You have a team of engineers and a three month runway – how are you going to fix onboarding?

That’s a question I actually got in a product management job interview a while ago. My answer was, “that’s a really good question but I have no way of answering yet.”

Is this an operating room problem or an aspirin problem
Operating room or aspirin?

This is the same question as “Here’s a team of surgeons, and I’ve booked an operating room. We have a patient with a pain in his foot. What operation are you going to do?”

I would hope it’s obvious that no doctor would ever do an operation – of any kind – without knowing more about this “pain in his foot.” Maybe the patient needs an operation, but maybe the patient needs an aspirin.

Onboarding Is Not A Customer Problem, It’s Our Problem

When customers aren’t behaving the way we want them to – for example, if they are not onboarding fast enough or in big enough numbers – we need to treat that as a “signal,” not as the problem itself. It might be a problem for us but it’s not a problem for our customers. Our customers are having some other problem, and that’s causing them not to onboard.

Without doing some research, we have no idea whether this is an aspirin problem, or an operating room problem.

And the cost of doing the wrong thing, even if well-intentioned, can be huge.

If I had a team ready to go, and an onboarding challenge, I’d go find something else for the team to work on. Then I’d go do some research on onboarding. Why aren’t customers successfully using our product? There are many questions I’d need to explore.

  • Are there any segments of our target market who are onboarding quickly?
  • Why are they successful?
  • Are there segments that are particularly slow to onboard?
  • Do we know why those people are trying out our product in the first place? What use case are they trying to address?
  • Is our product good for that use case? Have some customers had success in that area?
  • If we know some customers are successful, why aren’t the others?
  • Can we do something to help those customers achieve their goals more easily?
  • Is there something confusing about the onboarding process?

Start With Simple Interventions

Once I start getting answers, I can start doing interventions. Depending on what I learned, I might be able to start with easy, low-cost mitigations, like sending a drip email campaign after people sign up, giving them examples of how to accomplish their use case. I might update the landing page, from where they download my product, to ask about the use case they want to address. I might send some use case-specific templates to customers, based on their answers. Or success stories from people who used our product to solve that use case.

These tests would only take a few weeks to give us meaningful enough results (assuming we have a lot of signups) that we could then think about how to apply engineering resources.

The Same Tools As Growth Hacking

This looks a lot like “growth hacking” – “a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business” – and it’s based on the same set of tools.

As product managers, we need to find market problems, create solutions, and take the solutions to market. (This is the basics of the “Secret Product Management Framework.”) An onboarding problem often means we haven’t created the right solution (yet). So we have to do more work, via testing and understanding our users, to define a better solution.

What would you do with a team of developers and a three month runway?

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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