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Image by Jason Goodman

product onboarding

Product onboarding is a very content-heavy user flow. It's also the ideal project to use a content-first design approach, as was the case with the project presented here for AfterShip Tracking's Premium free trial onboarding.

A clearer, more transparent and honest onboarding process not only reduced customer churn, but increased the number of free trial users by removing any perceived level of commitment required by users to start the free trial.

Key results

63.6% increase in free trial users
37.5% conversion rate from free trial to the Premium plan

100% reduction in complaints

The challenge

AfterShip Tracking offers a free trial of their Premium plan. This plan gives users access to most of the product's features. But the original free trial user flow had received so much negative feedback and churn that the company had decided to take the offer offline.

The main problem was that it had not been made clear to users that after the free trial ended, they would be automatically upgraded to the Premium plan, unless they cancelled during the free trial. 

A lot of users who tried the free trial were not aware of this and the company had received a lot of complaints, and had lost some customers altogether due to this poor user experience.

Below you can see the original popup that appeared with just one line of text under the button explaining this automatic upgrade logic. It also has a hyperlink to the Premium plan page, taking users out of this user flow which is a terribly disjointed flow.

premium fail.jpg

Looking at the data, we had a large number of Premium users who churned. And 70% of those that churned, had been automatically upgraded after their free trial. We spoke to customer support and found that this automatic upgrade had caused a lot of anger with customers, and was the reason many had chosen to leave AfterShip.

We were tasked with fixing this problem. We had to find a way to get this free trial offer back online, and clearly tell users that if they didn't cancel, we would automatically upgrade them to Premium after the free trial.

Problems with
the original user flow

As mentioned above, the original popup was unclear. Users were angrily leaving AfterShip and had told customer support that they did not appreciate being upgraded without their consent.

However, I explained to the team that the problems with this onboarding ran deeper than they imagined.

Transparency reduces perceived commitment

Google Hotels have a famous case in the UX writing world of changing a single button from "Book now" to "Check availability" which resulted in a 17% increase in the CTR. The reason being that "Check availability" requires less commitment from the user who at that point in the journey is still browsing.

I explained to the team that we needed to take a similar approach. Rather than trying to hide the automatic upgrade details in the fine print, we need to embrace it. Be open and honest with users, and they will be more likely to trust you. We need to make it clear what the free trial involves, and what happens afterwards. As you'll see, this approach paid off.


No onboarding or introduction to features

Most users discover a locked Premium feature highlighted with a badge labeled "Try for free". Hovering over this badge triggers a tooltip which explains they can get free access to the feature for 7 days. Clicking "Start free trial" then triggers the Premium free trial modal.

premium fail 2.jpg

But the problem is that these new Premium users are never properly introduced to any features. They just want to unlock the one feature they discovered. They never learn the full potential of Premium.

So in order to fix the Premium free trial, we not only needed to make the automatic upgrade clear, but we also needed to properly introduce them to the Premium features, in order to convince them to stay on Premium.


No email notifications or reminders

After looking at the original user flow, I discovered that we had a huge gap in our messaging as we sent no emails during the free trial. No introduction to Premium features, but also no reminders that their free trial is ending and that they will be automatically upgraded.

We needed a full product onboarding flow for the Premium plan including:

1. A more transparent offer popup

2. An onboarding flow introducing Premium features

3. An email campaign covering any gaps in the onboarding flow

This project highlighted a common problem I see with product teams; they struggle to break a project down into phases. At the popup stage, our goal is to reduce anxiety and get the users to try Premium. That's all. Nothing else. Just get them onto the free trial by reducing their worries and making it as clear as possible that there's no commitment. During the free trial, the onboarding guide is when you make it clear what the benefits are. Trying to do too much on that first popup is what caused the team problems in the first place.

Competitive analysis

We conducted extensive research on over a dozen different products from different industries. We looked at their free trial popup offer, their onboarding flow, and importantly, the emails they sent out during the free trial.

As mentioned above, the popup would need to sacrifice brevity for clarity. Our chief goal was to get this Premium free trial online in a state that would convince users to try it, but also reduce complaints and churn. Getting users to stay on Premium was a secondary goal.

We found some products like Spotify still tried to hide the automatic upgrade rule in the fine print. Others tried to include the info on the primary button, making it hard to read. This is the approach the product team preferred. But I explained this approach was still deceptive. Our goal was transparency to improve trust.

The design we went with was inspired by Poe and others with a similar approach of giving a step-by-step explanation of what happens on each day of the free trial. Below you can see Poe on the left, with our new design on the right. We briefly introduced three core features, but the majority of the content explains what the free trial will entail.

By explaining that we will send two reminders, and that the user can cancel at any time, the free trial appears far less risky.



AfterShip (new)


an onboarding flow

The onboarding flow we went with was a completely new approach for AfterShip. Onboarding has not been handled very well in the past and so I proposed a content-first design approach since interaction design would play a minimal role here and the main focus was on conveying the value of Premium, and guiding users on how to make the best of their new features.

​As soon as users accepted the Premium free trial, they were greeted with the onboarding guide shown below. 


While Premium includes a large number of features, we believed these five (transit time report, advanced email triggers, AI product recommendations, embedded tracking pages, and custom domain for tracking pages) were the best to showcase the value of the Premium plan. Our research into existing user habits showed that these five were the most commonly used features.

For each of the five features, we built an onboarding guide with either an introduction to the benefits and features, or a step-by-step guide showing users how to set the feature up.

This was done with content first, design second which worked well. 
Below you'll see the onboarding flow for three of the features.

Click to open slideshow

Click to open slideshow

Click to open slideshow

For the last flow shown above, our online help article was poorly written and in places wrong. Due to resource and time constraints, I decided to use this onboarding flow to provide users with the correct information so they could actually set this feature up. The text is a little longer and more complex in this flow, but at least users have the correct information now.

an email campaign

The final piece of the puzzle was to add emails for the free trial. Previously the team did not send emails of any sort during the free trial. Following the example of Poe as shown on the offer popup, we decided to send an email when the free trial starts, two reminder emails, and a final email if the cancel or upgrade to Premium.

Below you'll see the start of the welcome email for the free trial, and the two reminder emails.

Click to enlarge

I made it very clear in the emails that there was an onboarding guide for them, but also that they could cancel at any time. Some companies might see this as poor design, allowing users to cancel easily, but results below speak for themselves.

The results

63.6% increase in free trial users

The product team were initially concerned with my honest and transparent approach, but the data we collected showed that being clear about the free trial process on the initial popup, increased the number of users who started the free trial by 63.6%.

By providing users with all the information they need to make an informed decision up front, as well as ensuring them that we would send them reminders about the free trial, reduced the amount of commitment required as well as any perceived risk.

The transparency encouraged more users to try the free trial.

While the number of users who canceled the free trial also increased, this was to be expected, since previously we had not made that option clear and were losing c
ustomers altogether when they complained about the automatic upgrade.


37.5% conversion rate from free trial to Premium

We also saw a 37.5% conversion rate for the new free trial. The original flow had almost 0 users willing to stay on Premium, especially since the majority of users were automatically upgraded, and then contact customer support to complain and downgrade or leave AfterShip altogether.

Interestingly, 6.6% of free trial users manually upgraded during the free trial, rather than waiting to be automatically upgraded.
Previously, no users upgraded themselves during the free trial. This conclusively shows that the new onboarding flow is a success. 

Those that were not willing
to stay on Premium simply downgraded back to the Pro plan, rather than churning. When asked in a survey why they wanted to downgrade, price was number one reason, not the experience.

The data also showed a positive correlation between users who finished some or all of the onboarding flow, and those who stayed on Premium. In general, those who downgraded completed far less, or none, of the onboarding.

Moving forward we need to look at how to reduce the perceived cognitive load for this flow, potentially by making it much shorter, or trying a different format, since getting users to complete the onboarding had a positive influence on whether or not they finally converted to Premium.


Zero complaints, churn rate back to normal

Our main goal was to avoid customer complaints when we relaunched the free trial, and we achieved this. We closely monitored the number of users on the free trial and kept in close contact with our customer support team. Since the new onboarding launched, we have received zero complaints about the automatic upgrade. Customer churn happens with any product, and since redesigning the Premium free trial, the churn rate for Tracking has returned to normal.


The results have been so positive, not only avoiding complaints but also increasing the number of users who remain on the Premium plan, that this onboarding approach has been replicated for the entire AfterShip Tracking product onboarding user flow.

The hope is that these results can be replicated for the entire product, and not just the Premium plan. The new onboarding will go online Q4 2023.

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