<  Onboarding UX Patterns

Sensible Defaults

Defaults are automatic selections put in place on the user's behalf. You use them to keep the user's attention focused on value, and remove barriers on their path to the promised land.

What makes a default "sensible"?

Thinking power is a finite resource -- the more you treat it as something that can dry up, the more conscious you become of what really deserves the user's attention in onboarding.

Default selections are tools you can use to keep users focused on choices that matter and "fast forward" them past the ones that don't.

A default is sensible, in other words, if:

  • It's helpful

    Does it reduce the possibility of error? Make something easier to do? Or eliminate some thinking and typing? The auto-save is the ultimate helpful default and worthy benchmark — does the default you're judging favorably compare?

  • It directly affects the user's desired outcome

    Every user signs up to get something done. Does the default help the users focus on important details of the job? Or does it direct attention away?

Let's break that down:

1. Helpful & directly affects outcome

Imagine it's pizza night and you're out of mozzarella. There are four steps between you and steaming, melty goodness — you have to make your way to a store, buy the cheese, bring it home, find your grater, grate it onto your pizza, and pop it all into the oven.

If the store you visit defaults to shredded moz in the cheese section it saves you time and energy, knocking two steps (at the minimum) off your to-do list — the default "fast forwards" progress.

Helpful defaults that eliminate pauses — to download, calculate, type, name, or otherwise "think" — are the onboarding parallel. They're nuggets of gold because they shorten the path to value in exactly the same way.

They show up on two levels:

The workflow level

At the workflow level, sensible defaults, like the shredded cheese, eliminate steps on the path to value.

Work backwards from the promised land — what workflows get users there? How can you simplify them?

Dropbox's promised land, at one point, was ‘TAKE YOUR FILES ANYWHERE.' Of course, to actually do that you had to have the Dropbox app installed on both your phone and your computer (at least).

So the "sync-up workflow" was something a lot of Dropbox users had in common. The typical flow looks something like this:

  1. Once you have an app set up on your phone, you open up your desktop
  2. Go to exampleapp.com
  3. Download the installer
  4. Find and run the installer
  5. Log into the desktop app
  6. Sync it with the mobile app

Dropbox cut this down to a three step process by defaulting to a "sync up" QR code:

Dropbox example

Here's another great example. You don't realize IFTTT's value until you've actually used it to connect two apps — a long workflow for sure, especially if you have to think about the options. IFTTT eliminated a lot of that work with its readymade recipes, which were used as a way of getting users started:

IFTTT example

The usability level

Defaults can also save time in subtler ways, simplifying single steps instead of entire workflows.

Check out Slack auto-filling a form field by pulling information from an email address:

Slack example

Or Basecamp pre-highlighting text that you need to change:

Basecamp example

Pointers to nail them:

  1. There are no defaults that are "too small".

    Pre-populate forms, use the location data you're already collecting, have that cursor typing-ready in an input field — sensible defaults at the usability level can add up and save users a significant amount of time.

    What's more is that apart from being time-savers, defaults like these also build energy. They make you feel like you're working with an active, enthusiastic partner rather than a piece of dead software.

  2. Remember that "recalling information" and "creating information" are two different processes.

    Typing in your email ID is much easier than naming a project. So don't restrict your defaults to information you've already collected.

    If you can get a user started with "sample template" instead of having them name it, you could save them minutes.

2. Helpful, but doesn't directly affect outcome

What if a default is helpful but doesn't actually affect what you want users to do in their first run with the product?

These are the kind of defaults that usually show up as a nudge towards one option over others. Or a "recommended action". They could also be as simple as defaulting to an option a majority of users employ.

If it's helpful, it's sensible. Set it up. With one small caveat: ask if it deserves the user's attention during onboarding. If a default doesn't affect an onboarding outcome, is it worth calling out at all?

Consider Vimeo's default licensing: "No Creative Commons license" (down there at the bottom of the screen). It's a helpful, sensible default to be sure.

Vimeo example

But does it really matter to new users who are evaluating the service? Anything that doesn't add to value in onboarding takes away from it.

Pointers to nail your Sensible Defaults

  1. Remember that users rarely change their settings, and people assume apps have their best interests at heart. This makes the ‘helpful' requirement all the more essential — if you aren't sure that a choice will be helpful to most (if not all) your users, don't make it a default.

  2. If you're unsure whether a default choice is helpful, that's a clear signal that you should get users involved. Of course, there's the question of when. The outcome consideration can work as a rule of thumb — If the choice directly affects outcome, it's worth calling attention to in the onboarding process. If not, it's worth saving for later.

    Another Vimeo-esque example: GetResponse tracks email clickthrough rates by default. This choice undoubtedly deserves a place in onboarding — it impacts the kind of value you get from GetResponse's reports. But what's the more helpful choice here? It comes down to a user's privacy predisposition, making a prescription difficult and dangerous.

For your consideration

  • Basecamp highlighted the text you need to pay attention to so you don't spend time wondering what to start with.
  • Dropbox used a QR code to sync up their mobile and desktop apps, cutting out a significant number of steps for users in the process.
  • Evernote put an automatic cursor in a crucial text field.
  • IFTTT came preloaded with automation recipes, making it super easy to connect two apps you might already be using.
  • Mailbox didn't just make referrals easy, they provided a readymade referral email that you could shoot out to friends.
  • Pinterest has the first field you need to pay attention to highlighted by default.
  • Skype set the default first contact to be Skype itself! A great way to test out the service and make a call to end onboarding on a high note.
  • Slack accepts new teammates if they share your email's domain. Very cool default that you can turn on or off during onboarding.
  • WhatsApp auto-fills the country code based on the user's IP address. Added bonus: the cursor is typing-ready, blinking at you in the phone field, as soon as you land on the page.