What Every Startup Can Learn About Onboarding From Video Games

Build customer engagement into your product without expensive software.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on Jun. 14, 2021
What Every Startup Can Learn About Onboarding From Video Games
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About a month ago, I got to listen in on a management meeting at a startup that I was considering advising. The meeting was just getting started when one of the management team folks asked the CEO one of the best set-up questions I’ve ever heard: “Why is our customer onboarding so awful? And since it never works, why do we keep doing it the same way?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that question. I can tell you that I’ve asked that same question of my own startups and my own products. And I can also tell you that, more often than not, there’s a very simple answer: Leadership is putting off spending time and money on a very formal and very expensive onboarding solution, one that probably requires a custom build or a third-party bolt-on.

You don’t have to do this. You don’t need to build widgets or wizards or Clippy. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on specially designed software to onboard your customers and keep them engaged. You just need a good plan.

Here’s how to devise your onboarding and engagement plan to lead your customers to success and generate longer lifetime value.


Stop the Onboarding Death Spiral

I mentioned Clippy in an earlier paragraph and, thank your lucky stars, probably 80 percent of you read right past that name without knowing that it refers to an animated paper clip that served as an interactive assistant baked into past versions of Microsoft Office.

Clippy was the jump-the-shark moment of overkill onboarding, the cartoon culmination of software companies shoving way too much complexity into their software.

Clippy was despised but was also seen as necessary, at least by Microsoft developers (obviously). The only thing Microsoft Office users hated more than the frustration caused by using the overly complex software was the frustration of sifting through pages and pages of “help” documentation to try to figure out how to do what they wanted to do.

Flash forward to current day, and if I’m using a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) product, I am notorious for closing those pop-up slideshows and animated overlays so I can just jump straight into usage. After all, I’m technical. Also, I’m old and I have no time for directions.

But I’m not alone. When it comes to using an app, especially a business or productivity app that’s supposed to make our lives easier, the last thing we want to do is crack the spine of a thick user manual.

My point is this: Not only are these types of onboarding instructional guides  —  whether jammed into a FAQ, a pop-up, or an animated paper clip  —  expensive to build and integrate, they’re also mostly useless.

The truth is, if you need to build or buy an onboarding solution for your existing product, it’s probably already too late to avoid a time-and-money spend. So you’re better off, both economically and in terms of customer experience, just tearing your product down and starting over.

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Everything Good About Business Software Came From Video Games

That’s not true, but it’s fun to say. In the case of onboarding, however, nowhere does customer engagement need to happen more quickly, with less friction, and, most importantly, intuitively, than a video game. If you can’t immerse the player within a few minutes, your game fails.

Thus, the first few minutes of most video games are usually slow and annoying, stopping the action every few seconds to make you read about which button to push to jump, fly, shoot, or whatever.

That’s better than the dreaded tutorial level, where the game makes you do something completely useless in order to run you through every available combination of button and trigger on the way to, I don’t know, make breakfast or something before you go kill a bunch of bad guys.

But let’s take a lesson from the evolution of onboarding in video games over the last few years. Three things have happened:

  1. The complexity of the games themselves has been dialed way down. Mobile gaming had a lot to do with this, but even console and computer games ditched the extra functions for a return to a focus on move, attack, and defend  —  basically the three use cases you need for any game.
  2. One you remove complexity in use cases, you can add automation around them. I can’t remember the last time I proactively saved my progress in a video game. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I proactively saved my progress on any data entry task in any SaaS software product.
  3. Task scope has become smaller and iterative. As a result, I also can’t remember the last time I needed to save my progress in a video game. Blame our reduced attention spans, but I like to think it has more to do with iterative task management. Instead of trying to complete a single one-hour mission, the game has me complete a dozen or so five-minute tasks that string together to fulfill the entire mission.

That’s the key to customer success. But how do you get your product to do that?

How to Build Onboarding Into Your Product

  • Define success first. Make a list of all the functionality in your product and rewrite each description from the customer’s perspective. Then chain all that functionality into tasks on a path toward success.
  • Go drop dead simple. Make it easy for the customer to get started.
  • Let customers get lost. But don't let them do anything they can't undo and don't make them start over.
  • Use your trials and demos to onboard. Don’t offer user customization and preference capture as part of the paid tier.
  • Give them an interactive guide. The components of that guide should work themselves into your user interface.


Define Success First

What does your product ultimately have to do for the customer to be successful? Does it need all those functions that hover around special cases that only come up once in a while? And how quickly can you show the customer the initial path to success?

Make a list of all the functionality in your product. Describe what that functionality does to help the customer achieve their goal, then rewrite each description from the customer’s perspective.

Heres a basic example: User saves their data entry progress. From the customer perspective, that functionality description would instead be: User enters data from several sources, not all of which will be in hand when they begin the data entry process. Allow them to start, save, resume, and review their progress. Changing the perspective may open up ways to eliminate complexity in that process or future processes, and get to the same successful destination.

Then chain all that functionality into tasks on a path toward success. As an example, if I’m using a content management product (like I am right now), I need a chain of tasks to create, to edit, to publish, and to market. I won’t be successful until I complete all four tasks, but the first thing I need to nail is the create task, so the onboarding should focus on that, and stop selling me on features I’m not ready for yet.


Go Drop Dead Simple

Stop being all things to all people, at least during onboarding. Product developers and company leadership have a tendency to want to pitch as big a tent as possible. It’s a syndrome that is constantly answering the question: “But what if the customer needs this?”

There’s a difference between onboarding and education, but if you can’t get past onboarding, you’ll never get to education. Make it easy for the customer to get started; worry about education later.

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Let Customers Get Lost

The best video games I’ve played recently dropped me into the action right away and let me figure out move, attack, defend for myself. And yeah, I died a couple times figuring it out, each time losing a few seconds of progress.

But I was learning how to play the game without even realizing it.

The only changes you need to make to that strategy are:

  1. Don’t let them do anything they can’t undo. Let them make mistakes, let them go partway down a path they didn’t intend to explore. Always provide a seamless way to take a step back without having to start over.
  2. Don’t make them start over, obviously. Its not a video game and no one wants to re-do work theyve already done. This change segues nicely to the next point.


Use Your Trials and Demos to Onboard

With my startup advice project, Teaching Startup, anyone can get a free trial and demo the product. The only thing I don’t let them do is actually get to the value (in this case, the database of advice).

What I do allow is the capture of all their information and preferences as if they were a paying customer. For example, a free trial user can mark an answer to read later, even though they can’t actually read that answer until they’re a paying customer.

By doing this, I’ve already started the onboarding and engagement process, and even started education into how some of the specifics of the product work.

The lesson here is don’t offer user customization and preference capture as part of the paid tier; that’s like getting your customers to pay you to make it easier to onboard them.


Give Them an Interactive Guide

Clippy wasn’t all bad.

In video games, most players have a guide telling them what their objective is. This used to be a button you pushed to call up maps, inventory, objectives, instructions, and so on.

Now, most of the time, that guide is in the player’s ear as they play, so to speak. In the best cases, the guide is some kind of omnipotent non-playing character that follows them through their objective and intuitively drops instructions for an immediate next step.

The components of the guide should work themselves into your user interface. Think of it as a dedicated, contextual support button, visible at all times.

I know the prospect of rebuilding a product from the ground up is daunting, but it’s better than the alternative. You can keep riding the complexity train for only so long before it derails. And that derailment can be quick and expensive.

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