Designing a Better First Day Experience


The start of a new job can be a mixed-bag of emotions. Fear and excitement, apprehension and enthusiasm, skepticism and optimism. The first 45 days is said to account for 20% of total company turnover. What happens on the first day has a significant influence on whether a new employee makes it beyond that window. It’s what the Heath Brothers refer to as The First Day Experience. In the mind of a new hire, the first day is a powerful milestone, but often for an organization it’s referred to as “Monday.” After compiling a few onboarding stories from friends who recently started new jobs, here is an approximation of what is on the modern onboarding checklist:

  • Show up early and figure out where to park. Likely you end up in the visitor lot because it’s not exactly clear where to go.

  • Stand at the guard desk while they figure out who you are.

  • After awhile, someone from your team appears and says “we thought you were starting next week?”

  • Arrive at a blank desk with no laptop, 3 pens and a half stack of yellow Post-Its. File drawer is locked, appears to have no key. Desk organizer is present and dusty.

  • Attend orientation where HR talks through everything from 401K enrollment to Pet Insurance. Assigns required compliance training to be taken on invisible laptop. After 3 hours of PowerPoint and tiny fonts, everything will be forgotten.

  • Lunch!

  • Go back to desk for continued reading. Recycled laptop found, but still no access to email or work systems. Proceed to read Intranet home page for 2 hours. Rediscover the joys of Internet Explorer 8.

  • Manager has located the key to the desk, opens drawer to find previous employee’s binders. You’re now curious about how they left. An admin has found you new pens and Post-Its. This feels like progress.

  • After reading every article on the Intranet, it’s time for badge photos. Badge security guy appears angry at your improperly filled out form and says “no one told me you were coming.”

  • A quick conversation with the boss tells you Day 1 is about done and that you’ll get all your access in the next 2-3 days. She says when you get in tomorrow go ahead and brush up on the Intranet.

If this doesn’t sound like your First Day Experience, count yourself among the lucky ones. For the rest of us, it’s all too real.  

How Onboarding Gets Forgotten

Companies invest heavily in onboarding systems and processes, but few seem to nail the concept of an end-to-end experience. The costs of recruiting and turnover are well documented, yet the connection between total experience and turnover has largely gone unnoticed. Marketing teams and product designers have long been familiar with the power of a well-crafted experience, but operational and support teams worry most about improving their own pieces of the journey. Recruiters pursue a better applicant tracking system, while HR is after a better benefits system, and IT a safer network, as the entire experience is strangled by growing complexity and mismatched parts. Confusion about who owns which piece of the journey creates critical gaps that can be hard for the most optimistic employees to get over. Insufficient or underwhelming technology, network access, and lack of relationship building can add up to a disappointing first day, even if there are cupcakes.

Designing a Better First Day Experience

Scientists have learned that humans gauge the quality of an experience by assessing peaks and valleys over time. A singular, memorable moment can make an otherwise mundane day seem exceptional.  More typically, one sour moment can push a pleasant experience into a regrettable one. When it comes to onboarding experiences like the one above, starting a new job is made up mostly of valleys and few hills. But it doesn’t have to be.

The first step in creating a remarkable First Day Experience is to understand the entire process through the eyes of a new employee. You can do this by Interviewing newly hired employees and even those that recently left (gift cards work well for enticing research participants). Use a Journey Map to consider the emotional highs and lows of the full interaction between the company and candidate. Start by understanding how and why a candidate finds the job and continue through the drive home on Day One (while journey mapping can be done for any experience, start with the most critical moments to make your problem more manageable. Once you nail day one, feel free to go beyond.) The goal of Journey Mapping is to understand the behaviors, attitudes, interactions and friction points that make up your complete onboarding process.



Needless to say if you discover particularly painful moments in the process, do your best to fix. If it can’t change yet, the best approach is to build in emotionally charged moments around the pain point. Your goal is to create the following three emotions as much as possible:


What does the work mean in the grand scheme? What’s the grand vision?

In what ways is the new employee part of that grand vision?


How can you help them immediately begin building meaningful relationships with peers and leaders?

Who is their trusted advisor?


Can you give the new employee a way to feel they’re making a difference immediately?



While looking at your Journey Map, it should start to become obvious where the opportunities are. A three hour period of online compliance training might benefit from more Connection and Meaning sprinkled in, for example.

Designing meaningful connections to people and the work is easier said than done, but at least you know which way to point the wheel now. Test and iterate until your First Day Experience is full of remarkable moments.