboarding. Their next screen talks about getting everyone on the same page and improving performance. Likewise, Airtable has a great way of doing this. So, you may be in a scenario where your product has lots and lots of different things. It's okay. One thing you can do is survey people as part of your onboarding experience, and then show them customised messages. So, in this case, Airtable is saying, "Tell us a bit about yourself. "What will you be using Airtable for?" They have a range of options you can choose. And then, depending on what you choose, they will show you different messages in the onboarding. That's pretty savvy, you should steal this, you can do this too. The next element we saw in all of these hundreds of onboarding flows was an explicit value proposal. So, this is where you set expectations for what your customers will actually get. They complete onboarding, they start using your product. So, here is the one from Intercom. And I'm gonna zoom in here. So this is Phil from Intercom, he's a real person, not a digital person, he's real. And he says, "Learn about the customer you're talking to "so you can help them faster." And if you work in customer support, this idea of knowing who you're talking to with the outcome of helping them faster, is really valuable to you. That speaks directly to ways that you might be measured as a support person, and what you consider to be success. Learning about people, helping them faster. Likewise, here's an example from a company called Lucky Orange that just asks the question that's probably on someone's mind when they set up a dashboard. How many people are on your side? Right? By asking the question, you imply that you have the answer. This is a pretty savvy thing to do. Now, they use a little bit more attacks than I might wanna use in that, but the thing that stands out to me here is the question, it's the largest bit of text on the page. It's in a different colour, it's very noticeable. How many people are on your site? When I set up this widget as part of their dashboard, I'm going to find out the answer. Show the mechanics. So, I've talked about features and decoration. At some point you do need to walk people through how your product works. But you should do this under the guise of how a person can get the most out of your product, not just directing them around to buttons and widgets. So, here's another example from Slack. Where they say, "Send direct messages. "Need to send a quick note to just one person "or a small group of people on your team? "Direct messages are great for that!" So they're showing you the benefit. They're showing you the value. That would've been much easier to just say, "Hey, here's what direct messages are." But instead, they speak to the Job to be Done. Why would someone wanna use this feature? Here's an example from DropTrack, where they talk about choosing tracks upload. So, "Thank you for joining thousands "of independent record labels using DropTrack "to get their message played on radio, "featured in blogs, placed in TV shows." If you're an independent producer, these things will be really valuable to you. If this gets you reach and awareness. Finally, the last element is a call to action. So, you don't just stop at explaining the product, you get someone to start using it effectively. This helps you get to activation. So, even after someone has purchased your product, if they end up not using it, they're probably not going to stick with your product for long, they're not realising that value that you promised them. To get someone to activation, a really powerful thing you can do is build in this sort of next step directly into onboarding. So, here's a great example. Start building your dashboard, and then there's a call to action to add data. Because even though a person has bought this analytics product, if they don't connect some sort of data feed to it, they're not going to get anything out of it. So, this is how this onboarding ends, and actually feels like a natural way to start beginning to use the product. Likewise, Airbnb. So, when you start using Airbnb as a host, you'll see this onboarding screen that actually starts to walk you through the process, where you list the address, take photos and so on. And when you're all done, actually this is from the customer side. I'm gonna skip over that, sorry, it's a mistake. Lingo, similarly, has the scenario where in order to get value out of this onboarding flow, you actually have to get your entire team to start using this. A lot of products go through this sort of friction, because adding teammates to a new product is a high anxiety situation. You don't know how that email, that invite email is going to get sent, you don't know what it looks like. Maybe you haven't talked to everyone to tell them that you're using this product. So what I really like here is that Lingo provides this call-out for including a personalised message. That gives you, the customer of Lingo, a little bit more control over how your colleagues are going to experience it. And that helps calm those anxieties, which is something, again, a smart onboarding flow would do. You can learn all about taking a content-first approach to product onboarding in this blog post that I myself have written at go.inter.com/tellthestory. 'Cause onboarding tells a story of your product, and, in fact, it's focused on the story of the people using it. So, let's some up. Onboarding is not a feature. It's not a feature. It is not a feature, you do not want to fundamentally build your onboarding as a type of decoration for your product, or as a sort peppering of pointers that tell you the mechanics of how your product works. It's not a feature. Onboarding is itself a product. At Intercom we've taken it one step further. And rather than having sort of a feature team, build out our onboarding or distributing it throughout our entire company, we actually have a dedicated team that does nothing, but our product onboarding. So that they're constantly in a cycle of building, measuring, learning, improving our onboarding flow, making it more personalised and trying to speak to those forces that act on people when they try out new products. The four forces, the fundamental interactions. So, when you successfully onboard someone to your product, when they start seeing the value and those benefits, that's like a point of magic. Because suddenly they realise the possibilities. They understand how you solve their problems. They understand how to get all that value out of what you promised them. And really, the sky is the limit. There's no horizon, it feels like they have this infinite road of possibility ahead of them, much like the universe. So, this, my friends, has been a content-first approach to product onboarding. I've been your speaker Jonathon Colman from Intercom. You can find me on Twitter @jcolman. And again, everything is all in one place for this deck at go.inter.com/contentfirst. That is it, my friends, thank you so much. (audience applauding) (funky electronic music)