19 Ideas to Improve User Onboarding in Webmail Services

19 ideas

More active users—this is the goal. However, we forget that before they can run, the users have to learn to crawl. The first step towards getting more active users is to figure out the users’ first interactions with the service.

Billions of Users… But a Lot to Improve

In spite of email’s status as one of the most popular online services and a mature product in terms of user interface and features, email providers have a lot to improve on in terms of user onboarding. So what are the key factors in a user onboarding process for an email service? What are the best practices if we want to improve the user experience?

Email Onboarding

General Rules in a User Onboarding Process

Email has a lot in common with other online services. We shouldn’t forget a rule that applies to all online services, cited by the user onboarding expert Samuel Hulick in his book, The Elements of User Onboarding:

“Your onboarding experience shouldn’t be defined by the touchpoints you create, but instead by the improvement you provide. It’s not about getting people from Point A to Point B in your app; it’s about getting them from Point A to Point B in their lives.”

If we want to highlight a list of key rules, these would be some of them:

1. Choose the final goal of onboarding—for the user.

We mustn’t focus on us, as a business. It’s a common mistake to design the user onboarding process thinking about our business or product goals—but the user’s goals should be our primary concern.

2. A single Call To Action (CTA) is the best way to an active user.

Each time we add more than one CTA in the same page, step, or user interaction in the onboarding process, we disperse the user’s attention. Doing that increases the chance that the user doesn’t leverage the tutorial, doesn’t know the product properly, or decides to leave the service without testing it correctly.

We have to help users act fast. They don’t have time to decide among a lot of choices, so giving them more choices isn’t always our best option.  

Taking this into account, if we have to remind the user of other aspects, we have to design the CTAs’ scale carefully. It must be clear what the main action is, and what the additional actions or tips are. This is key: decision fatigue is the user onboarding killer.


3. Common guidelines.

The user should be able to focus their attention on the valuable aspects of the product. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we design the user onboarding flow and user interface. Reuse common guidelines that users already know to help them understand the product.

“Application usability is enhanced when users know how to operate the UI and it guides them through the workflow. Violating common guidelines prevents both.”

Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

4. Consistency.

We must always use the same elements for the same functionalities, maintaining the same look and feel. When a user is in an onboarding flow, he or she is learning something new. If we want to accelerate this learning and make sure it happens correctly, we can’t forget this rule.

“Visual Consistency is so important, building visually consistent pages has become an unspoken rule.” UXPasion

The Landing Page, The Public Side of a Private Service

Sometimes email providers don’t leverage one of the most important pages available for user growth and generation of active users. Adding too much content to a landing page, and doing it without order and clarity, are the most common mistakes in this industry.

There are three key elements that we should remember when designing an email service landing page:

1. What needs does the email service provide?

Email is a mature service, and the common user knows its general benefits. At the same time, it’s a highly competitive market, and the landing page is the perfect place to differentiate ourselves and display our added values.

2. Consistency between the messages and the Call to Action.

An email service landing page has to be clear and direct. It’s key that the components show balance and a unique main message.

3. Social Proof.

This includes the number of users working with us, the users’ testimonials, security validations, awards, and more. Social proof is an incredible growth engine that we must use in the landing page.

Webmail SignUp Form – Don’t Forget

1. Less is more.

The signup form is the user’s first direct interaction point with the service. Here, remember: less is more. If you have fewer fields in your form, you’ll get more conversions.

2. SignUp form design rules.

Once we are ready to create the signup form, we should take into account the design rules defined by CXPartners in 2009:

  • Use a simple vertical layout and vertically aligned labels where possible.
  • When more than one field is placed on a line, ensure that the fields are designed to look like a single piece of information.
  • Emphasize the headers (make them colored or shaded) if you want users to read them.
  • Only request required information.

3. Why?

If you have decided that you need specific data, how we justify that we need that data is key. If the user feels that the justification is coherent, we won’t have any problems—but we need to explain to the user why we need each piece of data.

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4. “My username, please.”

We have to help users when they are looking for the right username. As users, we like to know if the username we want is available, and we want to know instantly.

Automatic validation systems are the best practice to offer users the best experience. Likewise, proposing coherent alternatives when a user’s first choice isn’t available decreases the bounce rate at a critical point of the user onboarding.

5. “I need a secure password. Please help me.”

A good email service values the user’s data security. Users feel this differentiation in the small details. One of these details is how the email service handles password security.

If we want to help users create a secure password, we should show them what type of characters they have to add in the password and how secure the password is each time they create one.

6. “Show me my mistake, but show me how to do it correctly too.”

It’s impossible for all users to fill in the blanks correctly on the first try. As a service, we have to be ready for the users’ mistakes. How the system reacts to user errors will be key to keeping new potential users in the signup flow.

When errors occur, we have to notify the users of the failed field, and then show the users how they should add the data correctly.

Of course, if the user has made a mistake, we can’t force them to fill out the entire form all over again. As you can read in a great article by Peep Laja, founder of ConversionXL, “If they did fill the form incorrectly and you need to show an error message, make sure the fields are populated with the data they entered. If they have to start from scratch, it causes frustration and they might not do it.”

7. Forget the Captcha form.

The proliferation of spam has obligated email providers to add validation systems in their forms. However, choosing a user-unfriendly system is common among email service forms. One of the best solutions is to move to reCaptcha.


8. Security, security, security.

Email is a service where we handle critical personal data. It’s critical that email services increase their security measures to protect user credentials and accounts.

To ensure this information stays safe, email providers commonly use three complementary techniques:

  • Security questions. The user has to define what question they want to receive if they forget their account credentials, and what the correct reply to the question is.
  • Phone number. This is one of the more secure ways to protect an account. The user has to share their mobile number, and the email provider will send a security code there if the user loses their credentials.
  • Security email. This is the same system as the phone number, but with another email account.

The Welcome Tour: The Best Way to Finish a Great User Onboarding

“Sending an email is easy. I don’t need a guide. Everybody know how to do that.” Everybody has sent an email, and it’s true that the simplicity of the system is one of its strengths. However, an email service doesn’t only send and receive emails. There are dozens of functionalities that the user should know, and these are key factors in converting a user from occasional to very active.


1. Welcome!

As we said before, the small details are key in a highly competitive market. A good welcome tour is definitely one of those details. The first part of this Welcome Tour, like the name says, is to welcome new users. A user may only get a brief first impression, and this can be critical when they define their behavior with the product. We should work to have happy and satisfied customers from the beginning.

2. Show me the way.

It’s common to guide users to different sections where they can edit their accounts. If this happens, we should always indicate the next steps to the user with helpers or other graphic resources. Don’t forget the user is taking a tour, and we should help them with each step, not just when they are in the inbox, which is the main page by default.  

3. Preloading emails.

“Preloading some emails is a nice way to deal with the cold start problem” that email services face. This is one of the improvements highlighted by Samuel Hulick in his (highly recommended) analysis of Gmail user onboarding.

4. Highlight the most valuable features.

Once we’ve begun the tour, our goal is show the user the most useful features. With email services, those are generally:

  • How to manage and archive your emails.
  • The address book, an essential feature that is part of the email service’s core.
  • How to import emails and contacts. Millions of users have two or more email accounts, and thousands of users switch their email providers every day. Having the best import solution helps you fight the loss of users, while at the same time improving the new user’s welcome and increasing user engagement with your service. At ShuttleCloud we focus our work on developing the leading technology to import email and contacts from the most important email and address books providers.
  • The search box.
  • Calendar, Instant Messaging, Docs, Groups… email has definitely evolved, and is now the core of a group of services which Internet Service Providers and big technological enterprises offer to users.The welcome tour has to show users how to access to these complementary services, but we should always remember that simplicity is one of the tour’s requirements.

To finish the welcome tour, we have to give the user the sense of their first quick “win.” We should lead the user to a specific, relevant, meaningful task that starts the real user experience with our email service.

Here, the best way to finish the onboarding process is inviting the user to send an email. In the end, an email started it all.

we can identify whenever there are new sources of spam and stay on top of filtering this spam out accordingly.

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