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Product onboarding in the real world

Emily Wang
2 min read

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I use a lot of real-world analogies to describe abstract or digital experiences. Lately, I’ve spoken with a number of founders, Customer Success leaders, and growth PMs about great customer (and product) onboarding.

The 2 weird analogies that keep coming up in rotation:

1. Great customer onboarding turns your buffet into a Prix Fixe

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Products are like buffets.

Features are usually organized by some topic like “Settings” or “Analytics”. And within each section, the goal is to lay out your tool (or webapp) in a way where it’s really obvious how to use the feature. That really should be done natively by the product. It’s funny to see people creating onboarding flows that sometimes point to a button that says “Save” and the tool-tip says: “Here’s where you save your changes”. I’d sure hope so…

So I think of these features like buffet stations: there’s a salad bar, dessert bar, and the hot items station. In a large buffet, it’s pretty helpful to have overhead signs that show me where things are, or better yet, for related items to be close to each other (like the soups and the salad bar).

But the bigger question often is: what do I want to eat?

That decision paralysis is even more magnified when it’s not my stomach, but rather a customer onboarding to a tool they either (a) didn’t decide to buy or (b) only has a vague idea of how it’ll be helpful.

Onboarding, then, is about figuring out through conversation or interaction, what the user’s goals are, and to paint a linear-ish journey. It’s not to teach me how to use analytics, but (a) helping me understand the value prop of analytics and whether I need it, and (b) helping me craft the path (which probably starts with getting data into the app).

So a great onboarding turns that buffet into a Prix Fixe where my choices are simplified and I’m presented a reasonable order of items. It solves the question: “what should I do, and in what order?” rather than “how do I make a salad?”

2. Effective onboarding is like a well designed work-out routine

Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

In the pre-Covid days, I visited a gym here and there. For me, the feeling is similarly that of: where do I start? I know how to use a treadmill, but should I? Should I run before or after weights? And while the treadmills are usually located next to the elliptical machines and far away from the weights, I imagine my “flow” takes me criss-cross across the gym, versus in neighboring order.

Those of you who know way more about working out know about “legs days” and “whatever a non-leg day is”. While basic “onboarding” at a gym shows me where the towels are, really great onboarding maps out my health and fitness goals and crafts the right workout routine. And even more effective onboarding reminds me at each visit which “day” I’m on and what I’m meant to be doing. 

Really great onboarding maps out my health and fitness goals and crafts the right workout routine.

And yet, a lot of product onboarding feels like I’m just given a tour of the gym. And as I wander around, every time I approach a machine I’m being handed an instruction manual, whether I’m ready to use that machine or not. 


I realize these are a bit silly, but do they resonate with the customer onboarding / everboarding problems you're tackling? What analogies (if any) have been effective at aligning folks internally?

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