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How did product tours evolve in time?

What is a product tour?

Often referred to as product guides, hints, or walkthroughs, product tours are a series of steps shaped as UI elements within applications or digital products experienced by users. Put it this way: parents usually assist a baby’s first steps as they try to explore the world independently. A similar pattern applies to product tours. Companies within the digital environment try to make their users’ first experiences smoother, more relevant, and closer to their objectives.

Why use product tours?

Onboarding new customers who recently signed up for a service or introducing existing users to new product features sounds like a job for product tours or its close relatives. People from various digital industries have traditionally created guides for the products or services they were involved in.

The goals of the creators also broadly variate. Splitting these into two interlinked groups would cast some light upon understanding why to use product tours:

  1. Improve the user experience within the products or services, whether for customers or employees. Thus, guiding them to achieve their aha moments. Reducing friction and eliminating roadblocks.
  2. Improve KPIs such as conversion rates, churn reduction, support inquiries. KPIs that are related to business, marketing, or other connex fields.

A brief history of digital product tours


Going back to the early 90s, Apple offered its users video demos containing detailed tutorials on operating basic functionality on a Macintosh device. A remarkable fact was that the demos were displayed as a conversation between a nice illustrated guy wearing an ‘Apple’ sweater and the device user. Apple would have the brilliant idea to use the essence of this conversational pattern in the years to come.

Long-time rivals, Microsoft, introduced with the launch of Windows 98, a basic version of a welcome program. After logging into Windows for the first time, a new user could spot a shortcut on the desktop that triggered the welcome program. Double-clicking the shortcut would play a short introduction video. At the same time, the system was referring to the user by the name submitted in the Windows setup phase. After the video ended, users could find shortcuts to various wizards, release notes, and guides. Even though it wasn’t too interactive, the welcome program intended to straighten the learning curve for some processes within Windows 98 and succeeded.

Web 2.0 and its influence

2 web 2.0

The ascension of the world wide web in the early 21st century was like a sparkle that will soon be igniting a large fuel tank. The trend of moving from pure content consumption to actively involve users in creating content for the web prepared the terrain for what was to come later. When social media broke loose, alongside it came a wave of software products and digital services.

These software-driven companies needed to onboard their users as retention, engagement, and the overall good user experiences became critical and harder to achieve. The competition started to be fierce. When using a product or service, the first experience made a difference between adopting that product or altogether abandoning it.

Companies had two choices in providing onboarding options to their users. Developing in-house was the first option. Even though it was efficient in providing good user experience results, managers realized this method involved high costs.

Entrepreneurs also became aware of this problem digital companies were facing. So, a second option to offer digital onboarding became available later, in the second decade. New tech companies such as Intercom, Appcues, or Pendo started offering easy-to-build solutions with a fraction of the in-house cost that drives digital products to success.

Product tours became one of the most common ways to properly onboard users or employees. They were easy to create and manage. The creators didn’t necessarily need coding skills to perform such tasks. The results of their work started to pay off almost immediately.

Games, user onboarding at level 999

3 games

Let’s take a brief detour to the gaming sector. Games started one of the most successful and pure forms of user onboarding by providing interactive, in-game walkthroughs accompanied by passive, informative messages to new players. Giving first-time players hands-on walkthroughs, teaching them the game mechanics in the first stages of a game assures a remarkable first experience.

Depending on the game type and medium, players have similar goals when exploring a new video game. Based on this fact, designers and developers were able to provide emerging experiences for newcomers. “Noobies” are held by the hand without them genuinely noticing.

Even though video games offer a great deal of freedom and choices, especially in the mid to late phases, the initial goals of the players are somehow more simplistic and easier to understand. It’s not necessarily the same pattern that applies to software products where clients’ goals display more tints and shades.

Product tours on the web today

4 product tours

Let’s come back to software products, in general. It appears the tremendous progress of technology combined with the need to understand clients’ goals during the last decade has brought depth and extra layers of functionality to the onboarding industry. Product walkthroughs or other User Interface elements, on their own, are not standard instruments anymore. Complementary services stand next to them, taking this industry to unprecedented levels of complexity.

A tip of the iceberg examples of such services and add-ons:

  • Advanced user and audience segmentation.A service that became indispensable for splitting up customers into relevant groups based on their attributes or goals. Offering different content to segments of different types of users is essential for not overwhelming clients with unwanted information.
  • Multi language supportfor international usage helps to capture users’ attention and focus. Also, delivering product tours simultaneously in many languages can provide a much richer experience, bringing a familiar tone of voice and familiarity.
  • Custom style themesare crucial for matching the newly created UI elements with the branding of the ventures. Contextualizing visual content to match the surrounding digital environment is available in almost all software onboarding platforms.
  • Advanced triggering,checklists, and content run management are used for adapting product tours or other assets to complex scenarios of usage or in multi-dimensions onboarding sessions.
  • Content creationis available in nearly all software onboarding platforms. Creators can enrich the offered experience with images, videos or emojis, to mention a few.
  • Surveys and feedback widgetsare tools that capture, analyze and report customers/employee satisfaction. A relevant example is the Net Promoter Score, often described as the gold-standard metric in customer experience. Businesses can have an NPS survey in their web applications up and running in just a matter of minutes. Therefore, focusing their efforts on getting feedback, analyzing it, and acting accordingly instead of developing a tool in-house.
  • Integrationswith services providing relevant customer data and interpretations are a common thing these days, as well. The downsides are the development time and resources companies in the digital onboarding business need to connect to such complementary services.
  • Mastering and mixingthe previously described features leads to far better results. I firmly believe the AGILE approach for general software development can be successfully applied to creating onboarding product tours. Iteration based on analytics is the omnipotent key!

A glimpse into the future of product tours and digital onboarding

Let’s move from what is currently available to what’s possible in the near future. These are some assumptions, only time will tell what is to come in the distant future.

Artificial intelligence to drive data collection

5 big data

Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms already play a part in the onboarding industry. Companies such as Decibel or Peoplelogic already use AI to improve digital customer experiences, identifying and prioritizing critical UX issues. The AI contribution increases day by day and most likely will accelerate in the following years, as more complex processes move from human to machine grasp.

Will there still be a need for people to evaluate data in the onboarding industry, or does it make more sense for AI to take over entirely?

There is no right or wrong answer, at least not yet. We have to consider that manipulating big data, in general, has become a task for machine learning for some time.

Predictions for anything related to users’ attributes, goals, or roadblocks will most likely be made better by the AI. Therefore, the right people could consume tailored or more relevant product tours content with machine help.

Another possible usage could be: automating integrations with various services APIs. Offering easy one-click integrations with the players in the game could save a lot of time and money. As I just described, there are many complimentary services already that could be worth integrating.

Perhaps machine learning could play a more significant role. At least, in prioritizing which integrations could bring more value to the company than other services, based on existing customer data.

Not being an expert in the AI field makes me more relaxed that this technology will be used, in the future, in more onboarding services that I can think of at this point.

Virtual and augmented reality onboarding

6 VR

I decided to place this topic as a thing that will expand when the technology will be available to the masses, so in the future. Researches began decades earlier, but the tech was inaccessible, not for most people, until a few years back. Nowadays, the tech is there; it’s just not easily accessible for regular or primary purposes. It is still quite expensive and used in specific, narrow to the large audience scenarios.

One stunning application of employee onboarding in VR that is worth mentioning is the training for surgeons. Transferring a vast knowledge package to training doctors with the help of Virtual Reality proved more efficient than regular training. The immersive experience and high levels of realism made the VR medical activity more memorable than any traditional training. It also implies lowering the costs of personnel and reduced to shreds the risks of usage.

I am keen on seeing how tech giants or new disruptive startups will be handling accessibility to VR in the years to come. Accessibility appears to be a massive problem for this technology today. After this is taken care of, I am pretty sure original usage of onboarding using VR or AR will emerge on all the markets and in common domains.

I can only imagine myself using a new digital service. I’m putting my not-so-expensive and typical kind of looking glasses on and be engaged in my first steps using that service or product. That is because the glasses will already have a good picture of what I like/dislike or can hint at my intentions, even nudge or influence some choices for me. The service interacts with my glasses and together onboard me to do the thing X and not the thing Y.

Both X and Y being functionalities of this recent service I registered to, with Y being a feature I’m not really into it.

I hope nobody is upset about adding Artificial Intelligence to this mix. Also, I’m glad you won’t panic me letting various systems know my habits and other misc personal information. From the start, I am assuming everything is secure proof and safe for me to use.

In conclusion

To summarize, we learned what product tours are, why they are valuable and how companies use them. We took a glimpse into the past and discovered that very successful companies used product tours as a clean onboarding method.

Today, product tours thrive alongside complimentary services within companies with a culture for great customer experiences. There are tens, if not more, players that offer digital onboarding services within various niches. We can safely assume that Artificial Intelligence will gain more and more ground. And, as a personal note, I would like for AI and VR/AR to combine forces and provide the next generation of onboarding.

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