Getting people to use your product requires more than onboarding, it demands a transition plan.

new skills takes time and effort, and will likely reduce a person’s effectiveness for a time. Even the best users will get worse while they transition.

Tiger Woods is one of the most successful golfers of all time. In his prime, he was able to combine power with accuracy and solid putting to win more money on the PGA tour than any other golfer. He has the 2nd most career wins in the history of the PGA and will likely have the most by the time he retires. He has also won the 2nd most major tournaments (these bring out the best golfers) and still has a chance to claim the most here, too. His list of accomplishments is extensive.

Despite his success, he was never satisfied. He always looked for a new edge. Even when he was at the top of his game, he saw that he had room for improvement. He frequently tinkered with his swing, sometimes overhauling it. Every time he did, people would question why he would mess with successful results. He was already the best golfer after all.

His first few tournaments back after refining his swing, he would struggle a bit; he did not look like his usual self. His shots would be a bit more erratic. He might lose a little bit of distance. His performance would suffer and he would not be playing in tournaments like we had come to expect. Commentators would begin to wonder if he needed to revert back to his old swing. This would go on for several weeks.

Then, suddenly, the training finally clicked. He would get comfortable with his new swing. He would get the timing down and his body adjusted. He would find a bit more power or a bit more accuracy than he had before. Already the best player, he became even better, increasing his advantage over everyone else.

Local Minima and Maxima

What Tiger’s swing change shows us is that learning is not always linear nor is it a step function (staying level, and then jumping up when the skill is achieved). As we learn new skills, or in Tiger’s case enhance current ones, our results do not improve incrementally along with the amount of effort put in.

Learning is not linear. It’s easy to use regression as an excuse to stay at a local maximum when higher levels of performance can be achieved.

We learn new skills to break out of a local maximum. With our current skills, we plateau and we need to do something to advance to the next local maximum. However, doing this often dips us into a local minimum from some time before we reach that new local maximum.

As we learn we must unlearn some old habits and break others, causing our performance to temporarily decrease as we try to build back up with the new pieces that we are adding. If the task is difficult, we may have more to unlearn, which will require even more effort to get back to and above where we once were. This is important to consider when we add new tools to help our users.

My History with  Tools

To ground this in design, I’ll walk through the different design tools I’ve used in my career for screen design. When I started my career in 2004, my company’s tool of choice was PowerPoint. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous coming from a professional design team. It was readily available and most of us already knew how to use it, so it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Of course it was terrible for doing actual design work. I was new and didn’t know any better so I used it.

A year or so in, we shifted to using Fireworks (back when it was a Macromedia product). This had a steeper learning than PowerPoint, but it was also better for our purposes. I was able to get the basics down somewhat quickly and was soon operating more effectively than I was with PowerPoint. I became better at turning my concepts into fully formed designs. They were sharper, clearer, and I was producing them much more quickly. We then switched to Illustrator, which operates similar to Fireworks, so the transition was smooth.

Next came Axure. I see the value of it, as it allows me to churn out prototypes that feel more realistic. But Axure has an incredibly steep learning curve. It makes me complete most activities differently than Illustrator, which is my mental model for how design tools work. When I use it, I have to get in ‘Axure mode’ and try to unlearn a lot of habits to use it.

I am constantly trying to figure out how to make Axure do the things I want. This takes me out of ‘what should my product be doing’ mode.

I have run into other problems as well. Given its key benefit is that it allows me to develop a close to real prototype, when I am working in Axure I am constantly trying to figure out how to make Axure do the things I want. This takes me out of ‘what should my product be doing’ mode. Since I have not yet mastered how Axure works, I struggle to design in it.

Learning Axure placed me in a fairly deep local minimum. This is a tough place to be when you are faced with tight deadlines. To overcome this, I largely separated designing from prototyping. I started designing in Illustrator (or on a whiteboard) and prototyping in Axure, which doubles my work. This is clearly inefficient and not how the tool is intended to be used, but this strategy allows me to hit my deadlines.

Eventually, my company finally licensed InVision and I abandoned Axure. Invision provides about 80–90% of the benefit I was looking to get from Axure with much less learning curve. Axure lost a user that day, not because it has no value (it certainly does), but because it took too much time to realize that benefit. The learning curve was the impediment.

Side note: If you think that learning Axure or Illustrator is difficult, consider how difficult it is to learn to write quality code to create prototypes. I took a class in college in both Java and HTML and could not do anything complex with either of those. Factor this into the equation when you argue for having designers learn to code.

Transitions

I take these struggles with me as I design products for others to use. Designers focus a lot on creating value for our users. We talk about designing so that the product is easy to use. These are both incredibly important. And while we may consider onboarding users to our new tool, we often ignore that we are trying to offboard them from someone else’s product (or an earlier version of our own). Their current product and workflow isn’t perfect, but they’ve created shortcuts and workarounds that work for them. They have a mental model in place. Getting people to use your product requires more than onboarding, it demands a transition plan.

We talk about onboarding users but often ignore that we are trying to offboard them from someone else’s product

Jared Spool already listed several ways to help users transition from one version to the next and I won’t rehash them here, but I will add some additional thoughts. One way to help users is to offer both products (or versions) side by side. Until users are comfortable with your offering, they will likely not want to use it in high-stress, time-critical situations. But your product should be there when they have time to explore and play around.

If you make it more difficult for users to complete their tasks — even temporarily while they are learning to use your tool — you risk angering your users.

For some tools this may require finding ways to import data from these other products, so that users can have equal footing regardless of where they are. If users have to spend the time to manually enter data they have in their current system, or start from scratch, they will be less willing to put in that extra work.

If you are competing against a well-known product, consider emphasizing during onboarding how the users can accomplish tasks that they routinely do in that tool — even if it seems obvious to you or users who have not used any similar tool before. In your help documentation, you can even do a side by side walkthrough of how they accomplish things in the competitor’s product. This might take more up front work for the product team, but can be a huge time saver for your users.



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