The Power Of Positive Onboarding Friction

Conventional wisdom says that less is more when it comes to new customer onboarding: remove as many unnecessary steps as possible; paring down to the essentials improves your product’s time-to-value and increases the number of users who experience your product’s “Aha!” moment.

However, when taken to the extreme, you risk cutting valuable context and guideposts, ultimately detracting from the experience.

The goal of user onboarding is not to get the user to experience your product as quickly as possible. It’s to help them adopt new product habits, understand the full value of your product, and keep coming back for more. Habit-formation requires some "friction."

Think about the last time you tried to form a new habit and that habit failed to stick, whether that habit was going to the gym, journaling, or drinking less coffee. More likely than not, the first few days were tough.

During that crucial adoption period, would you have been more or less likely to keep up the habit with a few friendly reminders, helpful tips for getting started, encouragement from those who succeed before you, reinforcement of the ultimate benefits, a step-by-step playbook for success, check-list of to-dos, and so on? In a sense, all those touchpoints are friction, yet more likely than not, one or more of those would have been helpful to you.

Helping users acclimate to new product usage is similar to habit formation. It requires some positive friction. The key is to differentiate between “good” and “bad” friction so you can weed out unproductive steps and build in helpful cues at the right moment.

I use a three-question framework I call the “DAD” test (yes, it’s a riff on Rob Fitzpatrick’s MOM test!) to help people parse good onboarding friction from the bad.

Question #1: Does this onboarding step help direct users to the next step in the onboarding process and get them closer to experiencing the product’s value?

The graphic design platform, Canva, does a number of things well when onboarding new users. One effective element of their onboarding process is a short wizard that suggests relevant design templates to users based on their responses to basic questions about their use case.

Canva Onboarding Flow
Canva onboarding flow

Some onboarding minimalists might consider this step unnecessary. It’s one extra screen that new users see before creating a new design with Canva. But, by suggesting relevant templates, this step helps radically speed up the design process and allows new users to experience Canva’s value far quicker than designing from scratch.

Product tours have the potential to drive users towards an understanding of product value in a structured way. A well-constructed product tour does not just focus on what a button or feature does (i.e., “Click here to do X.”), it explains why it helps a user achieve their desired outcome. Focusing on the “what” can actually degrade your product experience by creating friction that only disrupts momentum.

When done right, product tours enable users to experience the product’s value with the minimum number of steps. Canva guides users to download their first design in 4 simple steps. Less would not be more.

Canva product tour
Canva product tour

Question #2: Does the onboarding step personalize the onboarding experience for users?

Personalizing the onboarding experience is near-guaranteed to improve performance. Segmentation into core use cases or user types is often sufficient to understand what information and resources will be helpful to a user.

There are three main benefits to onboarding segmentation:

  • Users learn exactly what they need to do for them to experience the product's value.
  • You can get down to the specifics of how exactly your product can help them.
  • You can increase user motivation by sending targeted messaging based on each user’s primary goal.

The best product onboarding experiences I have reviewed ask users their primary reason for signing up and then personalize the onboarding process based on the response. For example, Wave, an invoicing and payroll software company, asks: "Hey Ramli! What would you like to do in Wave? Choose a starting point" during the signup process. Users are presented with four options:

  • Send professional invoices
  • Manage your accounting
  • Run effortless payroll
  • Not sure yet
Wave user onboarding
Wave user onboarding

Based on your response, Wave customizes the rest of the onboarding experience, including emails, in-app messages, and product tours.

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Question #3: Does the onboarding step delight users and get them excited about the product?

Again, Wave provides an instructive example of delighting the user during onboarding. “Delighting” a user often involves an element of surprise. This not only sparks a bit of joy in the user, but subtly communicates that the product really understands what the user wants and leaves the user looking forward to subsequent engagement.

During onboarding, Wave asks for the users’ company logo, then automatically identifies the brand colors. Wave uses this data to update the invoice template to match the branding.

Wave personalized user onboarding experience
Wave personalized user onboarding experience

It’s not surprising that after doing customer interviews, the Wave team found that this step in particular got users excited about using Wave:

During customer interviews, the customers we talked to that saw what their invoice will look like with Wave said, “Wow! This is great! This looks professional. It’s beautiful.” That gives them a lot of confidence that the product is good. Wave is something that they can trust. - Vivek Balasubramanian, Director of Growth at Wave

Another way to delight users is to simply welcome them to the app. Many may believe this introduction is a massive waste of time. But, if you create a common bond, build a connection, or relate to a shared mission, a simple ‘welcome’ can be an enormous boost of motivation for new users.

An effective welcome doesn’t need to be anything fancy. With a short video from their three founders, Userlist creates a bond with users.

Userlist personalized user onboarding experience
Userlist personalized user onboarding experience

Many products ignore this critical step. But imagine walking into a dinner party without the host greeting you and giving a tour. Most likely, you’d feel snubbed!

Welcome messages set the tone. They give customers a sense of how they’ll be treated during their relationship with the product. Personal videos are great at humanizing the experience while emphasizing that there are real people personally involved in the users’ success.

The three types of “good” friction

In summary, the three types of good friction in the onboarding are ones that:

  • Effectively direct users to the next critical step in the onboarding process.
  • Personalize the onboarding for a richer user experience
  • Delight users and gets them excited about the product

So, the next time you’re wondering if you should cut out a step in your user onboarding process, ask yourself, “Does this pass the DAD test?”

Learn more about positive onboarding friction here.

About The Author Ramli John is a growth marketing and conversion optimization expert based in Toronto, Canada. Ramli helps product-led companies convert more of their free users into lifelong customers. He is the founder and host of the Growth Marketing Today and co-host the Product-Led Podcast with Wes Bush, author of the Product-Led Growth.

Subscribe to Ramli’s weekly newsletter containing proven step-by-step marketing strategies from today's smartest marketers, and download the first chapter from Ramli John’s book EUREKA: How to Onboard New Users and Turn Them Into Lifelong Customers.

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