Product Teams

A Service Design Primer for Onboarding: Part 2

Published Nov 1, 2016

What does service design have to do with onboarding? As we mentioned in part I of this post, onboarding is a teaching, guiding, mentoring, explaining, consultative service we are offering to customers. Onboarding spans time and is a complex interaction. It involves many touchpoints and scenarios, a variety of desired outcomes, and many actors both internal and external. In this post, we’ll introduce just a few principles and practices of service design.

First, the  principles of service design that mesh with the challenges of onboarding:

1. Service design is about people and value delivered to people.

By focusing on people — not screens, a point-in-time persona, or a single product — service design thinking helps us to broaden our perspective. A service design approach focuses our attention on the human goals at the heart of successful onboarding.

2. Service design addresses the needs of both internal and external actors.

If you restrict your onboarding focus to the external actor—the customer, or even more narrowly, a customer researching the product prior to buying—you miss important details. Your teams are actors in the onboarding process, particularly in the case of more complex B2B software products. How do you intervene if there’s a problem? How do you monitor progress? What do your internal actors need to fine-tune and optimize delivery of the onboarding service?

3. Service design is co-creative.

Service design encourages the people involved in delivering the service (both internal and external actors) to participate in the designing of that service. Thinking in service design terms helps break down silos, and promotes cross-functional participation in the design process. If your onboarding design approach is driven solely by UX and product, you’ll miss many important nuances and perspectives.

4. Service design is holistic and takes into account the entire, integrated experience of your service.

The customer’s journey does not start when they log into your app, and different customers will move through the onboarding process at different paces. Service design is about sequences, touchpoints, and progression, which jives well with the onboarding challenge.

Here are a few service design practices that you can apply to most onboarding problems, along with links to a number of useful resources from

Think broadly about touchpoints.

Start at the beginning and look far and wide. How did the user end up in the app? Who did they talk to? What information did they receive? Mapping these interactions over time with a broad cross-functional team can help tease out your assumptions about the user’s goals at the point of first interaction with your product. Even with self-service apps, there is is a backstory. The user might have learned about your product from your marketing, from a friend, or they might have learned about it as a recommended product on a goal-focused engineer site like Stack Overflow. This might take the form of customer journey maps or Gianluca Brugnoli’s touchpoint matrix.

“For a new customer acclimating to a business or enterprise-level software, the perceived value of the software will be measured in how well they feel listened to or heard, can get the help they need, and how quickly they are up, running, and, most importantly, confident. The irony is that the value of the product can’t even be realized until they get to that point anyway, so the true value of your product in those early days hinges on the user experience of navigating all the different internal and external touchpoints that get them there.”
-J.J. Kercher, Director of Customer Experience, AppFolio, Inc.

Try creating a service blueprint for onboarding.

Each of the touchpoints in the onboarding process may be connected to multiple layers of UX, technical features, customer support, sales and marketing, and internal coordination. A service blueprint is a useful way to unpack all of this. In a service blueprint, each step in the customer experience of interest becomes a drop-down that creates a picture of what is going on at this stage and provides a space for insights. In Flowers and Miller’s guide, each step is accompanied by its touchpoint, actors involved, technical or other system involved, rules or policies, data, and additional details, and potential insight categories include follow-up questions, critical moments or pain points, and resulting ideas.

Consider all the actors and their motivations.

It’s tempting to assume that all users have the same motivation upon starting to use your product. We know this isn’t true. Some people are just “checking things out.” Others are doing set-up with a goal already in mind. Service design prompts us to extend this thinking to internal stakeholders as well. Who is involved?

  • Sales is trying to close the deal.
  • Engineering needs to do capacity planning.
  • Marketing wants to leave a positive impression of the brand and nail down a case study.
  • Customer success wants to protect against embarrassing hiccups post-sale.
  • Finance is trying to square away the contract details.

Understand motivations and be sure to include internal motivations. For enterprise companies and their products, there can often be a complex web of stakeholders on the customer side as well. Some people will never log into your tool, but they have a profound influence. Therefore, it’s helpful to understand the relationships between actors in both the customer’s organization and your own.

Get your head out of your app.

Take a step out of the product for a moment and imagine an experience you might have that would involve using a service, such as taking a flight or buying a car. Or, as an analogy for a more lengthy and complex onboarding process, imagine yourself as a new employee. What are your points of contact with the service or with the process of learning your new job? What would characterize a valuable experience, both for you and for the service provider?

At times, it can be helpful to step away from in-app constraints and just act out the interaction. How would you accomplish this onboarding goal if you were a tour guide, or a teacher, or a coach? Activities like role play can help. We tend to think in terms of hyper-idealized paths and scenarios in an app (i.e. the “happy path”). It’s important to challenge those assumptions.

Hopefully, this introduction has inspired you to see your onboarding process through a new lens of service design! See the list below for even more resources and tools for applying service design.

John Cutler is a product management and UX consultant. His passions are UX research, evidence-driven product development, and empowering the front line to solve business and customer problems. For more of John’s writing visit his Medium profile or follow him on Twitter.  He is honored to team up with longtime friend and editor Katherine Maurer, a freelance editor and poet whose work has appeared in many pretty good literary journals. She is also a graduate student in clinical psychology, and drummer in the band Again is Already.