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Article 5 min read

Slack excels at onboarding customers: here’s how

By Joshua Weissburg

Last updated July 25, 2018

How did Slack go from none to millions of users so quickly? They did something clever: they created Slackbot to proactively engage and onboard their customers.

Slack—the team communication tool that is taking over the world—has become ubiquitous and obvious. But how did Slack, with all its channels and private groups, direct messages and hashtags, go from none to millions of users so quickly? The product is functional and easy on the eyes, but while many products have great functionality and design, new users still struggle to find and understand all those features.

The secret weapon that has propelled Slack? Brilliant onboarding.

Think about it: when you drop into a new chat product, there’s no one to chat with. That’s a potential deal-killer, like logging into Facebook before you have any friends. So Slack did something clever: they created Slackbot to proactively engage and onboard their customers.

Slackbot overcomes the hurdle between interest and discovery. This hurdle exists for every product. You start out interested in what a new product can do (that’s why you signed up), but you’re also a little sceptical: you’re trying to discover whether it does what you hope. When you overcome this initial barrier, you experience a magical moment. This discovery moment—when you really grasp what’s possible with the tool—is when your interest and scepticism turns into excitement, and you start to believe the brand story and even advocate for it.

That’s when you know you’ve nailed onboarding.

Slackbot may be dumb, but it’s smart too

Slackbot is a simple onboarding program that runs in a pre-configured Slack channel. It recognises what actions you’ve taken and which you haven’t yet tried. When you sign in for the first time, Slackbot is there to greet you and ask you a couple of questions; but it also warns that it’s simply a bot, so you shouldn’t expect too much:

The point is, Slackbot doesn’t have to be that smart. By declaring itself to be “just a bot” up front, it disarms your scepticism and high expectations, while offering an easy way to cover the basics (posts, uploads, docs etc) one step at a time. It just suggests what to try at each step without requiring the user to read tutorials or watch a demo. It’s easy to chat with Slackbot, even though it is limited. In fact, by limiting the range of topics for discussion to key onboarding functions, Slack shapes the new user experience to be exactly what that person needs to know to understand the product.

Anatomy of Slackbot

Now let’s think about what Slack did not do: they did not try to build the world’s most advanced onboarding AI so they can pretend that you’re chatting with a person. Instead, they just built some triggered messages that respond to each step you take and called that collection of triggers and messages Slackbot. They were open and honest: “don’t expect much, it’s just a bot—that said, here’s what you should do next.”

Most products can learn something from Slackbot’s onboarding approach, and the lesson is this: great onboarding is about clarity and responsiveness:

1. Clarity is about giving the user all the information they need to move from interest to discovery and, eventually, to feel that their effort to understand and use your product has paid off. Usually, this boils down to walking through a set of core features—the things people need to do to get the most value from your product.

2. Responsiveness does not mean building autoresponders that pretend to be human. Instead, effective onboarding is about designing for the fact that not all of your users will move through your product in the same way. So you need to tailor the experience to be personal and specific to each individual situation. Slackbot does this by taking it one step at a time and suggesting the next step only when you’ve completed the previous one. (It also asked my name, which is always a nice thing to do, even for a robot.)

How to build a bot for your company.

You might be thinking: “That’s great for Slack, but am I really going to create a bot that talks to my users after they sign up?” The answer is yes, but it’s not going to be a chatbot (unless you really want to make one, in which case I’d love to chat with it). The key insight is that any product can send triggered onboarding messages; that’s all Slackbot is doing. You just need the raw ingredients: you track the actions (events) that each customer takes (or hasn’t taken yet) and respond with the information or explanation the user needs to take the next step.

Triggered email is probably the most widely applicable translation of Slackbot for most companies. Good onboarding email pays attention to what you’ve done inside the app and comes to your aid when you get stuck. But part of the reason Slackbot is so effective is that it’s giving you advice in a new format. You should almost certainly use email to onboard your users, but also consider other channels, whether inside your app or site, or via mobile push and SMS. You should use channels that feel appropriate in the context of your product.

To sum it up: great onboarding is about discovery, and discovery requires clear steps and a responsive flow. You already have the product; it’s up to you to unveil it, one piece at a time, at the right pace for each user. When they discover what your product can do and why they should care, your onboarding is done.

A version of this post originally ran on the Outbound blog. Outbound has been welcomed into the Zendesk family. We’re working together to make customer relationships better with proactive messaging. Please visit if you’d like to learn more about sending targeted messages in your product or app.

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