The Getting Started Experience

The getting started experience is the make or break stage of customer adoption. Here are a few patterns that I’ve observed or implemented to tune customers’ early interactions with a product.

Provide Familiar Interfaces

A familiar experience, a path that customers are naturally drawn into, can be invaluable in easing customer adoption. Regardless of how complex the product is, users generally want to try the product without getting on the phone with the provider, and ideally without having to read the user guide.

For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS), the public cloud provider that’s built massive traction over the past decade, hit their stride with Amazon EC2, a virtual compute platform that is similar to running a virtual Linux host in an on-premises data center. Similarly, Amazon RDS in the cloud offers similar interface and behavior that relational databases have provided on-premises. Snowflake, the leading cloud data warehousing solution, provides the same SQL interface as tradition relational databases and previous generation data warehousing solutions.

Show, not explain

Not all products can offer a familiar path for a variety of reasons. For example, a product may intentionally try to break the entrenched and inefficient habits that incumbent products have established. If the product cannot immediately offer a familiar path or interface, then it’s important to be intentional about training customers as they get started.

Slack and Superhuman have retrained their customers to varying degrees. Slack has no doubt gained from the time many of us spent on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels and has expanded on that experience to train others who’ve never used IRC. Superhuman, on the other hand, has successfully built a human-aided onboarding experience.

We are asking a lot from our customers. We are asking them to spend hours a day in a new and unfamiliar application, to give up on years or even decades of experience using email for work communication (and abandon all kinds of ad hoc workflows that have developed around their use of email). We are asking them to switch to a model of communication which defaults to public; it is an almost impossibly large ask. Almost.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, ‘We don’t sell saddles here

We do in-person onboardings typically over a zoom video call, about half an hour in length each. You meet one of our onboarding specialists, they’re not only experts in email but also gurus in productivity… I wanted to watch people in the first half an hour of using the product to find all the bugs that I didn’t know existed. As it turned out, it was also an incredible way to onboard users… Literally everybody tried to talk me down from scaling this, but I said ‘no’, this was going to be our weird thing that we do. We did decide to scale it.

Rahul Vohra, CEO of Superhuman, Podcast

This kind of intentionality in building the first mile experience based on awareness about how customers initially interact with the product determines whether customers will stay the course.

Use Smart Defaults

Tuning into what customers are experiencing in their initial interactions with the product can be tricky. Like a lot of people, I’ve often grown too close the product after spending hours thinking about it and have had to force myself to view every unintended point of friction as a bug.

For example, when I was the product manager for T2 instances in EC2, customers cases on how instances performed over time were not uncommon. For each case, we looked at metrics when the customer began to hit their CPU credits limit which affected instance performance. In nearly every situation, we could explain instance performance with a calculation. But customers weren’t interested in what was ‘right’, they were interested in running their applications un-throttled. We decided to add an Unlimited mode to T2 instances that allowed applications to run un-throttled for as long as required. Later, we made this the default mode for T3 instances.

Make Customers Feel Good

As customers ramp up, knowing where they are in the set up process can help them build confidence in their current path, encourage further engagement, and convert them to the next stage of the adoption. There are several other ways to help customers grow their personal contributions and social capital. For example, can a business intelligence analyst generate custom dashboards that they can send to their leadership? Can an engineer query performance metrics or traces that they can share with other engineers to root cause a specific customer experience?

This pattern of creating content that invites discussion and collaboration is common in consumer products and beginning to grow in enterprise products. In consumer products, we create tweets, posts, pictures, or stories. In enterprise products, we create business reports, performance metrics, and root cause analyses for defects.

Are there other aspects that I’m missing in the getting started experience? Send me a note and I’ll try to add them…