How to Get More People Onboard – Samuel Hulick

Samuel-Hulick-PinterestSo you’ve got a product, and a client base to sell it to, but how do you increase the likelihood that your new users will become successful when adopting your product? Well, you institute the process of User Onboarding, of course!

Happy customers are repeat customers. You’re interaction with your customers shouldn’t just stop once they make their purchase. By instituting User Onboarding, you are using design to make your product’s concept clear to your customers, while helping to remove any of the hiccups along the way during a signup process so that you increase your conversion rate.

Samuel Hulick is passionate about User Onboarding, and has dedicated not only a website to it, but has written numerous articles as well as an entire book about this valuable process. Today he shares with us his insight and experience – previously as a developer – and explains how to inject warmth, personality and personalization into the signup process.


Rich: Welcome everybody to another episode of The Marketing Agents podcast. Today we’ve got Samuel Hulick on the phone. He is a UX designer reporting worldwide from beautiful Portland, Oregon – or as we in Maine call it, the other Portland. He’s particularly passionate about User Onboarding, so much so that he runs a website dedicated to it, and has just published an entire book on it. What is User Onboarding? We’re going to get to that in just a second. Samuel, welcome to the show.

Samuel: It is a pleasure to be here.

Rich: So, let’s just start with that one. What is User Onboarding?

Samuel: My definition of User Onboarding is the process of increasing the likelihood that people become successful when adopting your product. I can unpack that in a moment, but that’s the pithy version.

Rich: I like that pithy version. Let’s just dig a little bit deeper.

Samuel: Sure. So, ultimately the product or business offering that you have exists in order to fulfill some sort of need in a person’s life to increase their capabilities. And so anytime that there’s a gap between the way they’re doing something right now and the better way that you can be providing for them to do it, getting them to cross that threshold or that gap is what I tend to call User Onboarding. In its most reduced set, you can also just call it getting set up within an application, or going from 0 – 60 in learning a new interface.

Rich: Excellent. And this part I love because I mentioned this before the show, now you talk a lot about applications, and some of our listeners definitely have applications. But almost everybody these days has a website, and so some of the takeaways that I got from reading your stuff – and I just discovered you one day and fell in love with what you had to say which is why I wanted to have you on the show – but really a lot of this User Onboarding is just removing any of the hiccups along the way during a signup process so that you increase your conversion rate. Is that another way of looking at it, or am I assuming too much?

Samuel: I would certainly put it in the same category. I think that you can look at something like conversion rate optimization from a marketing standpoint. A very similar process where you’re looking at designing a workflow that might have multiple steps in measuring the retention and conversion percentages that go from one step to the next to the next. So, very similar methodology at the very least.

Rich: Alright, awesome. Now how did you get interested in, now UX is User Experience, correct?

Samuel: Yes.

Rich: So how did you get interested in User Experience and User Onboarding?

Samuel: I started in User Experience because I actually initially hung out my shingle as a developer, and so a lot of the projects that I was working on had a very waterfall-y kind of approach where they would have a strategy session and then a designer would kind of go off on their own and then come back with a comp and then there might be some revisions and they would hand it off to me and I would kind of be the last stop to build it before it went live. And there were a lot of times that I was like, “Hey, you know, I really don’t know if this is going to be in the user’s best interest,” which would mean that it’s not in your business’s best interest. But at that point, the decisions had already been made, and it was something that I realized if I instead call myself a User Experience designer, I can focus and really legitimately hang my shingle out as that instead. Then I would get that seat at the strategy table and be able to influence things further upstream.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. And so one of the things I often think about when it comes to websites is just the fact that it’s like an application. People spend all their time when they’re on the web or websites, but yet they spend very little time on our website. So very often, businesses may try and get too cute or too confusing in their website, not realizing that 99% of the time – or 99.9% – people are actually on other websites not ours.

Samuel: Or not online at all.

Rich: Or not online at all, depending on who your client base is. So the more we think about that User Experience and what does the user want, how can we smooth the transition for them to get that, that’s actually in our own self interest, isn’t it?

Samuel: Yeah, very much so. I think you can very, very often make a case for clear over clever.

Rich: Ok. So you’ve got this great User Onboarding website. We’re going to link to it in the show notes, although it’s, correct?

Samuel: That was taken, so I got, with no “ing.”

Rich: Well, I’m glad I asked. You have a feature on their called “teardowns,” and in the teardown there’s basically like a slideshow of the process of signing up with your commentary – very often, very funny commentary – on the process of signing up for popular apps like Twitter and Foursquare, and explaining what’s working and what’s not working. So we as small business owners who are developing websites or applications can think about, “Oh, are we making these same mistakes?” What were the goals with the teardowns? How did you come up with this idea?

Samuel: So that was something I do as a UX consultant, before I even focus specifically on onboarding. Just going through certain workflows and saying, “Here’s my take on areas of opportunity or areas that look like they’re working pretty well, just using that as kind of an introduction to a consulting project. So I decided to write the book on User Onboarding and put up a landing page with an email signup form, and realized I needed to drive traffic to that page to get people to fill out that sign up form. So I thought, “Man, it would be so great if I could share one of these teardowns I’ve made with my customers or client base,” but didn’t feel it would be right to put something that had been commissioned up publicly. So I quickly had the alternative idea of just picking a company at random and just doing it for them without really asking for payment or permission, necessarily, and then posted it live and kind of just went from there.

Rich: Awesome. And I do recommend that people do take a look at some of these teardowns, because even if you’re not bringing an app to market, it is very helpful. Even from something like getting somebody to sign up for an email newsletter or getting them to download something from your website. Some of the stuff that Samuel points out in here is definitely helpful and it’s definitely got me to rethink some of our own processes. One of the things in one of your teardowns I was looking at before the show, you’re doing Twitter. You tend to give some serious props to brands or companies that use a human voice. In other words, on the Twitter one you’ve got “name looks great,” you love that, in the Twitter signup box as opposed to “this string isn’t empty.” So how can small businesses – or any businesses, really – use this approach in getting people to move down the sales funnel at their own website? How do we inject personality in there?

Samuel: I think it’s a question, too, where your personality doesn’t necessarily have to be completely informal or wacky or anything like that. It certainly works for companies like MailChimp, for example, but having a consistent personality that feels like you’re engaging with a human being regardless of how professional that might be, to me is a very important aspect of it. One thing that I really, really recommend people to do even just as a thought experiment when going through designing an experience, is just really think about how you would behave and what you would say and what your tone would be if you were standing in place of the website. And then have the website speak on your behalf along those lines.

Rich: Alright, that’s some great advice. So basically we should make sure that we’re using our own voice rather than just generic copy.

Samuel: I would certainly agree with that.

Rich: And I think this goes a long way, because one of the things – we use MailChimp, it’s a great program, we often use Constant Contact – and I think the default signup box on Constant Contact, if you just copy and paste the HTML code in your page, it’s something like “join our mailing list.” Which I think these days is one of the most off putting things you can actually say to somebody, because it’s basically code for “let me spam you.” So to create something that has your own personality and you’re going to greatly increase your chances of building that list, or persuading people to choose your app or choose an action that you lay out in front of them.

Samuel: Sure, and nothing persuades quite like appealing to people’s self interest as well, so “join our mailing list” is very business-centric, where if you had something that was more user-centric like, “don’t miss out on our news,” or something like that then that would be even more compelling.

Rich: Oh, I like that a lot. Now in the Twitter teardown – I looked at a bunch of them but this one is fresh in my mind – you give props for, you’ve got a checklist there, “warmth, personality, personalization” during the signup process. Are these three key elements that are true for any onboarding, or is it specific to this incident?

Samuel: That was actually initially something that I wanted to point out how they were personalizing things, then I realized that the other two qualities of warmth and personality were very well represented as well. I’m not sure if I would say that those are the only three aspects that I would look for, but they combine to make a very nice effect. But ultimately the thing that I was really looking at was being able to personalize it, I think it said, “Welcome, Samuell,” or something along those lines. Bit it used my actual name and it was also, once again, I felt like I was relating with a person instead of with a computer.

Rich: Interesting. I think we all know that the computers talking to us, they’re basically taking the “$first name,” or something equivalent to that, but it does add that extra level of personality and personalization, and also it shows that the developer went through the extra steps it took to make this a better experience for us to make us feel more welcome.

Samuel: Yup, absolutely.

Rich: So I was reading some of your articles and you give a lot of attention to words, the words that we use. You seem to hate the word “stuff.” You mention that in a few of the teardowns as well. Why do you hate that word so much, and what should we be using instead – because I do see the word “stuff” thrown around – as a type of informal framing when somebody’s not sure what to say?

Samuel: I think my teacher from the fourth grade would be very happy to hear that that rubbed off on me so strongly. The reason that I balk at words like “stuff” is because they’re so nonspecific that you’re really looking to use an economic amount of words to paint a very clear picture on the benefit that people will be getting from using your application or for moving through workflow or for submitting a signup form or whatever that might be. So when you use something like “stuff,” that’s really not teaming people up with a concept that they can readily grasp and visualize. So particularly in the case of “stuff,” I really would look to something that would be more specifically emotional and also more specifically concrete. Let’s say if it would pass the test of “I can picture myself feeling or interacting with that,” then “stuff” isn’t really one of those, unless maybe the cream inside an Oreo or something like that.

Rich: Yes. And then its “double stuff,” just like double rainbows. Alright, as I mentioned before, A lot of this stuff in User Onboard is about how to improve getting people to sign into an app, really get them on board, which is not that different than getting somebody – for example – to opt into an email newsletter or buy a product on the site. Along those lines, what are some of the common problems that you see in User Onboarding that maybe we should think about as we’re developing a flow for email signups or whitepaper downloads or getting somebody to buy a widget off of our website?

Samuel: Sure. So one of the biggest ones that comes to mind for me is something that I alluded to a little bit earlier, but just realizing that people act out of their own self interest when they’re on a website. They’re there to achieve something, to fulfill a particular need, and your job is really to provide something that’s emotionally resonant and motivational for them. To get them to bother doing that thing that is once again in their own interest to begin with. So a lot of times when you’re looking at something like the flow for downloading a whitepaper, so many times it’s in such business-centric terms and it’s so apparent that it’s really just thought of as a lead generation mechanism and it’s really phrased in a way that don’t really depart from that. When I find that they work really well is when people have really taken the time to think about if I were in the user’s shoes what would I be looking for that would be particularly appealing to me, how can I phrase things along those lines. Another great trick in copywriting is taking things directly from the way that your customers phrase things. So if they have particular words or terminology, or just ways of putting the value that you provide, using that directly in your copy to appeal to everybody else like them is a great idea.

Rich: That’s a great point. And it’s interesting – and I may have mentioned this on a previous show – but I did some research for hair restoration companies a while back. Which, by the way, if you ever do a job like that, make sure you set up a separate browser because now all of my YouTube pre-rolls are for hair restoration products. But one of the things that the industry talked a lot about were the phrases “hair restoration” and “hair replacement.” And doing some research I noticed that both of those were trending downwards over time in search, and just out of curiosity, they threw in the word “hair loss.” And that basically crushed the competition of “hair restoration” and “hair replacement,” and what it turned out is although there are people searching for that term, most people are just searching for “hair loss” because that’s their concern. So to talk about that, you’re more likely to get more people listening to you because you’re using the words they use rather than the words the industry or your company wants to use as well.

Samuel: Sure. And a big part of getting people to take action online is being really aware of two distinct situations. There’s the frustrating situation that the person is in that made them look up “hair loss” to begin with. Something happened in their life where they said, “Alright, that’s it, I’m going to go on Google and enter in the words “hair loss.” Nobody wants to do that search, I don’t think. So there was some sort of motivating event in their life, probably coming from a negative place. And then alternatively to distinct form the frustrating place, there’s the successful situation where whatever frustration they’ve ha has been resolved and their life is better and there are all these other qualities that they can ride in a convertible again, or whatever that might be. So being able to paint the picture between the two and kind of getting people to repel from their frustrating situation they don’t want to be in anymore, and feel the appeal of the successful situation that you can offer is a key tactic of mine.

Rich: Yeah, absolutely. And from what you’ve been saying to me, and some of the stuff I’ve read of your online, it seems like you strongly go after the heart rather than the head. You feel that a lot of the copy on the web is really geared towards the head, but you’re talking about persuading people with emotions. How do we make sure that we’re accomplishing that when we’re creating our copy or creating our interface?

Samuel: That’s a very good question. There’s a quote,and I wish I could attribute it, it wasn’t me and I wish I could remember the person that said it, it was something very close to, “People make decisions emotionally, and then rationalize them after the fact.” And that really speaks to me very much. One thing that I really look for is using strongly emotional copy, and also just becoming as familiar as possible with what people are struggling with and what people would see as being more successful and things like that., like looking at the two situations a moment ago. Another really big thing, especially when you’re looking at designing workflow, if there are six screen signup process or things like that. Remembering that only one part of the brain speaks English, so there are a lot of cues that you can be providing that probably won’t even come up on somebody’s radar, but can be really affecting the decisions that they’re making and helping tip the scales in that emotional decision making process before someone even really realizes it.

Rich: Ok. In one of the articles, you had this great visual about Mario the flower, and then the flame throwing Mario. You said that the flower is your product – meaning the business’s product – but it isn’t what you make. You make the flame throwing Mario, and that’s the difference between features and benefits. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Samuel: Sure. So once again, that’s a very clear example of the frustrating situation and the successful situation, where the super Mario is dodging around in a very stressful existence and very vulnerable to his enemies, constantly on the lookout for mushrooms or things like that to help improve his chances. If he encounters a fire flower he grows much taller , can take more damage and throw fireballs and kill enemies from afar. So it’s a much more carefree lifestyle to be the much bigger one. So when you’re selling a product, the fire flower is what facilitates the transformation from one situation to the other, but you’re really selling the better situation. You’re not selling any of the features of the flower, like the fact that it has green petals or that you can walk over to install it. Actually I just went to a website today where they had a headline, and then the next thing that they said was, “Quick and easy to install.” If that’s the benefit that you’re leading with, that’s nice to know, but if it’s going to make my life better I don’t really care how easy it is to install. So definitely looking at establishing the former before talking of the latter.

Rich: Right, And of course hearing “quick and easy to install” – if that’s the #1 benefit – makes me wonder how far down the line is quick and easy to uninstall. It’s like, love potion $5, cure for love potion one million dollars.

Samuel: Right.

Rich: So you talk a lot about A/B testing, and that’s something that I think a lot of small businesses and independent professionals are a little nervous about. It seems very complex. Do you have some places that if we’ve never done A/B split testing, that you would recommend we start with just this one or two things to test out?

Samuel: Well, interestingly enough I would actually recommend your User Onboarding flow, if you have one, for A/B testing. There’s often a lot of pushback for A/B testing, some legitimate, some not. One of the legitimate ones is that people will just have a familiarity with whatever they’re currently using, so by introducing something brand new to half the people, then you’re skewing your results right from the beginning because you’re going to have some people that are just used to going to the top to get to your blog and now they have to scroll to the bottom, or whatever that might be. In the case of an Onboarding example, just by nature you’re controlling for that variable because everybody’s unfamiliar with it because they’re only now signing up for it. It makes for a nice petri dish for experiments there.

Rich: Alright, cool. One more question, then I want to get to something else. When people come to our website or to our app, there’s very limited attention, there’s so much going on that competes for that attention. Do you have any suggestions on how we can take advantage of the little attention that they’re willing to give us?

Samuel: Yeah. That’s absolutely huge. I’m trying to think of any particular tips off the top of my head. I can completely agree that it’s really, really important. In fact in my book I have an entire chapter dedicated to it. Were you looking for specific design recommendations?

Rich: Either a specific design recommendation or perhaps flip it on it’s head. Are there a couple things you see common on websites and apps that are just complete distractions and ways of losing customers that we should be avoiding?

Samuel: Sure! Ok, that makes it much easier. The #1 thing, far and away, as far as Onboarding specifically is concerned, but also anything that involves signing up really. I’m just always shocked at the companies or websites that as soon as you sign up want you to go out of the flow that you’re in and totally pull you out of your groove and have you go into your inbox to confirm your email address. That is something that can definitely be taken care of after the fact, and you’re dealing with such precious attention and motivation at that point, where getting them to stay within your application and guiding them to a quick win that they can use to tee up future visits is so important. It’s really a shame to see so many people send you into your inbox, which is basically distraction #1. That’s by far one of the biggest recommendations I make is to hold off on that as much as you possibly can.

Rich: You just said something, and I want to dive just a little deeper on that. You said, “a quick win.” Can you define that for us, and then give us an example of one case where you’ve seen it?

Samuel: Sure. I’ll define “quick win” first. Once again, your product or business offering exists to make people more successful in some particular way. Even something like a videogame or Netflix is still fulfilling a human need. Like with Netflix, you have a long day and you just kind of want to relax, and so they can make you better at relaxing or something along those lines. And so the “quick win” is really kind of s a best of both worlds I guess you could say, where you’re not necessarily trying to get somebody fully up to speed, an expert user on their very first visit or anything along those lines. But you’re giving them a taste of that success that they can use to bank on to come back more and more often. So in the case of a video hosting company like Vimeo or Wistia, that would probably involve getting people to upload a video for the first time. Probably not going to have to count on them to do it a lot after that, because it could take 20-40 minutes to upload the video and get it crunched and ready to go. So you’d really be looking at that first run experience ending with a “quick win” of getting a video uploaded. Of course that also assumes that people have a video to upload to begin with. In the case of MailChimp, for example, a poor choice for a “quick win” would be to have somebody send an email out in their first visit, because A) that assumes that they have an audience or subscriber base to send it to begin with, and then B) it also assumes that people have something to say right off the bat, whereas they might just be wanting to go and see what it’s like to create a campaign or to see how they can import their existing subscriber base, or things like that. So thinking a “quick win” that is reasonable enough to do in one sitting and also is highly aligned with the success that you provide are the two main criteria that I look at.

Rich: And that’s great. And I think all of us as we’re thinking about getting people to take a desired action on our website should be thinking about do we have something that we can offer them/show them/explain to them, that’s going to let them make them a “quick win” with their own business or personal life, so that they’re more likely to come back to us and want to engage us for other things down the line.

Samuel: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in any opportunity that you can go from first time visitor to newsletter sign up to book purchaser to full time subscriber – or whatever that ladder that you’ve provided – then yeah. Advancing people along incrementally, to me, makes a lot of sense. Much more so than just kind of hoping they’ll come back unqualified 7 times and then going for the big purchaser.

Rich: Alright, good stuff. Everything that I’ve read of yours I really love. And I want to recommend that people check it out. Now, I know you have a new book coming out, where would you recommend they do that, where should we go to learn more about you on the web?

Samuel: The site is That’s where I host the teardowns and offer a couple articles. You can also check out some of the writing I’ve done on Medium, where I link to that on my personal site, And of course I also have the book out available as well, and that’s on the User Onboard site as well.

Rich: Samuel, thank you very much for your time today I really appreciate it.

Samuel: Absolutely, it was a real pleasure to be here.


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Samuel Hulick