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“Now what?…”

That’s often how you feel after landing in a product for the first time. You’ve signed up, signed in, maybe even answered a few questions … but now have no idea what to do next.

One big reason for low activation rates is this “Now what?” syndrome — when new users land in your product with no clear direction about what to do next to move them closer to their goal. Because we like to feel like we are making progress towards a goal, a frustrating first-time user experience (FTUX) is sure to cause new users to churn.

First Time User Experience (FTUX) is a crucial and yet often overlooked part of many products. What users experience the first time they touch your product is the key indicator of whether they will stay — or churn, wasting your marketing spend. Without fixing this leaky bucket, you are missing one of the most significant opportunities to help your product grow.

A good FTUX will educate and motivate users towards experiencing the core value of your product for the first time. By closing the gap between what they expected and their actual experience, you can raise the number of users who keep coming back. One of the critical areas to look at when designing your FTUX are empty states.

What are empty states?

Empty states are the areas of a product where there is no data, no content, or certain functionality isn’t available or applicable. For example:

  • A feed with no content
  • A list with no items
  • A dashboard with no data
  • No search results
  • A shopping cart with no products added

One of the worst things you can do with new users is let them get stuck in an empty state. It’s like leaving someone at a fork in the road without telling them which way to go next, leaving them to wander around aimlessly until they find their path again. Without any guidance, many new users will abandon a product out of frustration and continue searching for a solution elsewhere.

Designing useful empty states requires balancing three fundamental principles: education, motivation, and direction. When users clearly understand what to do, how to do it, and why it’s important, they are more likely to continue using the product.

A product may have several different reasons for having empty states, but they usually fall into two main categories: zero states and blank states.

Zero States

Zero States are areas of a product where there is nothing to show because there is no data, content, supply, or results to display. These are the most common first-time empty states and are an opportunity to show an explanation and suggest what the user should do next to move forward. 

Often you can solve this with a modular template that can be customized depending on the use case. A modular zero state template is made up of five key elements:

  1. Image
  2. Description
  3. CTA
  4. Usage tips
  5. Link to help docs

A good example of this approach is Todoist’s  “no results” use case:

Todoist Empty State
1
Illustration related to state
2
Description of why state is empty
3
CTA suggesting next step
4
Usage tips
5
Help

Zero state from Todoist.

Blank States

While zero states relate to the lack of available content to display, blank states are areas where the user has created a new item but is yet to add content. In these cases, you can encourage and educate users by providing either static content (templates, examples), dynamic content (suggested, popular) or other starting actions like importing.

Notion starts with a blank document by default, with secondary options to use a template or import.

When showing templates for first-time users, try to highlight relevant templates based on user segmentation and progressively disclose the complete list to avoid overwhelm. Provide a good-sized preview and a brief description of the content to help the user decide.

The template chooser in Notion provides a large, interactive preview of the template.

Monday recommends templates based on segmentation from onboarding.

Pitch lets you preview individual slide templates in context.

Using the product itself to give new users a self-directed demo is a great way to help familiarize them with a product. Describe what action you want the user to take, and then let them learn by doing.

Self-directed demo from Whimsical.

Self-directed demo from Height.

Using pre-filled examples can also work to help familiarize users. Just make it clear that this is sample content, and provide an easy way to remove it.

Sample content example from Productboard.

Sample content example from Whimsical.

Summary

It’s a fundamental truth of product design: the experience users have when they first interact with your product is the key indicator of whether they will stay or churn. Having optimal empty states is one of the easiest ways to reduce drop-offs in your activation flows. Just remember that:

  • There are two types of empty states: zero states and blank states
  • Zero states are areas with no data, content, supply, or results
  • Blank states are areas where the user has created a new item but has not yet added content
  • Designing an effective empty state requires balancing three key principles: education, motivation, and direction
Mark Lamb

Author Mark Lamb

Mark Lamb is a product design & strategy consultant who helps tech companies build products people love. Previously, he led design on product teams at Google, Uber, and Adobe.

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