Product development can learn a lot from the way board games handle onboarding.

The onboarding experience is extremely crucial to gaining paying customers. If your user gives up on your product during onboarding, it won’t matter how great your product is. 

If your product adopts some of these best practices, you will see a higher conversion rate for new users.

Parks has some of the best UX (and its really fun too!)

Explain the rules with a logical flow 🔢

Imagine you are learning to drive a car and you are taught how to use the windshield wipers before the gas pedal. Chances are, you would have more difficulty learning to drive. In the same way, if you explain a minor idocycracy before explaining a primary rule the person learning the board game might get confused. Because of this, effective game instructions have a specific order and hierarchy.  

This same principle should be applied to product onboarding. As you request specific information or reveal new feature capabilities, the order should be considered. Users often don’t want to create an account before seeing what the product can do for them. So, don’t teach a user how to edit something before teaching them how to create.

An intentional and logical flow will help users trust in your product and onboard quicker.

Tapestry’s reference guide has a great logical flow for new players

First, teach the user how to win 🏆

Whether it is a board game or a product, users have the same goal: to win.

Often, I see a common mistake when teaching a new game. The teacher doesn’t explain how to win until the end of the instructions. This is a mistake because the learner doesn’t understand why different mechanics are important. They are left asking, “why do I want to do this again?”

This same methodology reigns true in product onboarding. Customers use your product because they think it will help them win, whether that be saving time, reducing risk, or increasing revenue. The user needs to know you can solve their problem.

If your customers don’t think they can win or don’t understand the rules of your product, they will lose hope in your product. This lack of confidence will likely lead to swift abandonment of your product. 

Jumping back to the board game analogy, I’ve had several friends struggle to understand how to play a game quickly I can see it in their eyes when they give up before playing. They assume the game is too complicated and they have no chance of winning. Don’t let your users think they can’t win with your product.

Notice how the Parks rulebook has an overview and goal section

Guide the user through their initial decisions 🚴‍♂️

Sometimes games are complicated and players need to solidify the rules with practice. Think of it as training wheels for the user while they learn to ride. A great example is one of my favorite board games: Wingspan. Wingspan provides a guide for the first 5 turns. This teaches good habits and reinforces the way the product works.

The same should be true for product onboarding. If a new user is guided through best practices during the first couple of interactions, they will be much more successful using your product.

Wingspan’s guide is powerful for new players

Create safe environments for users to test features 🧪

Often, users are afraid to “break something”. With new games, players are so afraid of making a mistake, they question every decision endlessly. To circumvent this issue, a practice round could be played. The practice round allows new players to make risky plays, learn from their mistakes, and start the real game with confidence.

In the same way, users need to know they won’t break something. Testing environments can set their minds at ease. Whether all changes are temporary and easily reversible or the changes need to be approved by an admin, users can try their hand at all the features.

I typically teach Werewolf with a practice round

Teach the user with features they recognize from other products 🔁

Before teaching a game to new players, consider which games they have played before. Similar mechanics are present across multiple games. Once you know their experience, you can draw on similar games to explain game mechanics. 

This concept translates well to onboarding. Onboarding processes can be customized to the user if they know which software users have previously used. Then, new features would be explained in comparison to features from another application. 

A great example of feature similarity would be teaching Figma to an Adobe XD user. Figma’s onboarding informs the new user of how its features are similar to XD and where they differ.

When I teach Scythe to friends, I use element’s from simpler games like Catan and Risk to explain it

Make sure the user understands the rules before turning them loose 🚀

You never want to hear, “Oh, so that’s what I should have done 8 moves ago. Guess I can’t win now.”

Sadly, I witness this often. They finally understand the strategy, but it is too late. The new player has already dug a hole of mistakes. The good news is that they can just start a new game, but that isn’t always the case for new products.

With new products, initial mistakes can create serious technical debt in the future. A great example of this is Loom. Upon first using Loom, I didn’t prioritize creating a file structure for my videos. After 2 years of use,  it was difficult to locate the right video. Since then, I have gone through the timely and frustrating act of organizing my videos. I wish Loom had prompted me to organize my videos from the beginning.

I’ve had several players say the dreaded phrase when playing Aye Dark Overlord

Let’s make product onboarding better together 💪

Product onboarding is extremely crucial to the health and success of many emerging products. These 6 principles from board games can level up your user's experience with your product.
Have you noticed any patterns of great onboarding from other industries?

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