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Interview With Samuel Hulick: User Onboarding And Customer Education

Written by Sarah E. Brown

Published on July 31, 2014

Samuel Hulick is a UX consultant with a deep focus on user onboarding, as well as the author of The Elements of User Onboarding. He's the mastermind behind UserOnboard.com, a website that provides annotated teardowns of popular web apps' first-run experiences. Samuel talked to Learndot about the relationship between user onboarding and customer education, sharing insights that help customer success and education teams increase the likelihood their customers will be successful.

Learndot: How did you become so interested in UX and user onboarding?

Samuel Hulick: I started as a developer years ago. I was gritting my teeth building out features that I didn’t think would serve users very well. I wanted to come in earlier in the decision-making process. Since I was passionate, I thought I should focus on developing user experience skills. Five years ago, I switched into that field and wound up heading UX at an agency in Portland and working as a consultant as well. I found myself frustrated with the user experience side of things. I was most interested in recommending changes that were actually improving things.

I wanted to stick around and find out what happens after changes go live and the impact that they have on people who use the site. I’ve never been a strictly data-driven person or “bean counter,” but keeping track of what’s actually happening in reality is really important to me. Having the quantifiable side of things as well as UX, onboarding lines up so easily and with conversion rates, time to completion, things like that.

Learndot: Where does “user onboarding” as a product design task stop and “customer education” as a customer success task start?

SH: I define user onboarding as the process of increasing the likelihood of adopting your product. That goes further beyond putting tooltips on top of features. Not so much about introducing your product as much as guiding people through a change in their behavior. They might learn what your product does, but unless people do things differently in their life because of it, they’re not fully successful. Onboarding is not purely about the interface.

Customer education is one of the best tools to use to guide people to a better way of doing things. It’s that which makes people more successful and makes businesses more successful. So, I wouldn’t say onboarding stops and customer education starts. When there’s a gap between where your customer is operating and where ideally they could be, filling that knowledge and behavior is crucial.

Learndot: Follow up: How does this affect the working relationship between product design and customer success/support?

SH: It’s absolutely crucial to take every opportunity to be present, and make feedback loops as tight as possible. That’s the key to my entire onboarding approach. It’s about understanding what a person is trying to do, where are they tripping up because of you. Essentially, what are their challenges and how can you ease the path to victory. You can’t draft that up in a war room. It involves going out and getting rich feedback, which is where the customer success teams can be invaluable to making better onboarding processes.

I tend to think customer support is greatly underrepresented in product design process. My philosophical approach is aligned with not papering over customer support problems but incorporating those in changes in product or, in the case of Learndot, or a video tutorial can go a long way. Your role is to ease minor and major frustrations as they adopt your product.

Learndot: User onboarding is fundamentally an education task. But, even when done well, there is much that remains to be learned: best practices and strategic skills, for example, clearly cannot be taught as part of a standard onboarding process. How much can be taught in product?

SH: I wouldn’t say onboarding has to take place purely in product. It’s a holistic process of getting someone to be more successful. Beyond that, it doesn’t have to be the very first time someone uses the product. People would really benefit from paying more attention to onboarding emails, or drip emails after the fact. You can break things up to consumable list of quick wins, to achieve on first experience, but ongoing things people can do that wouldn’t be realistic in first 5 min. Something like, “Hey, looks like you haven’t done this, we recommend taking this action,” here’s a video explaining what benefits are in order to pull people back into your product.

Learndot: What are the top user onboarding mistakes you see companies making?

SH: The most common onboarding mistake would be not knowing what should be key first activities.

Learndot: Which are the activities that most highly overlap with the value your product provides, yet are achievable within a single sitting? Follow-up sittings?

SH: From a product design standpoint, don’t get overly caught up with individual screens or compositional design -- think about your product as a series of workflows, not parts of an interface in a vacuum. Marketing, when done well, speaks to the “0” (promising the “60”) -- product design, when done poorly, focuses only on the “60” without deeply caring about how people go from “1-59”. This also requires that you define what “60” even looks like, from a behavioral standpoint.

Marketing, when done well, speaks to the “0” (promising the “60”) -- product design, when done poorly, focuses only on the “60” without deeply caring about how people go from “1-59”. -Samuel Hulick

Learndot: Do you see a lot of customers drop off in the onboarding process even before a customer education or success team can get to them? Is customer success often doing excessive “damage control” for customers who’ve had a less-than-optimal onboarding experience?

SH: Yes, definitely. I often hear people say “we don’t have onboarding yet, but we want to prioritize that soon”, and when I do, I always say “then in that case, YOU’RE the onboarding” -- so many customer adoption holes are plugged with human resources when they could be much better served at scale with design ones. On top of that, you’re only able to reach the ones who reach out to you -- if every complainer is followed by 50 who don’t bother, relying on support means you’re missing out on a significantly larger portion of your potential customer base than you’re aware of.

Learndot: Do you think user onboarding could/should affect later customer education efforts? How do you see that relationship playing out?

SH: I see user onboarding as the ongoing process of making more people more successful when using your product. That’s never over, particularly whenever your product is continuing to evolve. Ideally, later customer education is focused less around “how to use your product” (a big flag that it wasn’t designed with much care) and instead more around “how to better accomplish the bigger, cooler thing our product helps you do”, as Kathy Sierra has termed it. For instance, if you’re using Wistia -- a video marketing product -- ongoing education around how to upload videos would be a big warning sign, but teachings around how to perfectly balance background music with narration would be great. Onboarding hopefully clears the path from the former so you can focus on the latter.

Learndot: Tell us about why you decided to write your book, The Elements of User Onboarding. Could customer success/education managers gain from reading your new book?

SH: I really wanted to help more users get a lot out of my understandings of user onboarding. I can only serve so many companies as a consultant, and wanted to codify the way I was kicking off consultations in a way that every company would find highly valuable. It’s much more than I can cover in an entire afternoon session, and from what I’ve heard provides a huge list of helpful pointers right out of the gate. I live and breathe this every day, and now a much larger audience can benefit from everything I’ve learned--patterns, techniques, tips and tricks--to help them remove bottlenecks and go from surviving to flourishing.

Learndot: How does the role of user onboarding shift between consumer, small business, and enterprise software?

SH: Enterprise software is the exception, in that there’s a long sales cycle. With enterprise software, there’s a lot of politics to navigate (golf outings, steak dinners, etc.) -- it seems that “I just set it up and it worked” is actually looked down upon. There’s lots of opportunity and expectations for demos, training, account management, etc. On the spectrum of “fully self-serve” to “extremely high-touch,” enterprise is very far towards the latter. In this case, “you are the onboarding” is very true.

B2B products tend to have more complexity and thus require more education and onboarding, and that generally increases along with the price tag as they require more human resources.

With higher customer lifetime value, there’s more room for some hands-on interaction to correct things. Still, to really nail cost-per-acquisition and churn rates, the more automated, the better. My advice for b2b onboarding: Take what the salespeople are doing and have your online experience do it better.

In consumer markets, it’s all about scale--small percentages of dropoff really matter. You must trim fat at all opportunities -- if your product’s onboarding isn’t 100% self-serve, finding the points of friction or confusion are top priorities from day one. Easing the path to realizing value and recommending the service is priority #1. No room for anything that doesn’t scale (eventually, anyway).

Learndot: What’s the best onboarding for a B2B product you’ve seen? Related: How is ‘best’ defined?

SH: Shopify and Basecamp were very impressive. Onboarding is like film editing; if you really notice it, it’s never good. It’s best when someone notices their own momentum, not the tool. Ultimately, whatever progresses the most people the furthest towards their own success, the better (for both parties). MailChimp and Wistia are both excellent at providing the aforementioned “bigger, cooler thing” education, as well.

Learndot: We see in-product onboarding as a pillar of customer education, along with tools like help documentation, webinars, courseware, and certifications. How do you view the relationship between these various approaches?

SH: I see onboarding as the facilitating entity between where the user currently is and where they’d like to be. In that sense, onboarding is kind of like an old-time switchboard operator, taking people’s current connections and plugging them into the things they’re seeking, be they subconscious guidance, just-in-time recommendations, documentation, live support, or anything in between. Of course, the more seamlessly it does so, the better.

 "Onboarding is kind of like an old-time switchboard operator, taking people’s current connections and plugging them into the things they’re seeking." -Samuel Hulick

Just like a switchboard operator, onboarding must be fully integrated with product design, development, support, accounts, sales, and, success. Then again, that’s a pretty central role for something often neglected and marginalized -- perhaps I’m a bit biased.


Samuel Hulick is a UX consultant with a deep focus on user onboarding, as well as author of The Elements of User Onboarding. He's the person behind UserOnboard.com, a website that provides annotated teardowns of popular web apps' first-run experiences. He loves improving onboarding success rates for SaaS products just as much as he loves to talk shop on Twitter at @SamuelHulick.



Originally published Jul 31, 2014 8:04:00 PM, updated Mar 1, 2016