Straight-Line Onboarding: How To Reduce Your Product's Time-To-Value

A straight line is the shortest distance to get from Point A to Point B. Unlike a sales-led organization, in which the goal is to take people from Point A to Point B in a sales cycle, we want to take people from Point A to Point B in their lives. This is done by letting users try before they buy and doing everything we can to help them experience the value of our product.


The problem, however, is that most users never make it to Point B—that promised land where they experience the value of your product. Why? Most often, we don’t know the desired outcome people are looking for, the reason they signed up to use your product.

Take Canva, a simple graphics editor, as an example. You can use the product to create posters, cards, presentations—you name it. Given the incredible number of use-cases, Canva created a web page that shows exactly how to create a poster. On this page, you simply click the call to action to create a poster, and within seconds you’re editing a poster in the product. 

By understanding the problems people were searching to solve (e.g. how to make a poster) and customizing the onboarding experience to help users solve them, Canva cut their time-to-value in half.


As you can see, knowing your users’ intent behind using your product helps us catapult them to the areas where they can experience value as soon as possible. If we can do that one thing—and get consistently better at it—we’ll eventually increase the number of free users that turn into paying customers. 

By bringing our users to the promised land and delivering on our value, the next logical step for them is to convert to a paying customer. Lincoln Murphy of Sixteen Ventures explains: “You’ll get that ‘they convert to a paying customer’ outcome you want, by focusing on the outcome they want.”

This sounds fine and dandy. But how do you develop your straight line? How do you help users achieve their desired outcomes in a fraction of the time? You can do this by: 

  1. Mapping out the path.
  2. Labeling every checkpoint.
  3. Developing your straight line.

To get the most out of this article, complete these three steps with me. Pull out a pen and paper. Let’s get started!

Map Out the Path

In my experience, well over 30% of required user onboarding steps are rubbish. (Yes, yours, too.) Tell me if this sounds familiar. There are form fields that you don’t really need to ask people when signing up. There are required steps that first-time users don’t really need to complete right away. And, of course, there are steps that don’t really need to be there at all. Ring a bell?

Before you develop your straight line, I dare you to sign up for your product and complete all the steps it takes to accomplish a meaningful outcome. As you complete each step, take a screenshot. Even small steps like clicking an “OK” button should make the cut.

If you aren’t ready to complete this step yet, here’s an example. Let’s pretend you’re an established ecommerce business with multiple Amazon and eBay stores. Every day you spend three hours manually logging into each account so that you can respond to customer messages. The more eBay and Amazon accounts you have, the more logging in and out of each account you need to do. 

After some research, you find that ConnectHero (a company I just made up) has a product that allows you to forward all of your Amazon and eBay messages to a help-desk solution of your choice (e.g. Zendesk).

Once you sign up for ConnectHero’s free trial, you’re required to integrate your Amazon and eBay accounts with one help-desk solution. Once that’s complete, you see messages pop up in your help-desk solution from eBay and Amazon—it’s a miracle. This is when you decide that you’re going to upgrade once the free trial is over. The product delivered on its promise, and you’re a happy camper.

Naturally, ConnectHero wants everyone to get to this point in their user journey, but integrating a help desk with Amazon and eBay isn’t easy—users need to take over 50 steps. To make it easier to set up an account, we need to reduce the number of steps. Developing a straight line is the easiest way to do this.

To start, we’ll take a screenshot of each step of the onboarding experience.

ACTIVITY

Take screenshots of every step, from the second you land on your homepage until you accomplish a meaningful outcome in the product. Once you’ve mapped out all the steps, it’s time to label every step.

Label Every Step

Label each step throughout your onboarding experience using the colors green, yellow, or red: 

  • Green is absolutely necessary. Ex. Uploading a piece of JavaScript to your website; asking for an email address to setup an account.
  • Yellow is for advanced features that can be introduced later. Ex. Setting up a custom signature for your email address; running split tests on your video thumbnails.
  • Red can be removed completely. Ex. Changing the color of your profile picture; asking for someone’s nickname when setting up their account.

Removing your red steps and delaying yellow steps moves you closer to building a highway that speeds users to the promised land. 

Develop Your Straight-Line

Growing up in Hamilton, Canada, I took a bus to get to my downtown school. It took between one and two hours. Why the variance? Well, there was no shortage of red and yellow lights in between me and my destination. The bus was constantly starting, stopping, and idling. 

To reduce the number of idling cars and speed up traffic, the City of Hamilton introduced a green light sequence for Main Street, the busiest road in the city—and the main road my bus traveled along. If you hit one green light, you kept hitting green lights until you turned off Main Street. 

This one innovation helped me get to school 25% faster.

If we go back to our hypothetical example of Amazon and eBay account integration, these might be the first three steps:

  1. Integrate your Amazon account.
  2. Set up your custom signature.
  3. Share your nickname.

Integrating your Amazon account is a must, so we’ll label it green. Setting your custom signature is an advanced step. Do you need a custom signature to see incoming messages from Amazon and eBay? Not at all. Once you see the product’s value, it’ll make sense to complete this step. For now, we’ll label this step yellow. Lastly, sharing your nickname is totally unnecessary. Hence, we’re going to label this step red and remove it completely.

When it comes to your product, cut out as many red and yellow lights as possible. You’ll create shortcuts for your user to experience the desired outcome of your product. If you’ve already broken down each step between sign-up and the desired outcome, meet with your team to discuss all the steps you can potentially remove. Include people from the product, engineering, marketing, and sales teams if you want a lively discussion.

One of the reasons I love the straight-line system is because there is no bullshit. You will learn that your users simply need to complete steps X, Y, and Z for you to deliver on your product’s value. 

Even if we create the best-possible experience, we’re still going to see lots of users get stuck in the gutters (and never return to our product). Others will go off-track, and we need to plan for detours. We can do that with bumpers that keep users on the straight line to their desired outcome. 

To learn more about how to use bumpers in your product, make sure to download the full bowling alley framework.



Wes Bush
Wes Bush
Wes Bush is the bestselling author of Product-Led Growth. He’s a renowned Product-Led Growth pioneer and has challenged an entire industry to find a better way to approach SaaS growth.
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