UserOnboard’s Samuel Hulick on designing paths, not products

Traditional product design sees product as an immutable, one-size-fits-all solution. But your app isn’t the destination — your user’s goal is. The product is just a path to reach it.

Users are recruiting your product to reach a specific outcome in their lives — whether that’s catching a flight to reunite with their families or using a productivity app to meet a deadline and impress their boss. For Samuel Hulick, a UX consultant and one of the biggest authorities out there on user onboarding, that means thinking less about the product itself and more about how to get users the results they’re after.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard from Samuel. They’re most famous for writing The Elements of User Onboarding and for breaking down, step by step, how some of the world’s most popular brands handle their onboarding experiences at UserOnboard. We had them on the podcast way back in 2016, and they’ve even been a guest contributor to our book Intercom on Onboarding.

But despite how relevant the topic still is, we’re not just here to talk about the ideal onboarding experience. We’re here to find out more about their new product design framework — they call it Value Paths — for healthy, sustainable growth. Over the years, Samuel has realized the product you spend so much time marketing is just a path to help people solve a problem. And by focusing on the paths that help people reach those outcomes, you’ll unlock not only higher customer satisfaction but better conversion and retention rates and, ultimately, revenue. Take pancakes, for example. For Samuel, it’s not really about getting the perfect pancake mix. Sometimes, all it takes is providing your customers a spatula so they can convert the mix into actual pancakes. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“There’s little point in helping your users get from point A to point B if you’re not measuring whether you’re becoming more successful at it or not”

In this episode of Inside Intercom, we sit down with Samuel to explore their ideas for a fundamental shift in the way we look at product design; how it will lead to more sustainable growth; how it’s different from popular methods like Jobs-to-be-Done; and how it all comes down to creating better onboarding experiences for your customers.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • A product is just a proxy for something your user is trying to resolve. Understand what that goal is and focus your efforts around helping them reach that outcome.
  • Your customers don’t really care about seed rounds or exponential growth. They care about getting from point A to B. Align your experience on your users’ timeline rather than yours.
  • There’s little point in helping your users get from point A to point B if you’re not measuring whether you’re becoming more successful at it or not. Otherwise, you’re just flying blind.
  • Be selective about the outcomes you’re investing in. Path design is a lot of work, and it’s not sustainable for your business to focus on paths that don’t end up converting customers.
  •  User onboardings are about more than welcome videos — no product tour will do everything you want. The more you understand the outcome your users are trying to get to, the better you can design a personalized, valuable onboarding experience.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


Getting into UX

Liam Geraghty: Samuel, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you back. Before we get into it for new listeners, could you give us a bit about your background?

Samuel Hulick: I actually started as a full stack developer. Back in those days, and this was like over 10 years ago, the developer would get a Photoshop file that had all of the different interface elements. And it was basically my job to make it clickable. And there were a lot of times that I would find myself coding things that I didn’t believe were ultimately going to serve end-users, and therefore, were also not going to serve the business that was supposed to be providing help to the users. And so, I thought, “I need to fix this. I’m going to learn as much about user experience design as I can, and then come in further upstream in the decision-making process.”

My quest continues. I have a background in user experience, and I still care a lot about making sure that the offerings we provide resonate with what the users are looking for and that, ultimately, place an emphasis on caring about whether we’re helping people be successful with those or not. And trying to improve our success rate over time.

Value Paths: a framework for sustainable growth

Liam: You’ve launched a brand new podcast called Value Paths. So what’s it all about? I’d love to hear about the framework the title is named after.

Samuel: Value Paths is a growth framework for providing healthy growth on our terms, or growth without the hacks. We don’t believe in a dynamic where you create a product that theoretically could be valuable to people, you create a business model predicated on selling people access to that product, and whether they get value out of it or not is kind of up to them. We think that leaves a lot of opportunity on the table, and frankly speaking, a lot of revenue on the table. Value Paths looks at the main beneficial outcomes people are pursuing in their lives that cause your offering to become relevant to them, and how you can design your offering to integrate into the timeline of what they are doing as much as possible to make it as likely as possible that they actually reach a point of success. This should also be correlated with better customer behavior, such as higher conversion rates, better retention, faster CAC payback, and things along those lines.

Liam: How does Value Paths differ from traditional product design?

“We’re not trying to create a product imbued with ‘quality’ and ‘value.’ We’re recognizing that every time somebody uses a product, it’s because of other external factors they’re trying to resolve”

Samuel: The way we see traditional product design is following what I would roughly call an industrial design paradigm, where you design something once, you mass manufacture the same thing over and over again, and then, from a logistical standpoint, you would maybe drop ship these things you had mass manufactured and create ads that drive interest in them. A kind of consumer goods mind-frame.

We look at product and software differently from the traditional product mindset. We’re not trying to create a product imbued with “quality” and “value.” We’re recognizing that every time somebody uses a product, it’s because of external factors they’re trying to resolve. And the more we can create digital offerings that help people coordinate their efforts around reaching the outcomes they desire, that’s the real game. The “product” we’re offering is really just a proxy for that.

What we find right now is that there are a lot of software products out there serving user needs, but you don’t know exactly which combination of needs is really driving revenue. And therefore, it makes it really difficult to be able to scale. It’s harder to acquire people if you don’t know which needs are driving revenue, it’s harder to retain people, and so on and so forth. For us, it’s not just a question of identifying those needs and designing for them, but also measuring them – being able to tell when people come to us if they are looking for X, Y, or Z. And of the people who are coming to us looking for help with Y, how many people are there? Is this 5% or 90% of our user base?

“The light switch is something that people engage with, but the reason that they’re doing it is that they’re trying to adjust the levels of light in the room”

And regardless of the quantity, how effective are those different segments? If we’re looking at people who are coming for X, Y, and Z, regardless of how much the distribution is between those, we can also see how likely they are to convert or to remain customers or what the lifetime value of the segment X versus segment Y is. That gives us a lot of information that we can make some much better decisions around. Because right now, a lot of the biggest product and growth decisions are being made by executives who are handing down growth mandates from on high, where they’re telling their product team, “Here’s a 12-month roadmap, go execute it.” Or maybe a chief revenue officer saying, “There’s some sort of correlation between day seven engagement and long-term retention. So, growth team, in this quarter, we want you to go and try to pull the levers to increase day seven engagement.” But we know that nobody is coming to a product so that they can engage with it on the seventh day. We know that’s like a fundamental misalignment of the incentives driving the engagement, to begin with.

And so, for us, it’s a question of how to align those incentives and how to do it in a rigorous, scientific way where you’re able to empirically tell not only that you’re getting better at helping people arrive at important outcomes, but that getting better at helping people is also providing a positive impact on your business.

“When we say ‘start your designing where your users start their using,’ we’re really saying to understand what somebody is trying to do and align the ensuing experience around helping them get there”

Liam: I love that. And I’ve heard you say before to start designing where your users start using, with the example of video games, which I think is a really good kind of explanation. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind explaining that one.

Samuel: Well, the essence of that is that you really need to meet your users where they currently are. Anytime somebody reaches for a video game or a B2C app or a B2B SaaS offering or any sort of digital “good”, they are seeking some sense of resolution in their life. They are currently experiencing a situation that is motivating them to make some sort of change. The most basic way I can describe this is if you think in terms of a light switch. The light switch is something that people engage with, but the reason that they’re doing it is that they’re trying to adjust the levels of light in the room. You flick the light switch up to make the things visible. You flick it down so you can make things dark and go to sleep. But it’s always because you’re trying to change your external circumstances to the light switch itself. In a similar way, when you’re working with a video game, a SaaS app, whatever it might be, there’s always some sort of external situation motivating people to engage with your offering in the hope that it will help them reach a different situation. And that’s what we want to align around.

When we say “start your designing where your users start their using,” we’re really saying to understand what somebody is trying to do and align the ensuing experience around helping them get there as much as possible, rather than imposing your own timeline into their experience.

“A lot of growth and product decisions get made considering the company’s timeline and in a way that neglects the user’s timeline”

One concept we really like to look at is the difference between the user’s timeline and the company’s timeline. If you’re thinking in terms of your company’s timeline, maybe the narrative is something like a couple of scrappy founders with a world-changing idea were working out of their garage, got into an accelerator and raised their seed round and series A, and now they’re growing like crazy, trying to get an IPO. And you can think of your company in that sort of storyline. And there are a lot of different components that go into it. There’s thinking about how mature your market is, looking at the different features your competitors are releasing, thinking about what your hiring plan is, what you can do with your engineering resources, and when. All of these things are very company timeline-centric considerations. We find that a lot of growth and product decisions get made considering the company’s timeline and in a way that neglects the user’s timeline.

Ultimately, the user’s timeline doesn’t look like, “Oh, I’m an individual user, and I really care about this company starting from a scrappy idea and raising their seed round and going through their hiring plan.” They don’t care. The user doesn’t care about any of that. They are just saying, “I’ve got to get a last-minute plane ticket to Cancun so I can go and meet my friend” That’s their timeline. And so, we’re saying that there are patterns to the user timelines that are driving people through the use of your product, and if you can identify those patterns of bigger life events that are driving people to find your product relevant and organize your efforts around integrating as seamlessly and comprehensively as possible into their timeline, that gives you a significant advantage over saying, “We offer access to a product that is theoretically valuable if you use it in the right way. Here it is, and good luck.”

Just like making pancakes

Liam: One thing you and User Onboard content editor, Yohann Kunders, talk about on the show is the idea that what you’re building is a path and the product is just one of many things on that path. You talk about this great example of mixing pancakes and needing all the different utensils to get to that endpoint.

Samuel: Yeah. For us, it’s a question of how do you help the user turn what they have into what they want? We use a really practical example like making pancakes – the user might have pancake mix, and we know they want pancakes and they need to go through a choreographed sequence of actions that produces smaller changes along the way that ultimately converts the pancake mix into pancakes. You need to get out a bowl, add water, mix the powder into the water and stir around until it becomes a batter. Then, you need to heat up a cooking surface and eventually pour the batter onto that. You have to wait until one side of it is cooked, and then you have to flip the pancake, which involves a spatula.

This might be the first time they’ve made pancakes. We shouldn’t just be like, ‘Here’s the batter, good luck'”

There are all kinds of different elements of making pancakes that need to come together exactly at the right time, in exactly the right sequence, for it to result in pancakes that somebody is actually going to want to eat. And in a similar way, if your value proposition is like, “Save time,” “Hold better meetings at your company,” and “get paid faster,” or big, vague value propositions, it’s hard to tell when the user has actually gotten there. It’s not really a discrete outcome that you can coordinate your efforts and your user’s efforts around. If you do have a discrete outcome that you can help people get to, it’s amazing how much complexity is involved in even something as simple as making pancakes. And so, you extend that to having your net 30 invoicing customers pay on time more frequently. It gets very complicated very fast. And I think that to be totally truthful.

The legacy of traditional product design, user personas and user journey maps, and even things like Jobs-to-be-Done is just kind of hand-wavy toward that rather than diving into that complexity and saying that, ultimately, we should be more familiar with this process than the users because they’re the ones who are coming to us for help with this. This might be the first time they’ve made pancakes. We shouldn’t just be like, “Here’s the batter, good luck.” We should be coordinating their efforts in a way that helps guide them to the success they’re looking for because that’s the way we generate the revenue our business needs to operate.

Liam: “Don’t forget the spatula” is the bumper sticker there.

Samuel: Exactly.

Liam: You mentioned Jobs-to-be-Done. How does Value Paths take that type of thinking even further?

“What’s really interesting about Jobs-to-be-Done-type thinking is not that it’s a different way we can put a spin on the same old thing, but that it’s a way we can approach designing the offering itself”

Samuel: I’m a big fan of Jobs-to-be-Done. I’ve been quite a big fan since Ryan Singer introduced me to the concept seven or eight years ago. Our perspective on Jobs-to-be-Done is not that we see ourselves competing with it, but more that we’re building on it. If I have any kind of criticism of Jobs-to-be-Done is that it is more of a mindset than a methodology. There are a lot of times where people have the Jobs-to-be-Done light go off and they go, “Oh yeah, we’re helping facilitate people arrive at outcomes, and we’re helping them work through processes. And that’s the causal reason, not just because they’re a 38-year-old white male or something like that.” Moving away from demographics and things like that is a good idea, but the issue is that, in practice, a lot of the framework of Jobs-to-be-Done has really been focused on how to identify the jobs that people are trying to do so that you can better sell, market, and position your product. But it still leaves your product untouched, and it assumes it’s a static component of the offering.

What’s really interesting about Jobs-to-be-Done-type thinking is not that it’s a different way we can put a spin on the same old thing, but that it’s a way we can approach designing the offering itself to help people get through the job. Make it good for that thing and actively invest in iteratively improving your performance in that thing. That’s where we come from.

The three pillars

Liam: On the podcast, another really interesting area you look into is your three pillars for healthy, sustainable growth. Path design, performance valuation, and beneficial outcomes. Could give us an overview of those pillars?

Samuel: Absolutely. Pillar one is path design, and it’s predicated on the idea that people are coming to you at point A seeking help to arrive at point B. We can design our products to not be one-size-fits-all, UX static, industrially-produced, designed once, sell it again and again kind of products. Instead, we can think of them almost as scalable services that actually help people.

“It’s all well and good wanting to make it more likely that people get from point A to B, but there’s really no point in doing that unless we’re measuring whether we’re becoming more successful at it or not”

If you’re making pancakes, you would want to present people with very different resources if their batter is unmixed and sitting in a bowl. You’re like, this is time for you to go grab a whisk and start stirring this. But if the batter is sitting on a griddle and the bottom half of it is cooked, you know it’s time to flip it and you want to be giving them a spatula. That’s what path design looks at. How do we break down all the different steps that are required to go from point A to point B, and how do we create facilitating resources that help boost people along each step of the way? That’s pillar one.

Pillar two is performance valuation. It’s all well and good wanting to design and make it more likely that people get from point A to B, but there’s really no point in doing that unless we’re measuring whether we’re becoming more successful at it or not. Otherwise, we’re just flying blind, making guesses that we feel good about, moving on to other guesses that we feel good about, and not really confirming that they’re actually working. The performance valuation part says not only that we want to help people get from point A to point B, but when people are at point A and seeking point B, we want to improve our success rate of actually getting them there. Kind of like a batting average in baseball or something along those lines.

Ultimately, it makes more sense to invest your product and growth energy towards iterating and helping users achieve success rather than iterating toward creating a more compelling feature that could theoretically be more valuable or could produce more sales if the user decides to make full use of it.

“If you’re helping people get from point A to B and it has absolutely no effect on whether they become customers or not, it’s probably not going to be a sustainable effort on your end”

In pillar one, we want to get better at getting people from point A to point B. And in pillar two, we want to be able to confirm empirically that people are actually getting from point A to point B and that we’re getting better at helping people get there. One other thing I didn’t mention is that you want to make sure there’s some sort of quantitative correlation to revenue. If you’re helping people get from point A to B and it has absolutely no effect on whether they become customers or not, it’s probably not going to be a sustainable effort on your end. You’ve got to make sure it’s a win-win from both servicing the user’s perspective and being able to sustain and grow your business in its most important metrics.

And then, pillar three, beneficial outcomes, is saying, “Let’s pick the right point B, to begin with. Let’s get really specific about those patterns of outcomes people are pursuing and that are causing them to find our product relevant. Let’s be really selective about the ones we invest in. Because doing path design takes a lot of effort. Putting up the instrumentation to measure whether people are becoming more effective at this thing or not takes a lot of effort, too. Even just analyzing the data takes a while. So you really want to make sure that you’re setting up shop on Motivation Main Street, as we call it.

You want to make sure that, in the same way that, if you were creating a brick and mortar restaurant or something along those lines, you would want to locate it at a place that had a lot of foot traffic because that makes it more likely that you’re going to generate passive customers rather than having them go out of their way to specifically go to your particular location, in a similar way, we can think of the ideal location, not in a geographic sense, but more in a temporal sense – where is the ideal place to set up shop in the user’s timeline?

Instead of trying to think what the Platonic ideal of pancake mix is, think about, ‘We’re losing a ton of people at the flip the pancake step. Maybe we should be providing them with spatulas'”

At that point, acquisition questions become easier, retention questions become significantly easier, and even basic design decisions become easier. Instead of sitting back and being like, how do we make the perfect pancake mix? Instead of trying to think what the Platonic ideal of pancake mix is, think about, “Whoa, we’re losing a ton of people at the flip the pancake step. Maybe we should be providing them with spatulas.” If you’re a pancake mix company, the third pillar of beneficial outcomes is confirming that you’re actually helping make people make pancakes and not thinking that you’re helping people do something they don’t want to do or that, ultimately, it doesn’t really correlate with revenue.

Rethinking the onboarding experience

Liam: Absolutely. The last time you were on with us was a few years ago. What has changed in user onboarding in the meantime? What are some of the latest trends in onboarding and customer engagement?

“Trying to get people addicted to your product is a very dicey proposition”

Samuel: I think that the future of user onboarding is bright. And unfortunately, despite my efforts, I feel like it has not come nearly as far as it should. User onboarding is a huge lever. When we’re talking about healthy growth and growth without the hacks, we don’t recommend taking approaches where companies will come to us and say, “We want to redesign our onboarding experience so that it’s more effective at building habits. We really want to get people to the aha moment and have them start building habits around our product.” Trying to get people addicted to your product is a very dicey proposition from a likelihood to succeed standpoint, as well as a likelihood to be ethical standpoint. And so, for us, it’s much more straightforward to identify what the users are trying to do and simply organize our internal efforts around being better at helping them get there.

From an onboarding perspective, that is a major lever in being able to tell what people are trying to do when they’re entering into your system or your offering and actively guide them to where they’re trying to get to. What I’ve been pushing back on, even in this conversation, is the idea of a one-size-fits-all product experience. People come to us with the mindset of “How do we make a really good welcome tour that impacts our CAC payback, our activation, conversion and retention metrics, and so on and so forth?” And I don’t think that there’s a welcome tour in the world that is going to be able to do that. But what I do think is possible is to create some early opportunities to gain insights into what the users are trying to do.

If you go through the Value Paths process of the three pillars and you wind up with a particular outcome that you’re like, “We know that a plurality of users wants this, we know that they want it bad enough to drive revenue if we can solve it effectively for them. And we can be able to tell when they want it,” then it’s just a question of adapting our product experience not to be one-size-fits-all, but to personalize around that particular segment of use so we can put them on the fast lane to the success they’re trying to get from our product, rather than take them on a tour of all of the different possible things they could do with a product. And then, usually, just kind of disappear after that.

“There’s a much, much grander chunk to bite off than just looking at your welcome tour”

There are a ton of opportunities in the world of onboarding. A lot of times, when people are coming to us for help with their onboarding, they’re thinking about their onboarding as, “How do we make a really good tool tour?” Or, “Should we include an intro video that points at different parts of the interface?” Or “Should we use hotspot or coach marks?” Or even, “What kind of life cycle emails should we send? On what days?” Or, “If we have a to-do list, what should that be composed of?” And all of those questions become radically simpler when you’re saying, “Let’s just find some major patterns of outcomes that users are seeking, be able to tell when a new raw signup is seeking that particular outcome, and then clear the path as much as possible to help them get there, to increase the likelihood that they succeed and therefore become better customers for us.”

The difference between onboarding as in welcome tour versus onboarding users more reliably become successful is very different. Onboarding, conceptually, is a bit of a pigeonhole for what we’re talking about because we’re talking about being able to provide transformation in the lives of your users and having your finger on the pulse of what’s actually driving your business model. There’s a much, much grander chunk to bite off than just looking at your welcome tour. That’s why we’ve been presenting Value Paths as a growth framework instead. But if you blur the lines, I absolutely think that onboarding has a ton of potential and is severely under-leveraged by the vast majority of companies out there.

Addressing a gap

Liam: This is usually the point in the show where I ask people what’s next and if they have any big plans or projects for 2021, but this podcast is brand new. It’s only a handful of episodes in the door.

Samuel: Yeah, what’s next is right now. We’re in the middle of what’s next. My co-founder, Yohann, and I feel that we’ve been doing a lot of work in this space for years. We are not claiming to have all of the answers right now, we are claiming to have identified an area that’s a major blind spot for virtually every company in our industry. We feel like this is an area that deserves significantly more attention, significantly more rigorous attention, than just saying, “Well, here are our personas and these are the goals that they have. And therefore, we’re going to keep that in mind when we decide the composition of rectangles to present them on the screen.” To me, that approach just really doesn’t make sense.

Right now, we’re trying to explore this gap in people’s awareness and trying to fill that gap with resources. We’re trying to hand people spatulas and whisks. But we’re also not saying that we officially know the best way to make pancakes per se. We’re doing our best to fill in what is currently a major hole in the thinking of essentially every company that we’ve come across.

Liam: Yeah. And finally, where can listeners go to keep up with you and your work. Where can they find Value Paths?

“We are not claiming to have all of the answers right now, we are claiming to have identified an area that’s a major blind spot for virtually every company in our industry”

Samuel: Value Paths is conveniently located at valuepaths.com. You also mentioned useronboard.com, which is currently where the podcast is being hosted, but if things pick up steam, we will be looking to make a transition to valuepaths.com. We’re right on the cusp of that. It’s exciting times.

One other thing we’d love to say is to come on in – the water’s great. Anybody who would like to come in and contribute to this or has felt that the traditional approaches to product design, marketing, UX, and even Jobs-to-be-Done have left them inspired to do more but doesn’t know exactly how to go about doing that, come help us build out this framework. The timing is perfect, and we would love any and all collaborators and feedback.

Liam: And don’t forget your spatula.

Samuel: And bring your spatula.

Liam: Samuel, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Samuel: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure, and I’m really grateful that you want to help spread the word.

Intercom on Onboarding