User Onboarding 101 for Product Managers

Product Management is nothing without users. The whole discipline directs you to solve problems for them. Beyond this, however, every PM has their own philosophy and practical approach. It is no different in the realm of User Onboarding: the art of introducing and making sure that customers make the most of your product.

As a result, onboarding is not a straightforward effort. It depends on many variables which are connected to your product and your Product Management style. Let’s begin by mapping these variables.

User Onboarding 101 for Product Managers

Reverse-engineer Customer Success Before Thinking of Onboarding

A Product Manager must always consider all the angles. And, in this line of work, there are simply too many! 

A mixture of a developer, marketer, and designer; every area of product success is touched by the PM. However, these can also be sections of the company where product people have any direct authority over. Rather, they must work in agreement with other departments, employing persuasion and (yes!) concessions to protect their product vision.

The way prospective users first interact with the platform could, on the surface, be seen as an area where the PM holds full control. Again, as mentioned above, sometimes there are other concerns that influence these decisions. From technical limitations to specific demands emerging from salespeople; there are endless requests that can invade a PM’s competencies

An easy example. Is the company’s sales funnel designed specifically for direct calls? Then, this goal will definitely shape the way you design initial customer interactions.

Customer success before thinking of onboarding

One step beyond, let’s imagine for a second that the product team is not affected by stakeholder requests. Then, a fork on the road emerges: you can choose to be more of a product-centered or a user-centered PM.

  • Product-centered PMs define their work by the solutions they aim to offer. This is the conventional approach for most observers and less experienced product practitioners. For decades, product development has been constituted by the usual phases: research, development, feedback; and re-iteration. User research (surveys, interviews, etc.) should tell you about the obstacles customers seek to avoid and how you can help them.
  • User-centered PMs build their product backwards, noting the actual use customers make of the product. This approach is more sophisticated; one instance is the Jobs-To-Be-Done perspective. Here, you are seeking to understand the different personas and tasks they are already accomplishing with your product. The focus is on quick, adaptive feedback that employs user activity as a growth driver.

Today, most Product Managers take into account both perspectives. How do they impact user onboarding?

Very simple: they switch priorities. Product-centered PMs will probably focus on quickness and efficiency. The goal is to produce the shortest possible customer journey, from learning about your product to finally engaging with it. User-centered PMs will, most likely, turn towards existing or prospective customers to analyze what exactly they are seeking to achieve through the onboarding process. Is it fast enough? Does it grant full access to every feature from the first minute? Or would a different approach be better, where these functions are slowly revealed?

This is why it is very important to reverse-engineer your perception of “user success”. You should constrain this definition as much as possible. It cannot be a broad idea of “guaranteeing users make the most of my product”. It must be direct and limited: “ensuring a fast adoption of most of our tools”, “maintaining loyalty for more than a year”, “limiting customer service interactions”…

This way, you will set targets which are clearly in line with you and your team’s perspectives.

user-centered and product-centered product managers on onboarding

User Onboarding Steps and the Product Manager’s Areas of Responsibility

Once you have understood the overall factors and constraints influencing user onboarding for Product Managers, it’s time to unpack its different phases.

1. Conversion

This is where a prospective individual accesses your digital product and becomes interested in its functions. They are not users or customers yet, your goal is to help them in that transition. Notice the difference between a “sales” conversion and a “user” conversion. The first one implies that the user becomes a purchaser of your product. Actually, what matters for the PM here is that your prospective user sees your feature as something that can help them in their daily lives. 

For instance, if this is a game they found through an ad, they should clearly see how much (if anything) it will cost and the mechanics it will involve. Videos, user reviews or zero-commitment demos are good examples of tools that help you convert the public.

2. Hook

This is where users become intrigued by one or more of the solutions that you offer. They already know your product and are up to using it; however, to gain their undivided attention, they need to experience that “wow” moment.

Think of the first time Spotify kept playing the music you liked; by artists you didn’t even know. Or when Amazon allowed you to “remember” the information from your previous purchase, so you could make things quicker. These are the sorts of things that make your product special. In the long run, as product expert Nir Eyal has shown, they turn one-time users into lifelong customers.

User onboarding steps for product managers

3. Trial

This is where customers have the chance of using your product regularly. It is a very important phase, as it contains the “educational” component which is always connected to onboarding processes. In short, this is the process by which users learn all about your product; but it goes beyond a list of features.

Rather, it is about making it simple for users to add your product to their daily lives. For example, fintech apps allowing customers to access detailed reports on what they spend their money on. Or dating apps helping users find love in a crowded city, thanks to location-based tools. Your users don’t have to fall in love with everything that you offer; just one thing has to become essential in order to capture their attention!

4. Deployment

This is where users finally make your product their own. They employ it actively in their daily lives as a tool or as entertainment. In the case of B2B products, this is where the buyer finally agrees to leave the trial period and pay full price for your services.

Is onboarding over here? Not at all. You are at the final phases of engaging your most recent users. Product Managers must include processes that ensure new arrivals are aware of everything you can offer. In fact, future personalization led by machine learning will probably generate more and more apps which hide functionalities not used by particular customers. This will facilitate smoother user experiences.

5. Debrief and Feedback

An often forgotten phase, this is where the customer reflects on your product and its interactions. Here we can include external reviews, interactions with customer service, purchases of future services… It is as important to understand the beginning of the onboarding as its “debrief” process.

One way for PMs to contribute to this phase is to devise ways of directing feedback towards growth. Rather than having a first few difficult interactions on external social media platforms, implementing an internal system for your users’ reviews could provide direct suggestions that are also contained within your operations.

As you can see, there are a thousand little tasks involving each phase. As a Product Manager, everything concerns you!

Onboarding for product growth

Onboarding for Product Growth, Not the Other Way Around

User Experience Designers or other specialized professionals tend to compartmentalize their missions. If they are put in charge of user onboarding, they will concern themselves with improving this very particular aspect of product success. Most will do a fantastic job, but they could end up ignoring the privileged full-spectrum perspective that constitutes a PM’s mission.

Product people should not think that having the best product out there will automatically solve their user onboarding. It’s the other way around. No matter how much you invest in marketing or design, you will be wasting resources if your user’s first minutes with your product don’t contribute to your knowledge and future growth. 

Understand which type of Product Manager you are and start thinking where can these customer interactions help you reach the next level. Here are some examples:

  • Can they provide instant feedback on their first day of using your product? 
  • Can their very personal learning process inform the way you introduce your features? 
  • Has your expanded offering of solutions confused later users in comparison with early adopters? 
  • Has your initially arresting visual identity become outdated for a new generation of mobile-first consumers? 

If you ask the right questions, you will practice user onboarding for product growth like a real Product Manager.

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