Three ways we're providing a better customer onboarding experience

Providing an effective onboarding experience is a particularly tricky—and often overlooked—part of product development.

As a product developer, you're so familiar with the application that what's obvious to you may not be obvious to your potential customer. Similarly, what seems important to convey immediately might not be the best way to acclimate someone to your product.

It's a classic case of the Curse of Knowledge: The more you know about a subject, the harder it is to relate to someone that's still a novice.

What's the right experience? You don't want to dump a new user right into the middle of a barren application, but you also don't want to bombard them with popups, tooltips, and messaging right after they've signed up. Hold your new customer's hand but let them feel like they can let go at a moment's notice.

At DoneDone, we've been working on this delicate balance by adding a few recent additions to the onboarding process. Undoubtedly, we'll continue to evolve the onboarding experience, but here's three guiding principles we've landed on thus far.

1. Empty states are good. Relevant information is better.

Designers and developers need to consider how the empty states of an application behave and appear. It's an opportunity to introduce someone to a new part of the app without simply saying "No results found".

When someone signed up for DoneDone in the past, this is what they would first see when they landed inside.

The original, empty new account experience.

But, one thing was glaringly obvious in our research: Many folks who started a trial of DoneDone never even created a new Project or Mailbox. While everything felt new, it also felt desolate and uninviting. Many new customers left before they got started. To help solve this problem, we added a new step to our signup process, "Goals".

Learning a little more about our customer before leading them into DoneDone.

In this step, a new customer chooses why they've decided to trial DoneDone. For any goal that applies, they'll automatically have a corresponding project or mailbox created for them. This way, when they land on the Dashboard for the first time, they aren't met with a blank screen.

Stubbed mailboxes and projects based on a customer's goals.

From a product owner's point of view, this doesn't seem like a big step. Creating these individual mailboxes and projects only takes a few seconds.

But, onboarding is about momentum. In this case, there's an immediate sense of momentum when you see a page with some "stuff" on it versus one that's completely blank. You could compare this to that daunting feeling of staring at a blank page when starting to write something versus having even a modest outline to get started.

Now, a customer's natural inclination would be to step into a project and start adding tasks, or hit the "Finish Setup" button to configure a new mailbox. It's a small step to get a customer more familiar with our product; One giant leap to a potentially longer lasting relationship.

2. Provide examples of what your product can do.

Another common approach to onboarding is to provide good examples. Basecamp shows you a "Customer Support" project with a few to-dos, messages, and chat streams. Trello provides templates with filled in cards to choose from. In Asana, you're given actual tasks to accomplish, like creating a new project, inviting teammates, and downloading their mobile app. 

We dabbled with the idea of creating a personal project with a series of tasks assigned to the new customer (like "Add your teammates" or "Set up your first mailbox"). But, this didn't feel right for two reasons.

  • First, who wants to feel like they already have work to do right after they sign up? Assigning tasks to a new customer didn't feel like the right first impression to us. Instead, let them check out the space and start using it when they're ready.
  • Second, there were technical hurdles. Would these new tasks automatically disappear once they were done? Would they appear to be created by someone from DoneDone's staff, since they'd be there at the very beginning? If so, could you respond to the staff member with a question through the task?
  • Finally, when technical questions like this arise, it's usually a sign that the feature itself might be more confusing to the user than it would first appear. And the last thing we want to do is confuse someone just starting out.

We landed on the idea of including a real-world sample project. When a new account is created, we generate a sample project with nine sample tasks that involve DoneDone staff members (inspired by actual work we're doing on This way, it's more clear these tasks are samples.

To further differentiate the sample project, a "Sample Project" stamp appears on the project card, listing and sample task pages.

We liked this approach for a couple of reasons. First, whereas the stubbed mailboxes and projects shows the start of something, a sample project shows the new customer something in-flight—what DoneDone could look for them in a few weeks time:

A sampling of real-world tasks in the generated sample project

Second, by providing realistic examples, we also solve the first goal in more places. When the customer clicks around to other areas like Calendar or Reports, instead of seeing empty states, they see actual content! They instantly get a sense of what the app will feel like once they start using it.

The "Calendar" view of a fresh DoneDone account
The "Reports" view on a fresh DoneDone account

There were still a number of technical hurdles to overcome. For instance, we couldn't just "copy" these sample tasks verbatim for each new account. The timestamps and due dates for each task needed to be adjusted relative to the date the account was created so that due dates and activity would be current on the Calendar, Reports, and Dashboard, rather than in the distant past. We also had to weave in a few business rules to allow for the concept of sample users.

But, in the end, these technical complexities don't pass onto the user, and the end result is a more curated and full product experience from the get-go.

3. Show rather than tell. Do rather than show.

Though we pride ourselves on the fact that DoneDone is simple and straightforward, there are parts that are more technically complex by necessity. 

Last month, I talked about our completely rebuilt Mailbox auto-forwarding setup. Depending on your email client, setting up auto-forwarding can range from annoying to aggravating. There's no easy way around it.

Take Gmail, for example. HelpScout offers a step-by-step guide to auto-forward Gmail into their inboxes while Zendesk and other help desk tools just link you off to Gmail's documentation.

In our research and based on customer feedback, we still noticed a lot of folks stumbling on the setup process. So, we decided to do as much of it as we can rather than just show you how by creating a step-by-step wizard.

This also gave us the opportunity to automate some processes that you'd normally do manually. For instance, Gmail will send a confirmation link to the address your auto-forwarding to (to make sure you have access to the address). With DoneDone, instead of having to go to your mailbox and click a confirmation address, during setup, we will find the confirmation link, and present it to you directly in the wizard.

Similarly Zoho Mail provides a code in their confirmation email which DoneDone will automatically grab as well.

Saving a few steps like this can turn an onerous technical process into a pleasant experience, and hopefully show your customer that your product is serving them—not the other way around.

Onboarding is ongoing.

Onboarding is an ongoing effort, one that needs to be re-evaluated as features in your product are added or modified. But, instead of feeling like we're starting from scratch with each new feature update, we've found using these three guiding principles have helped us keep onboarding a fresh and useful experience.

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