Yesterday, I updated I revamped my personal site to move away from using Gatsby to using Next.js. As part of that change, I decided to stop hosting my website on my own personal server and instead try Netlify. I really liked it, and I now plan on using it every time I need to host a statically generated site.
A quote like that is usually about all you get when you hear how some person becomes a user of a product. There's usually nothing about what exactly happened, how they thought about the product, or what they were thinking in the midst of their decision. As someone who's trying to build something people will like, that frustrates me to no end. It's incredibly hard to find out what exactly happens when someone finds that one perfect product they love and are willing to pay for.
But, yesterday, I got an opportunity to see first-hand what it's like by observing someone going through that moment - myself. I was in the market for a static site hosting solution. I tried Netlify, and I absolutely loved it, but the story of how I came to love the product was fraught with many close calls. There were many ways where the on-boarding flow could have fallen apart and I would have abandoned the product.
In most user on-boardings, we don't get a close look at exactly what was in the mind of the user as they went through the experience. In this blog post, I'll try to shed some light on that based on my own experience trying out Netlify for the first time.
The story doesn't begin with me signing up on Netlify. The story begins a couple of days before when I decided I needed a new personal website. The Gatsby site I was using was on a version that at this point was a couple of years out of date, and I didn't want to upgrade because it was going to be easier just to rip and replace.
This bit seems to be completely unrelated to Netlify but it was the crucial reason why I even began was "in the market" for a new static site hosting tool. I deleted all my Gatsby code, and with it, all the deployment configs I had. Instead of reusing these old configs, I wanted to start fresh. If I had decided to use the old configs, I would have never even thought to try Netlify.
Why Did I Try Netlify? I didn't choose Netlify because I saw an ad somewhere on the internet for it at the moment when I was looking. I knew about Netlify for years, I just didn't need it until yesterday. Plus a couple of my friends had raved to me about how great Netlify was months ago.
It wasn't a product that had instantly captured my attention. I didn't see why it was so great, and I wouldn't see why it was great until two steps into the on-boarding (more on that in the next section).
Fail To Explain Why It's Better Than It's Alternative. The other products in this space were free, and I had already used GitHub pages. I didn't realize how much simpler Netlify was to GitHub pages, but I had already known about how Netlify would automatically build websites when you pushed to GitHub.
That one feature, which showed how it could be a better product than GitHub pages, is the main reason why I even opted to try Netlify.
Fail To Provide A Free Tier. Right now, I'd be willing to pay $10 per month for Netlify. It's extremely convenient and makes me feel empowered to build sites rapidly. However, at the time when I just landed on the site and was still mostly just curious to see if it was as simple and great as my friends had said. I wouldn't have bought Netlify if it wasn't free to try, or even if it only had a free trial.
Free trials feel like a waste of time. I'd spent a couple of hours getting used to a product, only to be asked for a price too high and having to stop using the product and go back to search for other options.
If Netlify didn't provide a permanent freemium tier, I probably would never have even tried the product, and gotten to the point where I understood how useful it was.
Netlify is designed to look deceptively simple. It looks less complicated than it is, and for an audience who's just trying to get their website up and running as fast as possible, that design choice works well.
After a one-click sign-up through GitHub, There were only 3 steps to setting up a site on Netlify. First, connect with GitHub, then select a git repo, and finally tell it how to build the site. Each of these steps was incredibly easy. It took less than five minutes to get my website hosted on Netlify at one of the *.netlify.app domains.
Having Only An Email Sign Up Option. I'm a lazy person. If I saw that Netlify had no option to sign up with GitHub. I'd probably have looked to see if Vercel or render had a better log-in flow.
Having A More Complicated Onboarding Flow. If the on-boarding felt very complicated, or if the on-boarding was confusing in some way I wouldn't try to figure it out. I'd rather just spend my time setting up something with GitHub pages because Netlify had not yet proven that it would useful for me.
Taking A Long Time To On-board. Comparing Netlify to what it takes to set up an EC2 instance, Amazon's EC2 is laughably ridiculously complex. If Netlify hadn't tried to innovate on what a good onboarding experience was, then frankly I probably would have never gotten to the end of the onboarding step.
I was almost done. My website was now hosted on yiblet.netlify.the app now I just needed it on my domain, but this is where snake lied on the road. To provide a simple experience for the majority of their customer base, Netlify tells its customers to transfer their domain's nameservers to Netlify. I couldn't do that. I needed to keep my DNS with Cloudflare because I had already configured it to work with a couple of other subdomains I'm running.
Netlify's initial instructions made it sound like there was no way to host yiblet.com without moving my nameserver to Netlify. That was a deal-breaker, but rather than quitting at that moment as a customer could often do, I searched on Google, and looked through the Netlify docs. I found out that you can get around this by assigning a CNAME to a specific Netlify domain.
I Had Already Seen It Work. If setting up DNS was part of on-boarding. I would have failed to convert. If it looked like I wasn't going to be able to use Netlify before I even knew if the tool was good for me, I just would have moved on.
Simple Docs Articles. If Netlify's docs were more complicated to navigate or if they ranked worse on Google, I'd again have failed to find a way to make Netlify work for my use case.
Even as a billion-dollar company that can dedicate an entire team to the onboarding experience, Netlify still almost lost me. On-boarding is difficult to work because something as deep into minutia as how exactly the DNS rules need to be set up can make something a deal-breaker for your customers. The only way Netlify could have gotten scale is if they had focused incredibly hard on making sure this onboarding is as simple as possible for their customers. As startups, we have fewer resources, but we still need to hit that same high bar. Our customers expect a great experience no matter how difficult it is to make on our end.
Show Your Value As Fast As Possible. People won't spend time with your product unless you show them why in terms of something you'll give them back in return. You wouldn't have read this article in its entirety unless you thought you could learn something from it. I would have dropped off the onboarding if it wasn't for this carrot continuously dangling in front of me.
Your Customers Aren't Sold When They Sign Up. You still have to convince the customer to stick around and see the value of the product. You're still selling in the free tier, or trial. As a result, you should design the product to point out the value the customer gets throughout this experience, and expect that the customer still doesn't trust that the product will work for them
Convenience Pays. Netlify sells a product that most people who use Netlify have plenty of other options for. They choose Netlify because Netlify promised simplicity and ease of use. Being simple works.