I zipped through Better Onboarding by Krystal Higgins a few weeks ago and, in my mind, it’s a classic that should be required reading for anyone who makes software. I am serious! It is very good! I can’t remember the last time a book about my job has been so obviously good and un-put-downable and almost infinitely quotable.

The book goes against convention when it comes to onboarding and how us designers should approach it. That’s exciting to me because I’m on an onboarding team at Retool where my job is to make sure that new or potential customers can build complex web apps. So I’ve been thinking a lot about onboarding over the past few months.

There’s only one catch here: I almost exclusively hate onboarding experiences. They’re slow and patronizing, they get in the way, and they often try to explain around their overly complex UI instead of simply...making the UI less complicated.

It wasn’t until reading Krystal Higgins’ book on this stuff though where I became much more confident about this hot take. She writes:

The best onboarding experiences guide people as they interact, instead of explaining things in narrative form.

So no wizards or annoying pop ups, no check lists. That’s the laziest possible approach to teaching someone! Sometimes they can help but I’ve started to see onboarding instead as a nudge in the right direction rather than an annoying shove. How many of those crappy onboarding modals have you dismissed this month alone? For me it’s more than a dozen at least.

Instead, Krystal asks us to think deeper about the interface we’re building and try to understand what people don’t grok right away:

...onboarding isn’t a single moment, or a single feature, or a single flow. It’s a process that connects many activities, over time, to bridge the gap between trying a new product and becoming a core user of it.

Over on the Clearleft podcast and the episode all about onboarding, Chris How called this alternative approach “longboarding” instead. That might sound like a fancy tongue in cheek way of saying the same thing, but I think it makes an important distinction that most folks don’t get: onboarding is the interface. All of it. Not just a check list or a flow or big dumb modals with fancy illustrations in them. Onboarding is every moment in the application. So every moment should be cared for.

Most folks takes the laziest approach possible and you can see it everywhere: apps of every kind and ilk are chockablock full of annoying popups and guides and things you have to dismiss before you can use the product itself. We all hate those.

In her book, Krystal continues:

Onboarding’s finish line isn’t about making people an expert, much in the same way every new hire for a job isn’t expected to become a CEO. The end state of onboarding is the point at which users are doing the activities that make them part of your core user base—what I call core use. Defining core use for your product will set the desired end-state for user onboarding.

I have a bunch of ideas for how Retool can be more nudge and less shove when it comes to onboarding so I’ll report back once I’ve figured that out.

(And I bet I steal a lot of Krystal’s ideas along the way!)