Planning for the perfect outcomes when product onboarding in eCommerce

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The eCommerce industry has cracked the practical side of product onboarding. Online shopping is now more intuitive than ever, and our environment is full of valuable guides and tips on how to onboard new customers. There are plenty of resources on how to craft the entire journey as well as the nitty-gritty of small interactions.  

There is, however, one crucial piece that’s missing from the conversation. When eCommerce managers design onboarding experiences, they often focus on the details and overlook the big picture. Why are you creating those experiences in the first place? What do you want to accomplish?

Although the answers might seem obvious at first glance, they’re far from it. Many different outcomes can define a successful onboarding, and some of them will be more important to you, business-wise, than others. When you take a step back and consider those possibilities, you’ll be able to strategize and implement the right onboarding tactics for your unique business and product. Here are some of the most important outcomes that you should consider and the story of the best-case scenario: the perfect onboarding experience.

The perfect onboarding experience

Here’s a personal anecdote that inspired this article. My friend is a rare example of a non-tech-savvy millennial. She only uses the bare minimum of modern technology that she needs to get by and rarely steps outside of her comfort zone. A few months ago, she switched from Android to iOS because she was drawn by the unique appeal of the iPhone Mini’s size. 

During the switch, a fascinating thing happened: she, a person who’d never even thought about trying out a voice assistant, started to use Siri. In her case, this started off as just a tool for hands-free navigation but quickly evolved into more and more advanced uses. These, in turn, led her to discover more advanced features of the phone and the whole Apple ecosystem. For instance, I distinctly remember having my mind blown when she created a dedicated “read later” list of articles in Safari and casually AirDroped them to my MacBook. In a way, it started the process of converting an average, or even a below-average, user into a power user. How did this all happen? Her answer was brilliantly simple: “The phone introduced Siri during the initial setup, and then I kind of started to use it naturally.”  

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This is the underappreciated power of finely tuned onboarding. In my friend’s case, Apple did everything perfectly. They introduced the feature at just the right moment and in such a way that it wasn’t intimidating to a user who normally wouldn’t even touch it. The system sent her on a seamless, intuitive path further into the Apple ecosystem that opened up the potential to upsell and cross-sell her more products and services. In short, both sides got the best results from the experience.

This short story hints at several user- and business-facing outcomes of smart onboarding that are worth unpacking further. In the next part of the article, we’ll take a closer look at them one by one. 

Creating the right first impression

We all know that first impressions matter a lot. The first experience that a customer has with a business, tool, or eCommerce platform sets the tone and creates a reference point for users to compare their further interactions. Although, technically, it’s possible to change one’s opinion, the average internet user is very impatient, and you might simply not be given the chance.

When visiting a new website, it takes users, on average, only 50 milliseconds to form an initial opinion. This can have a profound impact on customer retention and brand loyalty. If the first experience is positive and a brand is perceived, even subconsciously, in a positive light, customers will be more likely to stay for longer, forgive any potential trip-ups, and keep coming back. On the other hand, if the first impression is negative, why bother with second chances? There are plenty of alternatives to go to.

Image source: Envato Elements

The onboarding experience is the perfect opportunity to create the right first impression of your eCommerce business. Of course, onboarding in the traditional sense, through a video or interactive tutorial, lasts much more than 50 milliseconds. This, however, comes later. The very first onboarding experience, the one that creates the most significant impression, is the first glance at your platform’s user interface (UI). If it feels familiar and the user intuitively knows how to accomplish their goal, then this is very much the outcome that you’re looking for.

Building user confidence

As a rule, the average eCommerce customer becomes more and more tech-savvy every year. However, a large part of your user base still comes with a variety of apprehensions and uncertainties. They might be trying a certain feature, such as product customization, for the first time, have had a bad experience elsewhere, or simply be intimidated by technology in general. These are all valid concerns that, if not addressed, might detract potential customers from completing their purchase or converting in other ways.

A well-laid-out onboarding experience is one of your best chances to build the confidence they need. It’s your opportunity to emphasize how user-friendly and safe the experience that you offer really is or introduce your support personnel, who are always ready to help. As an important side effect, visitors also build confidence in themselves. When approached the right way, an onboarding journey transforms the daunting task of learning into a smooth and rewarding experience that ends with a tangible accomplishment, if even a small one.

It’s always a good idea first to research the main concerns that users most often refer to and then craft the onboarding experience to respond to them precisely. Coming back to the example of my friend and Siri, one of the biggest challenges when interacting with voice assistants is the inherent awkwardness of talking in a human way to a piece of software, especially when doing so in front of others. How did Apple overcome this? My friend’s choice of words is very telling. They didn’t “onboard” or “give a tutorial;” they “introduced” Siri very much like a person. This immediately established a relationship of sorts and made talking to Siri more natural.

Demonstrating the value proposition 

Unless your eCommerce business operates in a very narrow niche, there’s likely plenty of competition that you and your customers need to be mindful of. The ultimate decision of whether they shop with you or someplace else comes down to a number of factors, but they all fall under the umbrella of a unique value proposition (UVP). Offering the lowest prices, best shipping options, helpful customer service, or even simply placing high in search rankings are all factors that can become the UVP of your business. Some of them, such as the previously mentioned SEO, are self-explanatory while others can benefit from pointing them out to your visitors.

This is another area where onboarding can make a difference. You can craft the experience in such a way that it underlines the main selling points of your business by either focusing on them directly or just subtly hinting at them throughout. Traditionally, Apple’s key advantage over Android has been an easier learning curve and seamless integration between various parts of the ecosystem, and this is exactly what the Siri onboarding experience emphasized. You can easily translate this approach to your eCommerce business and, for example, show off the customer support that you’re especially proud of early on.

Reducing friction in the user journey

eCommerce businesses are all about conversions, and there are two major factors that determine whether a potential customer decides to commit or not: the UVP discussed in the previous section and reducing friction in their journey. In simple terms, reducing friction means smoothing out or eliminating all the elements that can stand between the user and the conversion, which is usually understood as completing the checkout process. For instance, these can be a step in the process that isn’t strictly necessary or a page that takes too long to load.

While some of those obstacles are rooted in the user experience (UX) design or technical aspects of a website, others can be managed with the right onboarding. You can, for instance, subtly showcase the most direct way to complete the checkout process or suggest that customers save their shipping and payment information for faster checkouts in the future. Taking a close look at your website’s analytics will play a key role here. This will let you find patterns in how users interact with the website and where they quit, and then you can craft your onboarding experience in such a way that it addresses those friction points.

As an example of how onboarding can add friction rather than reduce it, picture a familiar scenario: a store that, on the very first visit, displays a massive popup that prompts the user to register for a newsletter for a discount on the first purchase. In theory, it’s a fair incentive because we all like to pay as little as possible. The problem is that it happens too soon and in too disruptive of a way. The user isn’t ready to commit in such a way yet, and the intrusive popup only discourages them from exploring further. 


Image source: Outer

Training for optimal use

Finally, let’s take a look at the most seemingly obvious benefit of well-crafted onboarding. Many UX designers would say that the whole point of the exercise is to teach users the right habits. This might mean accomplishing their goals, using all the different functionalities they’ll need, and, simply put, having a pleasant and productive time with your product, whatever this might entail.

Why the “seemingly obvious,” then? Because while the user-facing advantages are at the forefront, it’s easy to forget that training users for optimal use also benefits the business. First, a well-onboarded user is less likely to wander off the path that you’ve designed for them, which means they’ll require less support in technical and business terms. Simply put, they’ll be a cheaper and less problematic customer for you to acquire and retain. 

Second, onboarding done the right way can open up new avenues for upselling and cross-selling through intuitive experiences. In order to illustrate this, let’s come back to the example of Siri one last time. Interacting with the voice assistant transformed my friend in a way. Before the experience, she was simply a smartphone user; now, she’s becoming more and more hooked on the broader Apple ecosystem with its many attractive devices and services. This might, of course, all have happened organically, but I find it hard to believe. It’s more likely that they’ve been carefully introduced at the right moment and in the right context: just like Siri was at the very beginning. 

How to turn onboarding into a strategic initiative

The art of digital product onboarding in the eCommerce industry goes beyond the meticulous details of tutorials and interactive guides. As we’ve explored, you can also consider it from the perspective of understanding the broader picture, defining the outcomes that matter the most to your business, and building the experience with those in mind. In other words, it’s about treating onboarding as a strategic initiative rather than just an instruction manual.

There’s a lot to gain when you approach the issue from this angle. It can help you build the right first impression and a lasting relationship with customers, demonstrate the value of your product, and create behaviors that will benefit both users and your business. Finally, you can leverage it in such a way that it becomes a natural avenue for upselling and cross-selling. By focusing on these multifaceted outcomes, you can ensure that onboarding experiences contribute to sustainable growth and success in the digital realm.

There’s a lot of data analysis, research, design work, and testing that goes into creating as perfect an experience as demonstrated in the example of Siri. It’s an area where you might especially benefit from the knowledge and experience of industry veterans, so make sure to get in touch with us, and let’s talk about your eCommerce experiences to the next level.

Published February 7, 2024