I was thinking a lot about first impressions this past week. School is back in session, and hundreds of students walked past my home with their parents to the local elementary school less than half a mile away. The scooters to students ratio on my street was through the roof. Every other kid came with some sort of wheeled accessory – bicycle, skateboard or otherwise. The kids all wear helmets now, which is certainly an improvement over the 1980s when I first started elementary school.

But regardless of the updated transportation methods, back-to-school is still all about what’s new. A new school. A new grade. A new teacher. A new set of friends. Schedule of classes. Type of math. Slang on the playground. It’s a lot to take in. I don’t have much experience with Frozen backpacks or Razor scooters, but I do know a lot about new schools. And first impressions. I switched schools in first, second, third, fifth, and sixth grade.

The first day of school is one giant onboarding experience for little human beings. The best schools I attended were the ones that had some sort of a “buddy program,” in place to help new students get oriented. As a new kid, you have to learn on the fly, make judgments quickly, take it all in, and find your way. When you have someone around to show you the ropes- how to open up the lockers, where the cafeteria is, where the buses come to pick you up, it makes a big difference. The school might be the best around, but without that well-thought out buddy program, a kid may never appreciate it’s true value.

First impressions are everywhere, not just around the corner at your local elementary school. I’ve been using a new iOS news app recently called Wildcard. The company’s slogan is “Know the Day,” and my first impression, noted in the tweet above, was a very good one. Wildcard is beautifully designed, lightning quick, and is fast becoming my go-to app for news. The onboarding experience was great – the app has landed on my iPhone home screen.

There are plenty of other solid mobile app and web onboarding experiences, of course. Samuel Hulick’s User Onboarding site, for example, reviews, step by step, how popular web apps handle their signup experiences while UX Archive showcases some of the best iOS flows.

But this post isn’t only about that kind of onboarding. It’s not even just about the traditional definition of onboarding in the business sense – getting an employee up to speed quickly in a new role at a company.

Life is filled with onboarding experiences. With first impressions.

I probably wouldn’t have given Wildcard a second look if my initial onboarding experience was poor. And that’s a shame for Wildcard, because the app is excellent.

Our digital diets are fuller than ever, our attention spans are shorter than ever, and we are so over-stimulated that online, we may not get that second chance to make a first impression – for our new products, for our businesses, for ourselves.

It’s not just enough knowing that first impressions are important, you have to be thoughtful. Plan a little. Think it through. Take it seriously. If you’re the school down the street: choose the right kid (friendly, patient, experienced, outgoing) to lead the buddy program. If you’re the tech company CEO: Choose the right designer to hit a user experience home run with your new mobile app.

So be the school with the well-thought out buddy program, not just the magnet program or AP/IB curriculum. Be the company with the detailed training/orientation program for new hires, not just the one that solves difficult programming challenges once you’re in the hacker’s seat. Those first impressions are valuable, and will make all the difference.

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