Optimizing Onboarding for the Grove Garden

Dates Worked On: 2014-2015
My Role: UX Designer, Full Time


Grove’s first product was an aquaponic ecosystem. In aquaponics, an aquarium acts as a nutrient source for a garden. Beneficial bacteria in the garden convert fish waste from the water into plant food, and as plants uptake those nutrients through their roots, they filter the water in the aquarium. Happy fish, healthy plants!

The microbial life that makes this process possible grows over time. Establishing a new ecosystem takes approximately 90 days, making onboarding a prolonged opportunity for engagement & education.

Customers with their Grove Garden


When I worked in mobile gaming, I learned that in a freemium (free-to-play) gaming experience, you should spend 33% of your development time on the first time user experience (FTUE). If the first 30 minutes with the game sucks, your user is gone for good.

The focus on FTUE stuck with me. As the first interaction with the project, this would set the tone for our customer’s entire emotional relationship with Grove.

In what could have been a daunting experience (setting up a living ecosystem in your home), I knew it was crucial to oversimplify installation.

Defining the Problem

The first step was to develop enough domain expertise to unravel the process and redesign it completely. Moving pieces were spread across departments and disciplines, and included:

  • Technical Constraints (hardware, electrical, firmware)
  • Ecological Expertise in Aquaponics (aka the technical constraints of nature)
  • Customer Service Integration
  • IoT Wifi Configuration (using third party tools)

Diagramming task flows with the team

I involved key decision-makers early and often to develop a baseline interaction, then used shared artifacts (diagrams and interaction flows) to convey the importance of simplifying the experience. Negotiating with ecology in regards to what was mandatory and what might be malleable was a challenge, and required enough understanding in regards to microbial health to argue against unnecessary complexity.


I defined the steps involved in installation and organized them into clear ‘macro-steps,’ to reduce the cognitive burden for the user. We tried a number of macro-steps, testing each iteration and eventually identifying a four part installation.

In order to put early concepts of the onboarding experience in front of the user, we first had to develop a considerable amount of content around each installation step. We “prototyped” the content by doing walkthroughs of the proposed interaction flow, capturing imagery as we went. We then put the content into a Discourse forum and linked to those articles within the prototype.

User Testing

Over the course of two months, we screened and recruited user testers for weekly onboarding tests. Each week, we reviewed insights (via video, email summary and in person) with the team, iterated on the experience and prepared for the next user test.

Budget User Testing Tools:
  • Typeform Surveys
  • Pow Wow Scheduling
  • Dropcam Cameras (2)
  • Rode iPhone Mic + App

Iteration + Prototyping

After confirming an information flow with low-fi prototypes, I started to expand on the prototype in InVision.

Motion design played a large role in quickly conveying the relationship between parts in aquaponics. Users went through a brief animation, with carefully chosen touchpoints where they had to tap to ‘release’ the next part of the animation (the goal was to increase the retention of concepts). 

Execution: Digital

To orient users to the inbox (the main feature of the mobile app), we designed onboarding within the same feature. After connecting to wifi, the user gets an interactive introduction to the hardware.

They’re then put on a guided experience through step-by-step tutorials in the mobile application, which correspond to the physical ‘kits’ they receive at installation.

Execution: Packaging & Service Design

To reduce the cognitive burden associated with so many tools, we bucketed the installation steps into broader goals and packaged all necessary tools and supplies in coordination with those steps.

Individual supplies are color-coded to match their box, and designed to be easily legible from within the storage space at the top of the Grove, including iconographic labels on the tops of bottles (since users are looking down).


Day 1 installation went from a 3 hour process to a 30 minute install. Day 2 retention (in that users opened the mobile app and completed all necessary tasks), was near 100%. 

As part of the onboarding plan, customer service did a 30-day check in. Users received an email that asked them for feedback and questions and proposed a phone call. Data from those phone calls comfirmed that the guidance in place was appropriate and delivered at the right time.