What Is Product Adoption and How to Improve or Accelerate It

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As the 2010s warned, product adoption became one of the trickiest problems in software. Why? Software overflow. Today, professionals use dozens of tools, more than they are practically able to learn and adopt. In fact, many businesses utilize over one hundred software subscriptions. And, simply put, more software means poorer usage per tool.

Today, we’re going to explore how your product team should approach crafting a product adoption playbook to achieve an evergreen product adoption rate.

What is product adoption?

Product adoption is the process through which you convert new users into regulars, who derive substantial value from your product over a long period of time. The first thing to realize is that product adoption is distinct from a product’s value proposition—a product may provide real value, but the cost of transitioning from existing procedures may sabotage actual adoption.

In other words: old habits die hard.

So, fostering product adoption is a design challenge. You may equate product adoption with onboarding tours—y’know, tools like Appcues, Pendo, and WalkMe. That’s only partially true. Onboarding flows are a well-utilized tool in the toolkit of a strong product adoption strategy. But, arguably, a minor component. After many years of use, many users have developed onboarding tour fatigue. Half of all users skip onboarding tours. Many abhor them.

So, we need to consider new methods. And to decide which methods to use, we need to answer the following first-principles questions:

  • What counts as a converted user?
  • What are some additional use cases that a user can grow into?
  • How do you reliably guide users to achieve those outcomes?
  • How can you continuously engage and educate them?
  • How can you convince existing customers to actually want to learn your product?

Why should you care?

Unquestionably, strong product adoption reaps benefits for a business. But why specifically?

It’s easiest to understand by looking at the business equation of software companies, often captured in Lifetime Value (LTV) / Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).

A customer’s lifetime value consists of: the sum of revenue they pay to your company over their lifetime, less costs to serve them (think, hosting and support).

Firstly, a stellar adoption strategy means higher conversion. This flows through into LTV / CAC as lower customer acquisitions cost: you’re amortizing the same in marketing and sales dollars to convert more users.

Second, improvements in adoption increase LTV by improving upsell and retention rates. After all, an engaged user with great feature adoption is more likely to stick around and buy extra modules or expand their seat count. This growth is often captured as Net Revenue Retention or NRR.

Thirdly, strong adoption means more product evangelists—people who will sing your product’s praises on Twitter, over the coffee table, and on review forums. This is free marketing! And in LTV / CAC terms, it means lower CAC – more customers for the same sales and marketing spend.

And fourthly, a scalable adoption strategy drives down the cost of supporting your users. The more users can learn about your product in the product itself, the less they need to lean on support agents. If your product adoption strategy is to send a support agent to the home of all your users to help them use your software, you can disregard this benefit :)

The inevitable F word—Friction

Product adoption is a constant fight against human nature. Humans don’t like to change. We’re stuck in our ways because they are familiar and don’t take mental energy (even if they’re expensive or inefficient!).

There are two orders of UX friction that you need to consider in relation to product adoption.

First is usage friction. If your product is hard to use—or confusing to understand—then your adoption rate will suffer. Personally, I can count dozens of products I have churned from because I simply couldn’t get it.

The second is perceived friction. Sometimes, learning a new product is easy peasy. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. We need to recognize a user’s implicit fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) surrounding the very idea of onboarding. Your user doesn’t know how easy your product may be to use. Given how ubiquitous poorly-designed software is, it’s fair for your user to presume your product is tough to learn, even if you tout that a new user can “get started in 10 minutes, guaranteed!”

Tackling both usage friction and perceived friction is necessary for your product team to achieve a strong product adoption strategy.

Types of product adoption strategies

Earlier, we talked about how user onboarding tours were one component of Product Adoption. Now, let’s delve into what types of strategies can increase product adoption.

Push strategies. Onboarding tours, automated informational emails, and in-app usage checklists are examples of push strategies. The philosophy of push strategies is to interrupt the user’s default behavior with alerts to try to course-correct them onto an ideal behavior.

  • Pros: Push strategies always fire, are easy to measure engagement with, and may surface features a user would’ve never discovered.
  • Cons: Users have historically hated heavy-handed push strategies. Part of this is that push strategies, when overused, infantilize the user. Users don’t like being told what to do. The key to push strategies is to refrain from desensitizing the user to them; they should be used sparingly in high-impact scenarios. For example, if you know that users have a high likelihood of upgrading after checking out a particular part of your product, that is a good time to show a nudge encouraging the user to upgrade. If the user sees push messages whenever they try out a new feature, they will develop muscle memory to close them immediately.

Pull strategies. User pull involves directing a user to a recommended action after a user indicates intent. An example of this is a CommandBar surfacing a feature that matches a user’s query, even if their preferred vocabulary was different (we do this by enabling an arbitrary number of synonyms to be associated with in-product commands, manually or automatically).

  • Pros: Pull strategies don’t fight with the user, instead guiding them based on their vocalized interests. Pull strategies also encourage users to explore the app by aggregating the product’s pages in one-searchable place.
  • Cons: Pull strategies require the user to care enough to search for something. If a search bar is buried or hidden, pull strategies will rarely fire. For some apps, pull strategies may be successful but limited and must be launched alongside push strategies.

In your strategy, you’ll want to employ both. Reserving push strategies for situations in which you either have an opportunity to nudge a user down a particularly high-value path or if you’re particularly confident they would benefit from the nudge.

Metrics to guide your product adoption playbook

Your product adoption process must make use of metrics. Metrics help inform us when our product adoption strategy is and isn’t working. While every product will have unique parameters, here are some initial metrics that you should define.

  • Activation Rate. What defines a successfully activated user? A number—perhaps their ticket or posts count? An event—may be a call with your customer success team? A qualifier—someone that reaches daily active user status? For Facebook, it was 7 friend requests made in the first 10 days. For us, it’s a company launching their CommandBar to users within 7 days of account creation.

Figure out your activation metric. Then, install the necessary tools to accurately measure when a user reaches it—Posthog, Amplitude, Heap, Mixpanel, etc. Finally, focus on making that metric your average user story, not your outliers.

  • Define your median user. While you likely have various customer segments, determine who your median user is. For young companies, your early adopters may be more proactive about learning your product. For businesses selling multi-seat contracts to enterprises, your median user is likely far, far away from the administrative decision to purchase your product and is therefore uninvested in transitioning over.

Once you understand your median user, you can shape your product adoption strategy to work for them.

  • Understand time-to-value (TTV). Determine how long it takes for your user to perform an action that actually creates value. For some products, this may be the first and only possible action. For others, the value may come with a more long-term horizon, so giving users quick wins, easy things to credit as valuable, is critical.

Tools to consider investing in

Depending on your earlier metrics, different tools may be instrumental in shaping a good product adoption flow. Adding these tools to your tech stack can massively impact your success—if chosen correctly. Let’s comprehensively dive into each class.

  • Consider an onboarding touring tool. While onboarding tours struggle with usage, it may be a worthwhile experiment to try. Your median user may just be the type to want a defined onboarding experience. However, don’t stop at this step. No matter the business you are, an onboarding tour will not accomplish healthy product adoption alone.

If you are afraid of the negative consequences of an onboarding tour, consider using Optimizely or VWO to A/B test user onboarding.

  • Consider in-app engagement solutions. Platforms such as Intercom, Help Scout, Olark, and Drift enable your customer support team to interface with users. While these solutions demand an active support team, they may be instrumental for products where technical, complex questions are rampant.
  • Consider off-app engagement solutions. Platforms like customer.io help businesses carry-out drip campaigns to email users helpful tidbits. Realistically, drip campaigns do not educate users, as users are rarely in the reading/learning mood once an email lands. However, platforms like customer.io serve as a straightforward way to remind the user of your product’s existence.
  • Consider us, CommandBar. We’re passionate about product adoption because it’s one of the newer and harder problems in product design. CommandBar is a product adoption toolkit, balancing pull onboarding (via an omnipotent search bar that surfaces buried features, help content, and recommended actions) and high-impact, non-annoying push onboarding via nudges. Book a demo to learn more about our own product adoption strategy and approach to onboarding.


Designing a strong product adoption playbook is difficult. Only by involving key stakeholders on your team, determining key metrics, and invoking a hybrid approach of tooling will you accomplish strong adoption and low retention. As the 2020s progress, product adoption will only continue to serve as a defining marker of good products. This isn’t the first article on the matter and surely won’t be the last. If you are interested in chatting with us about your product adoption strategy, we’re happy to help. You can book some time with our team here.