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Product Onboarding Content

A content-first approach to product onboarding

Main illustration: Michelle Kondrich

Knowing your user’s story is central to a great onboarding experience – but how do you actually tell that story?

At some point you need to write the content of your onboarding: words, sentences, value props, the works. Ultimately, it’s the content that helps your users achieve their goals.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for just a few bits of text. As it turns out, writing your onboarding is a real job, and it’s often harder than you might think. The hardest part of all is figuring out where to start.

Here’s an approach and a few tools that make it easier to write a great onboarding experience.

Content problems vs product problems

Without content, your onboarding would be a bunch of empty boxes and arrows on top of your product. It’s the content – the actual words – that helps people understand what your product does, find out why it might be valuable to them, and learn how to use it.

Unfortunately, many product teams tend to approach content as their lowest priority – and it shows. Even if it’s well-written, it sounds wrong and works wrong: it’s focused on highlighting product features rather than showing people what they can achieve by using them.

“This is what it looks like when you try to solve a product problem with content after the product’s already been built”

These problems are expensive to fix because your team has sunk a lot of time into designing your onboarding flow. But when content is the lowest priority, you might assume that the poor performance of your onboarding is due to bad content that can be solved quickly and cheaply by “making the words better.”

Instead, you should reconsider this as being a product problem. For example, consider these signs I spotted beside some light switches a few years ago:

This is what it looks like when you try to solve a product problem with content after the product’s already been built. No one could understand how the light switches worked, so someone designed a guide (onboarding!) with instructions so that their colleagues could use the lights.

These switches required dozens of words of explanation! And it’s not the content’s fault that these switches are so hard to use – it’s the product’s fault. Especially when the problem of designing a usable dimmer light switch has been solved for decades:

Content makes a terrible bandage for a broken product. What if you approached your onboarding experience by thinking about the content first? That way, you’d know your user’s story and their goals before building anything. This lets you design the experience around that story rather than bolting it on afterwards.

Create a narrative for your users’ journey

Narrative is the structure you put into place that dictates how the story of your product is told. It’s also the frame by which you want people to see your product. That’s why it’s helpful to build your narrative before you write a word of your onboarding flow so that you can keep it focused on the things that really matter for your users.

Bad narratives focus on the product

Even if you’ve never thought about narrative before, you know a bad one when you see it. A product narrative that focuses on the company (“Look at this hard work we did!”) instead of the users is a classic example. Others include:

  • Lacks clarity: A story where the subjects, the context they’re in, or the outcomes of their actions are unclear. Product narratives need to be crisp and focused for people to understand what the product does, how they should use it, and why.
  • Too abstract or detailed: A story focused on ideas without the details that make those ideas concrete. Vice-versa, a story that’s overly focused on the details without any big ideas to link them together. You need a balance of abstract ideas and concrete details for people to understand your product.
  • No structure: A story told out of order, where the effects come before the causes. This might be a fantastic way to tell a story in a movie or time-travel novel, but not so much for a product.
  • Doesn’t deliver: A story that seems to promise something really exciting or interesting to you, but never delivers on it. How many products have you used that don’t live up to their expectations? Likely far too many.
  • Too long: A story that doesn’t end, but rather drones on and on for so long that you forget why you’re paying attention to it in the first place. Product onboarding that lasts for more than a handful of steps often leads to steep abandonment.

I’m sure you’ve experienced product onboarding that makes mistakes like these (and likely several others). All of these examples show you how the structure of the story influences how that story is understood, perceived, and results in the desired outcomes. So if you want to get the actual words in your onboarding flow right, you need to first put a strong structure, a strong narrative, into place.

Great narratives focus on people

To build a compelling narrative, you need to first understand your customer’s journey and the Job-to-be-Done. What’s the context of their needs that brought them to your product? What problems do they experience? What are the tasks that your customers need to be successful at in order to see value? And what will your customers achieve if they complete those tasks?

“You need to be able to show people how using your product helps them become better versions of themselves”

You can answer these questions by talking with your users and observing them experiencing these problems in context. Doing this helps you discover something fascinating: “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves,” as Samuel Hulick puts it. So motivation is a key factor in creating a strong product narrative – you need to be able to show people how using your product helps them become better versions of themselves.

Putting this all together: when a person uses a product, we have the situation they’re in (the context), their motivation to use the product (the need or problem they have), and the outcome they want (the better version of themselves). Combined, this is the basis for your narrative.

Here are examples to illustrate how to link together all of your narrative elements into a complete user journey.

  • Situation and context: I use my personal credit card for work purchases a lot. I get reimbursed for them, but I never know how much they’re going to cost because it’s hard to track my purchases.
  • Motivation to use the product: I don’t want to pay my bills late or rack up a lot of interest charges, penalties, or debt. I do want a quick way to see my personal purchases and separate them from my corporate purchases.
  • Actions taken: I downloaded an app from my bank to help me track and categorize my spending. I set up alerts to make sure I pay bills on time and seek reimbursement from my employer immediately. This helped me create my first real budget.
  • Desired outcomes: I manage my finances so well that I don’t feel anxious. I’m not constantly worried about running out of money, so I’m more generous with my friends and family.
  • Proof points: I know what I’ve bought, when, and for whom; I’m quickly reimbursed by my employer; I don’t have any penalties from late credit card payments; I’m carrying less debt than usual; I never overspend, even though I’m spending more on others

Now that your story has a narrative structure in place, you’re ready to focus on the elements that help people succeed as they learn how to use your product.

The 6 key elements of an effective onboarding flow

As part of our product research at Intercom, we’ve reviewed the onboarding flows of hundreds of software products. These products are in a number of diverse industries, solve a range of problems from simple to complex, have onboarding as short as one screen and as long as over 70 steps (yes, really!).

No matter the approach, all of these onboarding flows had six elements in common:

  1. A welcome message. This should warmly greet your users, helping them feel valued and recognized.
  2. An identity for the product or company. This helps build an understanding of how your users should consider the experience of interacting with your product.
  3. A problem(s) to be solved. This helps create a strong connection with your users because they see themselves reflected in it.
  4. At least one explicit value proposal. This is the promise your company makes, setting a clear expectation for what users will get out of the product.
  5. The mechanics of using the product. Whether it’s a conversation with a bot, a video, a series of pointers, or static text, this walks your users through how to use the product.
  6. At least one call to action. Maybe it’s creating something, entering data, or taking some other action, but the best onboarding flows don’t stop at explaining the product interface – they go the extra mile to make sure people are prompted to start using it effectively.

These are the standard elements of effective onboarding that you should include in your product. In order to set up your users for success, each of these elements will play a role, and if for any reason your onboarding flow is missing one or more of these elements, determine where and how you can incorporate it. A flow that is missing any of these elements is incomplete and both your business and your users will suffer from the absence.

With your narrative and content elements in place, you can focus on how you deliver content to your users in your onboarding flow – and how that content is understood and felt.

Use voice and tone to speak in a way people can hear

Once you have a narrative that acts as a foundation for your onboarding, then you can start writing content that fills in the structure of your narrative. But this is easier said than done. How should your writing sound?

A product’s voice is the personality and character that comes through in its communication – including the writing in its onboarding flows. The voice of a product should be distinctive and consistent because it’s a big part of the overall brand and experience.

We often document a company or product’s voice by determining what it should always and should never sound like. You can create these guidelines by interviewing your leaders and other decision-makers as well as the people who have been in the company the longest. Here’s a framework that you can use to define rules for the voice of your product:

We always sound: Confident
We never sound: Arrogant
So that our customers: Know they’re making the best decisions

We always sound: Playful
We never sound: Distracting
So that our customers: Have fun while still being efficient and effective

We always sound: Like a caring coach
We never sound: Like an aloof robot
So that our customers: Feel supported in taking their next steps

Now if your voice is about what you say, then your tone is about how you say it. The right tone helps you understand how to apply your voice based on the context of the situation.

Tone helps us try to understand people’s emotions and level of openness to our messages so that we can come across more clearly and effectively. Ideally, this results in our users being better able to hear what we’re trying to say and do for them.

“Tone goes well beyond just words in terms of connecting with people’s emotions”

Because tone is so focused on the details of your customer’s context or situation, it should be reflected in your punctuation, grammar, emoji, photos or GIFs, aspects of your design, and more. Tone goes well beyond just words in terms of connecting with people’s emotions.

To start building a system of tones, talk directly with your users about the key scenarios of your product, asking questions about their experience. Here’s an example of how this helps you understand a key scenario for a fictitious recipe app:

  • What’s happening in the product right now? The person just opened the app for the very first time
  • What’s the person trying to achieve in the product? They want to cook dinner for their family over the next half hour and they hope their family enjoys the meal
  • What’s the person feeling at this moment? Eagerness, anticipation, stress, fear of ruining dinner
  • How open is the person to the message we want to give them? Somewhat closed: they’ll value the message only if it’s clearly linked to their immediate goal
  • What feelings should be conveyed in our message? Encouragement, respect, care
  • What’s an example of a message that fits all of these factors? “In a rush? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Save time with these family favorites.”

Learning about your users and describing product scenarios helps you create tone guidance for your product as a whole. These tones help make sure that your product writing addresses people’s needs in a way that they can hear.

Great content helps users reach their goals

A strong structure, focus on the standard elements of success, and using voice and tones effectively all help make your onboarding easier to write and far more useful for your users. Not only that, but you can apply your narrative, content elements, and voice and tones all throughout your product experience – not just to onboarding.

By investing in these structures and principles upfront, you can create better content that’s more consistent and effective at helping your users reach their goals. Just a little prep and research goes a long way toward scaling your content to meet the needs of your product, users and company.

This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming second edition of Intercom on Onboarding. Sign up to our newsletter if you want to be one of the first to know more.