User onboarding and single parenting: my partner left me with our toddler for a week, and here is…

My parallel roles in parenting and UX Research provide me with an angle where experiences in one area help me gain clarity and reinterpret the other.

The author is pictured while entertaining her toddler and putting her newborn to sleep
When my partner was away, I had to be a “horse” for my toddler while keeping my newborn in my arms for comfort and sleep. Provided by the author.

When Lázaro Corral Sánchez left Barcelona to spend a week in California for Life360 circle-up, I was left to parent alone our two kids. Beyond the physical hardships of the task, I found mentally challenging to be a caregiver 24/7, especially for our toddler.

Unlike our newborn, our 2-year-old was impatient, strong-willed, and therefore hard to convince to do just about anything. My son protested, ignored me altogether, or — as experienced parents know — kept saying no.

In what turned out to be a week-long intensified Master’s program into toddler parenting, I’ve learned key lessons.

My takeaways may as well serve when we onboard users to digital products. In this humorous — and yet utterly serious — post, I’ll deep dive into 5 aspects of toddler parenting. They’ll show — without treating adult users as kids — how we can improve the way we design onboarding experiences.

A toddler with a colorful shirt about to hug the adult in front of them
Photo by yang miao on Unsplash

When parenting on my own, one thing I struggled with the most was transitions. How to get my toddler to switch from playing to showering? How can I help him put his clothes on before playing some more? And how can I convince him to go to bed when it seems like it’s the last thing on his agenda?

In retrospect, this is not too different from having a user follow a happy path during onboarding. How can we get our users to transition from one screen to the next in our onboarding without their giving up and getting tempted to do something else? How can we gain their trust, and convince them that our product is worth their time and energy (and possibly money)?

Users won’t get onboarded successfully to make us happy or because we worked so hard on the product. We cannot threaten them with the fear of losing something valuable if our product hasn’t proven its worth yet.

So, it seems like both when having toddlers follow a ritual and onboarding new users, we are better off exploring ways to make every transition worthwhile. We’re obliged to show what’s in it for them.

For example, why would new users benefit from signing up? Why should they follow through screen after screen instead of texting their friend? Why should a toddler drop their favorite toy and shower?

The answer to both questions lies in our ability to generate experiences that create a feeling of accomplishment and joy. Through straightforward and simple communication, both toddlers and new users need to see for themselves “Oh, this is good for me. This is actually the best use of my time right now.”

Three kids sitting side by side, the closest one holds a big notebook
Photo by Victor Nnakwe on Unsplash

Have you ever had to get a toddler out of the playground when they felt like the party has just started? I’ve learned the hard way that as a parent, you have to help your toddler anticipate: fill them in, tell them how long each activity would approximately take, and what would happen next.

These sorts of conversations, as my toddler’s pedagog comments, help kids feel more in control, and make it easier for them to situate themselves at the moment. Then, with some luck, things can go more smoothly.

If you think about it, what a toddler can rightfully expect in this respect is not too different from what a new user might hope for when getting onboarded:

  • What’s going to happen next?
  • What do I commit to if I click on this button?
  • Will I be asked to pay? If so, what will it take to cancel my subscription if I want to do so later on?

In a nutshell, don’t assume that neither your toddler nor new users know everything about your plans/product. This is accurate regardless of how intuitive you think the experience is (e.g., washing one’s hands to remove the paint after experimenting with different colors) or how obvious you consider the onboarding to be (e.g., a similar path used by mainstream apps).

A child playing and counting with abacus montessori toy
Photo by luis arias on Unsplash

Sometimes, my toddler speaks gibberish. And from the way he answers my questions, it seems like he might not always have clarity on what I’m asking of him. Toddlers have a growing, and yet still limited vocabulary. And their attention span is significantly short. Therefore, in an attempt to inform them, we can easily overwhelm them.

This is not too different from new users who might be distracted by other things, multitasking (e.g, onboarding to a new product while cooking pasta and counting minutes) or are simply tired.

For both toddlers and new users, the points I made earlier on showing value and anticipating are likely to work better if things are made simpler. I’m talking about using easy words, typing only a few sentences, and utilizing coachmarks when necessary, amongst other things.

Prioritizing simplicity, in return, would help the value (e.g., of a new activity/new product) come across and would make it easier for folks to follow through.

A child is holding many crayons that come in different colors
Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

You might think that a room filled with all types of toys makes a toddler happy. It’s quite the opposite. Overwhelmed with too many things to play with, a toddler gets a burnout. They try to play with everything but end up not thoroughly exploring any.

For new users onboarding to a digital product, in-app pop-ups wouldn’t necessarily feel too different from the toddlers’ experience described above. Overwhelmed with options, and being exposed to what feels like too much information, users tend to close pop-ups. That’s not necessarily because the content there is inherently uninteresting. It’s just that the way it comes into contact with (new) users could feel intruding.

Therefore, both when dealing with toddlers and new users that are onboarding, it’s worthwhile giving them a few options to avoid force-feeding a single solution. At the same time, it’s a much more recommended approach to not overwhelm folks with too much to choose from. See this famous Ted Talk from Sheena Iyengar on How to make choosing easier for further details.

A child is posing with an ukulele on top of a sofa
Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

In the end, I have to admit: What works for my toddler specifically might not work well for his classmate. For example, one way to make showering attractive to him is the premise of playing with the water gun. Maybe a bubble-making toy is more appealing to his best friend. Who knows?

Personalization is the cherry on top. After all the aspects of toddler handling or user onboarding mentioned above, if there’s some more room to improve, why not consider making personalized experiences? It seems like, both toddlers and onboarding users are asking consciously or unconsciously:

  • Is this (material) speaking to me?
  • What’s the key message here that’s really valuable for me?

In a nutshell, deliver continuous research to see what matters to the users and inform your onboarding accordingly.

TL, DR: Toddlers are known for saying no to everything, rejecting the rituals you have in mind for them. Learnings on clearly demonstrating value, generating smooth transitions, simplifying all communications, offering a few but also limiting a wide range of options, and whenever possible, personalizing your process are key to handling toddlers. And curiously enough, these learnings can also reshape the way we design onboarding for new users.

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