Onboard once, share insights often

From Shopify UX: https://ux.shopify.com/onboard-once-share-insights-often-76d4a82e782d?source=rss—-bbc664515c9e—4

Building blocks photo by Sarah Pflug

Delight your UX team with a design system contribution.

Last year I thought about onboarding. A lot. That’s because I worked on onboarding flows for two Shopify apps, along with a half-dozen drafts of an empty state for our new marketing section.

But when you have a UX team of nearly 400 people, specialized knowledge has a tendency to stay specialized and hidden. Or, put another way, individual expertise doesn’t scale very well.

Luckily, one of our values is “do things and tell people.” It’s a simple way to make sure different people don’t independently solve the same problem(s) twice. That’s why (with lots of help from my co-worker Selene Hinkley) I added onboarding guidelines to the public-facing Polaris style guide. Here’s what I discovered along the way.

Read things, tell three people

One of my favorite ways to learn is through words on paper. Articles like “My secret weapon is reading” give me confidence that I’m not the only person who thinks this way. For onboarding research, my reading list included:

My secret weapon is reading a bunch of words.

But when I shared my reading notes with a few interested people, I got tumbleweeds in return. I was telling people the right things in the wrong format.

Build stuff, tell no one

Research is great, but experience is golden. Actually doing things is where the perfection of theory grinds against messy reality. But one big problem with doing things is that you’re often too busy to document your breakthroughs (and frustrations).

Another problem with doing things is that not every artifact or whiteboard sketch is worth sharing internally (because they doesn’t translate well to other teams). And most of the super-secret internal stuff can’t be shared externally either.

This redacted onboarding flow chart shows you why we ended up creating a fake app for our Polaris guidelines.

Ship stuff, capture insights

And then Selene Hinkley appeared. There are many ways that Selene helped me develop Polaris guidelines for onboarding, but the best thing she did was sit beside me for a week in early October of 2018. As she put it, “Pairing is caring.” As I put it, “It’s almost impossible to ignore a deadline when you have tangible social pressure.”

Selene’s appearance wasn’t a magic accident. It was an experiment on her part to see if we could distribute specialized knowledge across our UX team through the design system(and inspire others to do the same). She called the experiment a Polaris Tour, which is about as rock-and-roll as documentation is ever going to get. The timing of the tour was perfect — a week or so after we launched the new marketing section, when (almost) everything was still relatively fresh in my mind.

Before we dove into the writing we did some design thinking with stickies and identified key themes. We collected as much research and thinking as we could and poured it into the standard format we use on Polaris. Partway through, we realized that we’d have to design a fake app to illustrate our real onboarding insights. We had momentum, and it felt like a sprint.

Celebrating the billionth Post-It note photo in a Medium article.

By the end of the week we had a long first draft (over 2,200 words). But the feedback we received was vague. That was a bad sign, since Shopifolk always have opinions — and they’re not afraid to (nicely) share them.

So something was wrong. But what?

Try things, trust people

I tried a few minor edits and tweaks, but they didn’t really help. I was stuck. (Selene, meanwhile, was on a much-deserved vacation.) So I ended up trying something new for me — I watched Sarah M. Smart’s talk about onboarding and unicorns via the San Fran UX writers meetup. (The unicorn thing is hard to explain, you’ll just have to watch it.)

As I mentioned already, I prefer reading to moving pictures, but Sarah’s talk activated a slightly different part of my brain, and in so doing it broke my mental logjam. Long story short, the structure of our guidelines wasn’t right. The typical Polaris guideline format forced us to be too prescriptive. As a result, we didn’t receive actionable feedback because our coworkers couldn’t see their own experiences reflected in our suggestions.

Rules are great, but if you’ve ever tried to make a new recipe before, you know that rules aren’t always enough to get the desired result. You can follow all the instructions and still create a yucky mushroom risotto. Instead, we decided to share the principles of “cooking” and let people use this base knowledge to help them create better onboarding experiences.

What I took away from the video was principles over prescription. And since I have a strong working relationship with Selene, I felt confident enough to change direction mid-stream. Without that trust, I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable reassessing a project partway through. Especially since it meant removing over 1,000 words worth of material.

Moody black-and-white photo of our first draft guidelines.

Publish things, thank everyone

It’s easy to take the UX community for granted. Many UXers regularly “borrow” ideas, approaches, techniques, and ideas from others. In academia you use footnotes, in journalism you use quote marks. In user experience, you use Medium or Twitter.

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It felt nice to give back and thank some of the people who inspired us. And they really appreciated it.

Speaking of gratitude, there were plenty of Shopifolk who helped us reach the finish line. Especially Miru Alves, who created great mocks for HolidayMail, our fake app.

Thanks Miru for all your awesome HolidayMail app mocks!

Publish things, iterate

I’m sad to report that content strategists still see a lot of “publish something and forget about it.” Once shiny new content goes live, teams usually move on to solving new problems. But Selene and I felt it was important to evolve the onboarding guidelines on a regular basis to maintain reader trust.

After publication, we finally got the feedback we wanted. For a variety of complex reasons, it’s only once something is published that people suddenly have something to say about it. That’s why it’s important to publish darn good, but not perfect, content.

After sifting through the post-published feedback, we shipped a few changes that clarified some of our ideas and examples. Not only are the guidelines more better now, but our tweaks made feedback givers feel heard.

Since publishing the onboarding guidelines in late March, we’ve had over 2,000 unique page views. That means our work is being read inside and outside of Shopify, and our newfound internet fame will no doubt encourage Selene and myself to contribute to Polaris again soon.

And that’s it — thanks for reading! This article is over but there are plenty more great articles on the Shopify UX blog. Have feedback? We’d love to hear it. (Psst. This bonus paragraph is called offboarding — the most overlooked part of the onboarding cycle. When you plan for positive final impressions, you increase the likelihood that users will have positive feelings about your company. And hey, you might even get a few extra claps on Medium for being so clever.)


Onboard once, share insights often was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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