37signals is renown for producing clean, no-nonsense products, and their onboarding experience is exactly that. They also have a very cool tactic for getting new users acquainted with the interface!
I recently signed up for LessAccounting, and documented my experience with screenshots and annotated recommendations!
Don’t forget – 100% of the friction in a conversion funnel is stuff we put there
A lot of times, a conversion funnel will be defined by identifying the different parts of the interface a user has to interact with in order to complete the task at hand.
For example, a typical onboarding funnel might look something like this:
- Click “Start a free trial” CTA
- Fill out signup form
- Confirm email
- Accept terms & conditions
- Enter credit card info
- Start using the product
There’s usually a screen for each step, with each screen designed to help people advance to the next. With six screens in the setup process above, that must be a lot of help, right?
Well, no, not necessarily. If you pay attention to the amount of people who start with step 1 and make it all the way to step 6, you will definitely see that not all do. In fact, there’s going to be at least some dropoff for each and every step.
Here we have six screens that are designed to get people onboarded and ready to go, but each of the steps they represent are taking some otherwise engaged people off the table.
Seen from that perspective, screens – generally thought of as advancers – might really be better thought of as barriers; the only way to achieve 100% conversion from one screen to the next is to remove that screen entirely.
A Tale of Two Workflows
Contrast the following two workflows for getting photos off your iPhone and onto your computer:
- Connect the phone to the computer via USB
- Open the application
- Select the photos you want to import
- Toggle checkbox to group events by date
- Click either “Import All” or “Import Selected”
- Wait while each photo imports
- Click either “Delete Photos” or “Keep Photos” to finish
- Have photos on computer
That’s a lot of opportunity for distraction, confusion, anxiety and abandonment – and this is from a company that’s kind of known for good design!
Here’s the other one:
- Connect the phone to the computer via USB
- Have photos on computer
That’s really it. It throws you a passive notice that it’s pulling them into your Photos folder and then just churns away in the background.
Both workflows get us to the outcome we want, but Dropbox tessers us there directly.
What Are Funnels For?
A funnel should exist to facilitate a real-world change in a person’s life:
- They had to find a place to stay for an extra night in a city they weren’t familiar with and booked something awesome.
- They wanted to communicate something to their audience and now it’s sitting in all their followers’ inboxes
- They didn’t know if there was enough money in their checking account for a nice dinner out and now they know.
The point of a workflow isn’t to get people from Point A to Point B in your app; it’s to get people from Point A to Point B in their lives.
When you define a workflow by its steps rather than its outcome, you’re defining an activity that’s supposed to be about a user’s progress by the impediments preventing it instead.
Like what’s illustrated in the image up above, don’t equate a conversion with “the fabric the ant has to traverse”, identify it as “getting from one hand to the other”, then be ruthless in making that as straightforward as possible.
Dave McClure’s “Pirate Metrics” funnel has been lauded by many, and adopted as something of a default model for SaaS customer metrics.
Its name comes from combining the first letter of each of its stages (Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, Revenue), which spells out “AARRR”. You know, like what a pirate says.
Businesses find it useful for tracking how well they’re converting strangers into full-fledged, money-spending evangelists. But when viewed from the perspective of someone going through the process of becoming a customer, the experience is quite different.
A View from the Inside
While names like “Activation” and “Revenue” are easy ways for a company to describe the current status of any of its customers, those words are meaningless when applied the other way around: no part of becoming a customer “feels” like any of the stages as they’re named.
For example, this would never happen:
Person 1: “Hey, how are things going with building up your newsletter list?”
Person 2: “Pretty good! I’m in the Retention stage of my relationship with MailChimp right now.”
Put simply, the terms the AARRR funnel uses are completely out of alignment with the experience of becoming and remaining a customer.
This may not sound like a big deal, but the issue is as foundational as it is subtle: when the way you view your relationship is out of alignment with the way the other party views it, that relationship is in severe jeopardy.
A Funnel on Their Terms
Think back to a recent time you became a customer of a SaaS company – what was the process it took to get there? How would you describe it from your own perspective, rather than the company’s?
I’d be willing to wager it would be pretty different in at least two ways:
- The process would be centered around your relationship with a recognized need, not with a particular company
- Your relationship with the need would go back long before the company came on the scene, and continue long after you started paying them
In other words, MailChimp’s customers don’t view themselves as part of the MailChimp customer base, but the reverse – they view MailChimp as just a part of fulfilling their greater need.
To me, the latter is a much healthier perspective for a company to take. Rather than limit the scope of “relationship progress” to what customers can do for a company, why not invert it and chart out all the ways a company can help further the customer’s relationship with their greater need?
This keeps you laser-focused on the central reason people become your customers to begin with, and also diversifies your ability to bring value to them.
For just one example, consider what people are struggling with before they search for a solution to purchase. How can you help them in that earlier phase and frontload your relationship with value? How much of an advantage would that give you once they’re ready to buy?
Of course, this is not to say that all company-centric metrics should be completely banished. They have their place and their utility, when kept within their proper context.
Just keep in mind that your customers aren’t living in your funnel, they’re living in the real world. Fortunately, you can live there too.
For every product, there’s an underlying need it exists to serve. I call this underlying need the “problem space”, as it’s an “area” that a solution can cover.
Problem spaces exist independently from the products that serve them. While VCRs, DVD players and online streaming have displaced each other, what never changed was the problem space they were all designed to cover: people wanting to watch movies at home.
It’s crucial not to mistake the problem space with the product itself, as Apple’s Jony Ive so eloquently points out when talking about redesigning school lunchboxes:
“If we’re thinking of lunchbox, we’d be really careful about not having the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas that could be quite narrow. Because you think of a box as being square, and like a cube. And so we’re quite careful with the words we use, because those can sort of determine the path that you go down.” - Jony Ive
The problem space a lunchbox serves is transporting food from one place to another. Nothing about that requires it to be cube-shaped, but by naming it a box at the onset, the field of possible solutions becomes artificially constrained.
Defining a product by “what it is” in the absence of “why it is” leads to narrow, inflexible and short-term thinking.
And it happens all the time in web design.
The Feature Is Not the Problem
For example, a sign-in form’s underlying purpose is so ingrained that it almost goes without saying: it authenticates users.
However, when defining a product scope, that underlying purpose shouldn’t go without saying: by only stating “here we need a sign-in form,” you define the solution and only imply the purpose behind it.
If instead you first define the purpose by saying “here we need to authenticate users,” how might that expand the field of possible solutions to the problem?
Maybe you could authenticate by social APIs instead. Or by text message. Or gesture/face/voice recognition.
All of those approaches may address the “authenticate users” problem as well as a sign-in form could, but would never have been in the mix were it framed solely as “we need a sign-in form” from day one.
Holding Features Accountable
Defining solutions by “what they are” in the absence of “why they are” also makes it very tricky to assess their performance: if a sign-in form’s only requirement for success is “be a sign-in form”, how could you really determine whether it was doing its job well or not?
If the desired outcome was instead specified as “authenticating users”, you could very easily come up with ways to track how successful the thing you built was:
- The rate of successful authentications per attempt
- The average time users spent trying to authenticate
- The frequency of support/recovery requests relating to it
The measurements above could be applied to a sign-in form as easily as they could to social API authentication; they’re result-driven, yet feature-agnostic.
Iterating on results rather than features is a much more powerful approach to product development than simply ticking a box that says “feature complete” and moving on to the next thing to build.
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
When designing a product, progress should not be conflated with generating functioning features, but rather effective ones.
A feature’s not “complete” once it’s QAed and deployed – that’s really just the start. It’s complete once it successfully covers the problem space it exists to serve.
Rather than define a product’s scope as a list of features and requirements, consider instead first defining it by its problem space, and the indicators that will let you know when it’s been served.
People are the engine that makes your website go. Understanding and serving them will help it go far.
Every time someone pulls up a website, it’s for a reason.
The reason might be anything from checking their account balance to sending out a newsletter to seeing a picture of their niece, but whatever it is, it’s there, and it’s kick-starting the whole experience.
This goes for not only your own website, but also literally every website anyone’s ever (intentionally) visited. There’s always a reason.
I call those reasons “intents”, and I consider them to be the core planning element for a successful website design.
Intent Architecture: Better Than Information Architecture
While the usual website planning documents are focused on describing how its sections and content will be organized, they don’t really outline why they should exist to begin with.
Whenever working collaboratively, leaving web content’s raison d’être open to personal interpretation is not ideal, especially if the early decision-maker isn’t going to be involved in each stage of production.
Architecture that starts with defining the purposes that the website will exist to serve not only sets it up for being better-aligned with the user’s expectations, it also makes it very easy to hold each of its sections and parts accountable for results.
Putting Intents into Action
Find intent-serving nirvana with these 8 steps:
- List out all the intents people might be bringing to your website.
- Validate the list with your actual audience.
- Rank the intents by how valuable they will be to serve (for both you and your users).
- Starting at the top, break each intent down to its minimum workflow (you can start with just a few).
- Measure the conversion baseline for each workflow the website currently supports.
- Pick a single workflow and create/rework website sections, screens and elements to better facilitate each of its steps.
- Roll the changes out as an experiment if possible (e.g. an A/B test), and measure the success rate of the people using it as compared to the baseline in step 5. Iterate until you get it where it needs to be (or better!).
- Rinse and repeat steps 5-7 for each intent you have listed.
Ultimately, the point of designing a website isn’t to “have a website” – it’s to facilitate activity. Beginning with intents keeps everyone focused on creating for the activities, and not just creating the thing itself!
For a SaaS offering, it’s the first and most important question to answer
A lot of video games offer special power-ups. When you buy them, your character gains a new power.
Much like in video games, people in the real world buy personal upgrades all the time. They’re called SaaS subscriptions.
I Buy Software to “Upgrade” Myself
Try thinking of SaaS offerings as power-ups instead of products:
- Zendesk makes me better at talking with customers
- Workflowy makes me better at organizing my thoughts
- Evernote makes me better at remembering things
In that light, companies are better described as capability enhancers: Wufoo isn’t a form builder, it’s a power-up that makes me awesome at receiving feedback from my audience.
People come to you because they recognize an area for self-improvement. And, if you’ve positioned your company just right, they can see an upgraded version of themselves on the other side.
Your Company Isn’t Your Product, Your Company Is Who Your Product Produces
People don’t buy pencils because they want to have pencils, they buy pencils because they want to be better at writing.
When you focus on the specific thing you make people better at, all other aspects of your company easily fall into place: the branding, the value proposition, and even the product itself.
With all due respect to Y Combinator, the endgame is not making something people want; it’s making people into who they want to be. The thing you make is just what gets them there.
You can almost think of your company as the apparatus that churned out Star-Bellied Sneetches, except instead of printing a star you’re enhancing a skill.
Your business doesn’t exist to upsell people, it exists to upgrade people. Focus on the latter, and the former will take care of itself.
Be the change they wish to see in themselves. They will happily pay you for the help.