Incremental deployment needs to be accompanied by incremental onboarding

incremental onboarding

Consider the last time your company released a new product, feature, or UI tweak. Was it last week, last month, or just yesterday? As software teams shift towards more incremental deployments made easier by things like continuous deployment, users can feel like they never have a chance to truly master a product. When you’re constantly releasing new changes and features, is user onboarding ever truly “over”?

Back in the days when major software updates required you to install 10 different floppy disks, users were conditioned to expect a new onboarding cycle that would make them a total newbie. These types of releases rarely happen anymore and companies that use this strategy are chastised for it (I’m looking at you, Salesforce Lightening). Lots of small to medium releases allow your existing customers to navigate changes more easily than the jarring feeling that accompanied a major overhaul. The tradeoff of launching incremental improvements is that existing users are constantly demoted back to newbie status.

“All of us will be endless newbies in the future simply trying to keep up… because new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.” –Kevin Kelly

When it’s harder to become an expert, how do you prevent users from missing major feature releases or becoming so frustrated that they simply give up on your product? Customer Success and Product Management teams need to support incremental onboarding.

Focus on all stages of onboarding

New user onboarding is where the majority of software companies allocate mindshare. These new users enter your product with a problem they hope to solve and you need to deliver value immediately. Over time you will introduce users to more in-depth features and educate them on how your product can solve additional tasks. Depending on the user’s actions and segment, this entire onboarding cycle might take as long as 6 months of outreach spanning emails, in-app messages, and knowledge base materials. But what about users who have exited this traditional onboarding flow- how do you continue to demonstrate value to them as you add new products or features?

There are two major risks of not properly educating your existing users. First, users might lose the ability to perform the tasks from which they were previously deriving value. Second, users will miss out on additional value your product is able to provide because they are not aware of new features or do not understand how to use them. The end result is the same- frustrated users who churn.

If a feature falls in a product but no one knows about it, does it add value?

Your team has spent week or even months to get a new feature live. Everyone expects this feature to allow your customers to derive even more value from your product and allow you to continue to maintain a strong position in market. When it goes live you exchange some well deserved high fives. A week later you pull the usage report and find that only 5% of your users have used your shiny new feature. Wait a minute, that can’t be right. User research and support conversations showed that people wanted this feature. Product Marketing said you needed it to ensure customers don’t leave for a competitor. And yet hardly anyone is using it. What gives?

Quick question- how did you announce this feature to your users? A full-page takeover that extolled the huge changes you’ve made and how much time your team spent to make it happen? There’s the problem. Feature and product announcements should focus on the expanded capabilities of the user. Highlight how the usage of your product has been improved. Users will not bask in the glow of your awesome product- they will bask in the glow of what they can actually do with it. The goal is not to build 100s of shiny new features that you release once a week, it’s to continuously push the bounds of how much value your users can derive from your product. That doesn’t include spamming your users about every minor change, there is a balance between communicating nothing at all and being annoying. The appropriate messaging channel is dependent on the size of the change you’re releasing. Here’s a simple framework for announcing product changes.

  • Minor change: change log
  • Low level change: in-app announcement, support documentation
  • Mid level change: email, demo video
  • Major change: pull out all the stops- custom landing page, training webinar


Onboarding is not something that you do once and forget about it. It’s not a feature that is included in a sprint and then moved to the “Done” list on your Trello board. Just as your team releases new features, you need to release new onboarding campaigns and materials. For every feature release there needs to be a complementary plan for how to appropriately notify your users of this change. But if you don’t pair incremental deployment with a Customer Success and Education framework that support incremental onboarding, even your expert users will start to fall behind.