The current theory on user onboarding best practices is that you should make it as easy as possible for your customers to start using your product.
The intent behind this idea is obvious: the quicker a customer can get value out of a product, the more likely they are to pay for it.
In practice though, things don’t always work this way. Instead, I think there’s an opportunity for “high friction” onboarding flows that can help you find the RIGHT customers (not the most).
To better understand this idea, we have to go back in time to 2007.
I couldn’t believe it, the line went around the block. There were people in camping tents who had been there for a few days and looked extremely happy and definitely not homeless (they had too much technology with them).
This was the line for the first iPhone launch which was poised to revolutionize the smartphone industry.
Like most of the tech world, I had recently watched the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced their first phone and I was beyond excited.
I closed my laptop and couldn’t stop thinking about this phone. Full-scale web browsing, using your fingers to navigate and a fully-featured iPod touch, all in one device. It could also make calls which was nice.
The issue was that I didn’t want to wait in line for days to get my hands on one. I also didn’t have the $500 needed to buy one (I was 16 years old). So all I could do was stand there, feeling confused and jealous of all the people waiting in line.
Eventually, I would get my first iPhone and it was just as amazing as I imagined. Better yet, I learned an important marketing lesson that day.
The first iPhone launch was the perfect example of hitting your customer segment sweet spot. If you weren’t a die-hard first adopter (who were forgiving of the phone’s early issues), you didn’t belong in that line.
Apple would continue to limit how many people could buy their flagship phones for a few years despite the increasing demand. They didn’t make it easier for people to use their products, they created a “high friction” buying process.
High Friction Onboarding = Customer Segmentation 101
Using high friction in your onboarding isn’t a new idea. Companies are already doing this through their marketing campaigns. They use positioning, copy and brand to appeal to the right customer segment (while excluding everyone else).
I’m arguing that you should continue doing this through the entire customer journey instead of assuming that once someone signs up for your product, they are the ideal long term customer.
A common example of high friction onboarding is asking for the user’s credit card before giving them a free trial. If someone isn’t serious about using your product (it’s not a must for them), then they will drop off.
You can also see the usage of high friction with waiting lists during beta launches. Companies love to limit their beta access (creating exclusivity) but then completely changed tactics as they pursue “growth at any costs”.
The Curious Case of Birkin Bags
If you’re not a woman, you probably never heard of Birkin handbags. These are some of the most exclusive handbags in the world and they are, by design, hard to get.
This limitation makes them one of the most coveted items for women and has increased their overall value and resale potential. Hermes could increase the production of these bags but that would defeat the purpose.
They aren’t trying to appeal to every woman in the world, instead, they want to target only a small segment of their market.
Software companies are going through a “consumerization” trend where all products are becoming easier to use for everyone. This is based on the assumption that all products are geared towards consumers and that more users are always better.
Ironically, the best examples of “growth at any cost” such as Uber, are criticized for their lack of profitability. Instead of trying to outrun your profitability issues, you should be selective in your customer base.