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What engineers wish you knew about product onboarding

Emily Wang
5 min read

Anyone who’s touched an onboarding project knows that it’s inherently cross-functional. Most of the “functions” we think of are marketing, customer success, and product. But today we want to unpack why early collaboration within the product team (namely with engineers) is so often overlooked, and why it’s hugely important to plan for upfront.

Why Engineers are often “forgotten” in onboarding projects

Unlike “core” product initiatives – where engineers usually are involved from the earliest stages to weigh in on complexity, feasibility, and dependencies – new user experiences (shortened to NUX) and onboarding flows often bring in engineers at the very end. 

Three common reasons:

  1. We underestimate the complexity of the project
  2. We don’t consider the data requirements that are necessary for effective onboarding
  3. We don’t plan for, or anticipate, ongoing iterations

To help teams better plan and ultimately execute on their onboarding projects, we interviewed 2 engineers to get their take on what goes well, or poorly: André Malan, a software engineer at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Derek Gould, a software engineer at Bento.

Data needs cause complexity in product onboarding projects

While there might not be as much functional complexity in the average onboarding experience than some core product features, there can often be a surprising amount of interactions that rely on data, events, or even new UX mechanics that don’t already exist.

“The mechanism becomes hugely important,” André noted. “How do all of these things connect? I’ve seen the design team come up with the bits of information that will show up and think that’s enough. But how the information flows is important for engineering because they need to connect all the pieces.

Maintenance and iteration on onboarding experiences is the tricky part

Onboarding and activation flows are some of the most iterated-upon areas of a product. From changing the order of certain steps to adding logic to support different personas or use-cases, onboarding experiences are ever evolving. Often phase 1 of the project gets resources but not its iterations.

But unlike solving a critical bug or scaling issue, these iterations can feel lower-priority to the engineers on the team.

Derek shared that “generally, onboarding flows are a fairly low priority to engineers. It's only when the project owner is poking us that it actually gets done.” 

Plus, the ratio of overhead-to-change can feel particularly frustrating when you just want to modify and test out some new copy.

Onboarding, especially in-app, is a cross functional project

Onboarding is only as good as the data that helps you understand the impact of your flows. And no, we don’t mean whether users “clicked through” but rather the effectiveness of the experience. Data from onboarding needs to flow into other teams' tools.

As Derek pointed out, 

“Analytics and tracking needs to be part of the plan with a clear outline of what wants to be learned by each stakeholder. This could also help inform the direction of the actual onboarding flow” 

Product teams aren’t the only ones who care. From sales to customer success, many teams are impacted by whether customers are stalled or blowing by with momentum. That’s why we often see, after the initial build, ongoing requests to pass this data into Salesforce, into Slack, or even into a google sheet for visibility.

→ Download this template to help with planning your next onboarding project ←

In-app onboarding: Build & maintain vs. Buy & integrate

Building in-app customer onboarding flows from scratch is a long, uphill battle. 

First, you have to collaborate across teams and agree on elements that work for both parties. Then, each time you want to experiment with a new tactic, your engineering team has to build the component from the ground up. Successful onboarding is never one and done, so you’ll have to contend with the same slog in perpetuity.

“Onboarding always lives in somebody else’s business, you are putting onboarding flows into the clean, well thought out surface area of your product and as you grow and iterate everyone needs to be mindful of it” 

All of these reasons send engineering teams to seek out third-party, low-code onboarding tools. André noted,

“I would always push to use a third-party tool whenever humanly possible. Because I know the maintenance cost, long-term, of onboarding.” 

Integrating low-code tools with your product takes the engineering team significantly less time than creating in-house flows. Once the code is in place, the growth team (and in the case of Bento – the success team) takes control of the project to iterate, test, and optimize without engineering help. The engineering team can focus on the tasks that matter most to them, and the growth team avoids having to bug them to make updates. 

Derek shared that teams should consider a low-code onboarding tool if:

  • The engineering team is small, and working on onboarding from scratch would take away most team members from the core product
  • The onboarding flow is complex, and a tool could make setup easier for engineers, no matter the team size

If a company has a complicated core product that simply won’t work with anything “off the shelf,” Derek sees that as the time you’re better off to engineer in-house. Products that are mobile centric, involve many floating components, rely heavily on a chrome extension, or just aren't a web app at the core, may not be able to leverage 3rd party tools as effectively. 

Bento makes onboarding projects easier for everyone involved

Bento is an onboarding solution that’s easy for engineers to install and simple enough for customer success teams to update. 

Integrating Bento into your product only requires a line of code, and it won’t break when your UI changes. Then, your team can create onboarding flows across user segments without bugging engineers for help. 

Ready to see it live? Sign up for a demo here.

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