Sign-up and onboarding flows

Onboarding is one of the most under-appreciated parts of every software application.

Onboarding is one of the most under-appreciated parts of every software application. For those that don’t know the terminology, this refers to everything from when a user first encounters your product all the way through to when they are a fully-active user of your service. It’s a broad definition, but it encompasses quite a big part of using your software.

Now, for a typical software company, the onboarding process is actively developed early on in the life of the company. After a few iterations the team moves on to more “core” functionality and the onboarding part of the software is left to perform its basic functions. Then, as time goes on there are occasional style updates and possibly the addition of new marketing landing pages. But, ignoring those few instances, the onboarding process can remain stale for years on end.

Which is strange, since it’s a critical area for your business to succeed. It is what users first encounter when they sign up, it helps form early impressions, and in many companies, it is the area where users churn the fastest.

But enough of just hearing that it’s important, why is it important? Well, there are six main reasons why the sign-up and onboarding flows shouldn’t be overlooked.

1. Your Business Will Grind to a Halt

Without a well-functioning onboarding experience, your company’s sales pipeline is going to seize up and stall. For a normal software user, you sign up for a free trial, see if the product works for you, and if you are truly excited about it then you convert to a paying user. It’s a simple process that drives most of the online economy.

If that is your flow, then one has to ask why onboarding isn’t the top priority for your QA focus. If it’s broken then it doesn’t matter what the rest of your software looks like, what it does, or how it functions: no one will ever find out. If there’s a critical system error whenever anyone types in a password without a number in it, it won’t matter if there’s a bug on the User Profile Settings page — this particular user will never know that page exists, since they’ll never have the opportunity to reach it.

2. First Impressions Matter More Now Than Ever

Your first impression is more often than not your last impression. For a company that you happened upon through a Google search or advertisement without seeking it out, there may never be another opportunity to cement a business relationship.

When it’s broken, your prospective users will immediately start asking themselves questions: what else doesn’t work? Are they this reckless with my financial information? Do they even care what their customers think of them?

Of course, beyond the risk of losing one customer is the reality that they may write a negative review of your service and drive other customers away from you. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

3. Your Competitors Have Got This Covered

It’s naive to think that people only sign up for one service, test it out, and then decide whether or not they want to buy into it. The truth is that people test out a half-dozen different competing companies all in one sitting just to find out which one offers the most compelling version of the same software.

Now, in this scenario, the onboarding experience is not a differentiator. It’s unlikely that a customer is going to sit back and think, “well, that was a fun sign-up process, I think I’ll spend the extra money on this service.” No, in truth the best you can hope for is that your onboarding process gets them using your product and that they never have an opportunity to think, “this is a terrible way to start off, I’m going to go try a different service.”

It may sound dramatic, but it happens to more companies than you can imagine.

4. Your Tests Should Be From the Perspective of a New User

When you are going through your list of QA tests you need to make sure you’re testing from the perspective of multiple cohorts. That means you’re testing with accounts that are years old, accounts that are on different payment plans, accounts that have special access, and most importantly: accounts that are brand new.

If you don’t test all of your use cases from the perspective of a new user then you have no idea what the experience will be like. A new customer could sign up and find a broken series of pages and immediately leave. It’s entirely avoidable, but all too often companies don’t even try.

5. It’s Ripe for Complaints

If your service is recommended to someone, that person goes to sign up, and then finds a major bug that halts them from really being able to give your product a proper test, you’re going to be facing immediate complaints.

On the one hand, the user that recommended you trusted that your sign-up process works as well now as it did on the day they signed up. They put their reputation on the line, associated their name with yours, and hoped that you’d live up to the hype they gave you. Then, you fell short of their expectations. If that’s not grounds for a negative public complaint, nothing is.

On the other hand, the person who has no loyalty to you and who took time out of their day to give your product a spin has just wasted their energy trying to sign up for something that doesn’t work. They may not be motivated to complain, but if the experience is especially broken you shouldn’t be surprised if their reaction is viscerally ill-inclined.