Why User Onboarding Should NOT Be an Afterthought

Why User Onboarding Should NOT Be an Afterthought
Daniel Elizalde
User Onboarding

So where should Product Managers start, and what are the ingredients of a great user onboarding experience? In this post, I share the business case for investing in user onboarding, along with guidance on how to improve your product’s user onboarding experience.

Good User Onboarding Increases Customer Adoption And Revenue

Let’s start at the beginning: people don’t buy products, they buy a solution to a problem. The faster new users familiarize themselves with how to use your tool to fix their problem, the happier they’ll be.

Think of user onboarding as a combination of documents, in-product tools, videos, and training material that helps new users get over the initial adoption hump. It’s a key aspect of the overall product experience, but an area often overlooked by Product Managers.

[tweetherder]Good onboarding increases customer adoption.[/tweetherder]

The chart below is my modified version of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Users travel through this hype cycle as they start using any new product. First, most users climb to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” hoping your product can solve all of their needs. However, many products lack a solid user onboarding strategy, so users quickly fall deep into the “Trough of Disillusionment,” and sometimes they never recover.

A good user onboarding experience fixes this problem by taking users from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” directly into the “Slope of Enlightenment” and beyond.  It also increases the chances that they will rave about your product to friends and colleagues, which means free marketing for your product.

user onboarding - hype curve


User Onboarding Differs Between Industrial and Consumer IoT Products

The user onboarding experience that your product provides depends on the type of product you are building. For example, think of a consumer IoT product such as a fitness band. In this scenario, the person installing and provisioning the product is likely the same person that will use the device. Therefore, the user onboarding experience must follow this same person throughout their journey and help them make the most out of your product as quickly as possible.

For industrial IoT products, the situation changes. Industrial products often have many more personas than consumer products, so it’s our job to define a good user onboarding experience for each persona that will interact with your product at every step of its lifecycle. For example, the user onboarding experience for a technician responsible for installing your product will be different than the user onboarding experience of a manager or developer integrating your product with other systems via APIs.

In either case, your user onboarding process must match the needs, expectations, and skill level of the user. For consumer IoT products, you might rely on user guides, in-app tutorials, or even video tutorials. On the other hand, industrial products might require more detailed user manuals, augmented reality tutorials, or even in-person training for advanced users.

Bad user onboarding increases cost in other departments.

You may be thinking, “Creating an onboarding experience sounds very expensive. We would rather invest in new features than on a user onboarding strategy.” As a business-savvy Product Manager, you know that every decision comes at a cost. It is crucial to look at the complete cost of a decision to your company, rather than only looking at engineering costs.

The reality is that if you don’t budget time and money in your roadmap to develop a strong user onboarding experience, you are not “saving money”. You are only passing the costs of poor user onboarding on to other departments to handle.

Let’s look at the impact on other departments.

Impact on Support

Engineering might not want to spend the money required to create a smooth user onboarding experience, but believe me, that choice will come back to bite you 10 times over in the form of increased support costs.

After you launch a product, you can see a clear correlation between a poorly designed or poorly documented feature and the number of support tickets you receive. The money you saved by not investing in engineering, now has to go to support costs—not to mention the intangible cost of disgruntled customers.

If you work for a startup where the support organization is not very mature, the challenge is even worse. Often, the escalation path for support tickets goes back to the Product and Engineering teams, meaning your team is now responsible for both releasing new features and supporting the current ones.

This will slow down your team and provide a terrible experience for your users, leading to more churn and customers closing their accounts. If you happen to work in enterprise software, it’ll take no time before the VP of Sales is knocking at your door demanding you take care of the customers.

Impact on Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success

If your customers have a hard time getting started with your product, you are likely passing extra costs to Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success. For example, if you offer a free trial, but your product is not easy to use, then your customer won’t be enticed to upgrade to the paid plan and you will not hit your conversion goals. This is particularly troublesome if your company is using a recurring revenue model that relies on customer adoption and the continued use of your product in order to generate revenue.

Recommended post: How to Monetize Your IoT Product

To solve the problem, your company might play the numbers game by spending more money on marketing to increase leads and hopefully get more conversions. In this case, you’d be attacking the symptoms and not the root cause.

This is also true for enterprise and industrial products. Big companies look at the total cost of ownership and evaluate how much they need to invest in training and documentation to onboard their personnel. Many enterprise software companies lose their competitive advantage because they out-price themselves once they add the cost of expensive training.

Having a clean and self-serve way to onboard new users is a competitive advantage that will reduce total cost of ownership and make your product more attractive from a cost and adoption perspective.

How Product Managers Can Address User Onboarding Before It Becomes An Issue

With all these potential challenges, how can you, the Product Manager, take action to prevent these problems from happening?

1. Make onboarding a part of feature definition

As Product Managers, we are responsible for the roadmap, feature definition, and acceptance criteria. Including user onboarding as part of these responsibilities shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should always be included as part of your planning and prioritization process.

Recommended post: How to Build an IoT Product Roadmap

Overall, it can be hard to sell the CEO on the investment your team needs to build a particular user onboarding feature (such as documentation, in-product tutorials, gamification, etc). The trick is to explain the value of this investment as it relates to the bottom line and overall user retention. Make sure to point out the impact not making this investment could have further down the road.

Product Managers juggle many conflicting priorities, so you might decide to postpone some of the user onboarding functionality to a later release. Doing so is perfectly acceptable, as long as you make that decision while considering all the possible issues and the impact on the user experience today. You are deciding to make that trade-off, and you will manage the consequences. That’s what Product Management is all about.

Recommended post: The Four Pillars of Product Leadership

2. Make your documentation meaningful

Documentation is like insurance. No one wants to think about it, but you still need to pay for it. As a Product Manager, you should have a solid understanding of your target audience, including what type of documentation works best for them. Is it long documents? Tutorials? In-product help? Videos? Something else? As always, user testing and research can help reveal the best approach for your particular users.

Regardless of the format and delivery mechanism, if you have to write documentation, make it meaningful. Focus on documenting “why” something should be done, and the key tasks that users need to complete. Focus on the user journey, as well as the overall outcome they are looking to accomplish.

UI documentation, on the other hand, is a waste of time for both your technical writers and the user. How many times have you seen something like this?

  1. To create a document click the “Create Document” button.
  2. On the “Document name” field, enter the name of your document.
  3. Click the “Save” button to save your document.

Completely useless. Instead, focus on UX and modern techniques like an in-app tutorial, just-in-time videos, intelligent recommendations based on task progress, semantic search, AI assistants, etc.

3. Invest in UX

As you probably have heard from many industry experts, UX is a big trend that Product Managers can’t ignore. Working with designers to understand the right interactions of our product, goes a long way. I recently read a quote that summarizes this thought:

“A UI is like a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

I characterize “UI” with the more expansive definition, meaning any touch-point where the user interacts with your product. This includes the physical buttons, displays, and connectors on your hardware device, the communication interfaces, your API graph definitions, as well as the graphical user interfaces on any form factors such as web, phone, tablet, etc.

The better your UI is, the easier it will be for new users to understand and start being productive quickly. Granted, some software applications (especially enterprise) can be very complex, and even with great UX, you still need to provide effective user onboarding tools.

You might not completely eliminate the need for user onboarding and documentation, but if you spend the time designing (and testing) a polished experience, that investment will reduce the overall costs required for onboarding. It should be an easy sell to Executives.

Recommended post: UX for Product Managers

4. Invest in user testing and analytics

Unfortunately, user testing is still not widely adopted by most technology companies. If you are not sure which areas of your product need stronger onboarding tools, or if you are not sure where your customers are struggling, then user testing might reveal the answer. User testing can provide great insights in two different stages of the product lifecycle:

  1. Before you launch a product or feature: test with real users to see how easy the feature is to use and how quickly a user can complete the task.
  2. Once your product is live: test with real users to identify the rough spots and determine what needs to be adjusted.

For IoT products, make sure you test both the digital and the physical part of your product. You need to make sure that all of your user personas will have a great experience with your product, regardless of whether they are interfacing with your hardware, software, or both.

Recommended post: Why It’s So Hard to Create a Good User Experience in IoT

User testing can be expensive and requires coordination with your users. An additional tool you should embrace is the integration of analytics into your end-to-end product. That means leveraging sensors to get usage data from your device hardware, as well as using software analytics tools to determine where your customer is getting stuck and what areas you need to improve.

With that data, you can prioritize your roadmap to fix existing issues, add new user onboarding features, or retire features that are not adding any value.

Not having any data for analytics is like flying blind. Your feedback will be very biased since it’s coming from sales, support, or those few very vocal customers. Certainly, that feedback is valuable, but by itself, it doesn’t show you the full picture.

The Bottom Line

User onboarding needs to be top of mind when defining any new feature or product. It is your responsibility as a Product Manager to explain to internal stakeholders why it’s important to make this investment now rather than later. Adding onboarding features might not be as exciting as adding new features, but the investment will be returned many times over in conversion, customer satisfaction, and reduced costs in other departments.


  1. dk 6 years ago

    Hi Daniel,
    Looks like Gartner Hype Cycle is a dual of the Dunning Kruger Effect

  2. moazzam 10 years ago

    What do you think of guides tours? The ones that point to the buttons and links step by step.

    Thanks, moazzam

    • Daniel Elizalde 10 years ago

      Hi Moazzam,
      Guided tours can work, but it really depends on your user and your type of product. I recommend creating some quick prototypes and running them by your target audience. Creating guided tours can be expensive so you want to make sure they are the right tool before investing in them. What do you think?

      • Bilal Qayyum 6 years ago

        Yes you are right. Just like an application “walkme” is an expensive tool for a small startup having short to budget and resources. Your second point is also valid, it really depends on the product and audience type.

  3. Roger L. Cauvin 10 years ago

    A lot of good nuggets in this comprehensive look at the business impacts of failure to plan for a positive onboarding experience. It doesn’t just impact users and adoption of your product, but it saddles your company with ongoing support and marketing costs.

    Onboarding should really have its own set of requirements. However, that doesn’t mean the product manager should be specifying HOW the onboarding takes place. It DOES mean specifying the metrics and criteria we use to determine whether any particular onboarding experience our designers conceive is acceptable. Back in 2005, I blogged about using holistic requirements to address these issues. Let me know what you think!

    • Daniel Elizalde 10 years ago

      Great points, Roger. Thanks for your input and for sharing your article. I completely agree. I think that since UX is such a big trend right now, Product Managers rely too much on it to provide “self-documenting” software.

      I know that’s the ideal case, but sometimes we miss the fact that some products are meant to solve very complex problems. The UI might be easy to understand, but it might not reflect the “intent” or the “why” of a particular operation. By having a clear understanding of the problem the user wants to solve, we should be able to provide the best possible experience, which includes the best possible UI and any accompany documentation or onboarding features. Hence, a holistic approach to requirements is always the best. Would you agree?

      • Roger L. Cauvin 10 years ago

        I do agree. It makes me wonder as I ponder it, though. Just as product managers should consider holistic requirements, perhaps we need designers who consider how documentation, training, and support fit into designing a holistic user experience.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *