<  Onboarding UX Patterns

Front-Loaded User Value

The faster your product can show users that this is where they can find a path to a better version of themselves, the faster they integrate your product into their lives.

This is why it's worth paying attention to how you order the steps in your onboarding flow. When you front-load it with user value, it can pay major dividends.

The psychology: success breeds success

Momentum is a state of mind in which you feel that things are unstoppably going your way.

Psychologists actually refer to it as a power -- when athletes feel it they perform better, when gamblers feel it they take bigger risks, and when you feel it doing household chores, psychologists Iso-Ahola and Dotson have observed, your home sparkles a little more.

Momentum is built in wins. At least two in a row.

Two consecutive wins, and you're on a "hot streak": the task you're performing suddenly becomes easier and smoother.

Sounds like the ideal experience to recreate during onboarding, right?

The problem is that losing momentum feels terrible and is even worse for performance than no momentum. A task that the user has to "restart" is more demanding and difficult. And oscillating between losing and gaining momentum exponentially increases frustration.

The idea, in essence, is simple: success breeds success —- so if you want to set users up for success — get them there fast and keep the wins coming.

If 10 steps make up your onboarding flow, how many quick wins are you giving users in the first five? Or the first three? How many can you cut out? How many can you postpone?

How to nail it

The thing to realize is that users aren't entering your app cold —- they've already got some sense of momentum from buying into the promise on your website and getting the sign up process started.

Front-loading value means recognizing and cultivating that burgeoning spark of momentum. A tour, form, or wall of text is cold water; a quick win is the perfect kindling.

So what's a quick win? Understanding how to use the interface? Customizing a template? Inviting a friend or teammate in?

A rule of thumb that's proved useful in the past is this simple question: is the user actually better off for having made it through the onboarding flow?

If the user could see what their future would be like on the other side of your onboarding before they started signing up, would they want to switch places with that future self?

If the answer is yes, it means that users are walking away feeling confident about having accomplished something meaningful, and probably eager to return for more.

But if the answer is no, users are just walking away, period.

They might have customized a template and set the stage for a win —- and this can feel like progress to us product-builders watching from behind the mirror —- but they haven't really seen their lives change for the better yet.

Activity and achievement are two different things. User actions only add value if they bring the user closer to what they're seeking. Put those steps first, and let their momentum carry the rest.

Example: If you signed up to learn Swedish, you walk away from Duolingo's onboarding with two real Swedish sentences in your arsenal, giving you an ample momentum-boost for coming back a second time.

The real kicker? Duolingo provided all of this before even asking users to sign up. They knew that if they gave away actual value first, it would result in more invested and loyal users afterward:


  • The difference between simplicity and ease

    Is difficulty a momentum killer?

    No. Maybe users have to do something difficult to find value, that might just be the nature of the problem you’re solving. The funny thing is it's difficulty that makes achievement feel good, so a challenging onboarding flow is okay!

    Ease isn't always in your control, but simplicity is — make sure the mechanics of the tasks you’re recommending are clearly communicated, and simple enough to grasp quickly.

  • Front-loaded User Value's sister pattern: Gradual Engagement

    The principle of gradual engagement suggests postponing registration or form filling to create a low barrier of entry into your product. Front-loading user value is coupling a low barrier for entry with an ordering of onboarding steps that builds momentum.

For your consideration

  • Dropbox (iOS) helped users upload photos that were already hanging around on their phone so that it could start syncing something right away.
  • Duolingo provided the gold standard by asking the user to focus on getting their own value (learning a language) before asking for value in return (creating an account).
  • IFTTT helped you get your automations up and running by providing a bunch of premade, time-tested recipes.
  • Quartz got you right into reading the news, which is the core value of the app itself.
  • Slack created a Slackbot to welcome signups to Slack by chatting with them (using Slack).
  • Unroll.Me focused on getting users to actually clean their actual inbox.