Product Management

Lean User Onboarding

5 minute read

The lean mindset calls for vigorous experimentation and constant improvement. While speed is valuable, Eric Ries, in The Lean Startup, advocates for a careful application of the scientific method over a just ship it attitude. A startup’s efforts then become “experiments that test its strategy to see which parts are brilliant and which are crazy.”

The same is true of user onboarding best practices. With onboarding tools like Appcues, product and growth teams can create in-app messages in a few minutes. But just because it’s easy to ship an onboarding experience doesn’t mean you should, at least not without hypotheses and goals in place. 

Applying lean principles to onboarding can benefit teams that are getting started, as well as more experienced teams that want to improve activation. To help, we've compiled this guide to experimenting with different stages of onboarding. Each stage contains links to more articles on the topic; click through to what you think is most pertinent to your onboarding strategy.

1. Find your activation event

The activation event is the moment when new users first obtain real value from your product. The goal of user onboarding is to increase the number of users who reach activation, so defining what activation means for your product is a crucial first step.

The activation event has a few characteristics:

  • Activation happens once, but the action associated with it can be repeated and correlates with meaningful usage of your product (completing a stay as an Airbnb guest). 
  • It denotes real value, one that users knowingly attained.
  • There is a start and end, and both are defined intentionally. 

Once you have an idea of what your activation event is, pressure-test it against both qualitative and quantitative data. Reach out to users through surveys, emails, and phone calls; churned users can be especially insightful. Check your qualitative findings against user retention data in analytics tools like Mixpanel and Amplitude. 

Even if you have a good idea of what your activation event should be, you may need to repeat this process a few times to get it right. 

If you’re curious about how we think about activation, check out what our CEO and co-founder Jonathan has to say about the pirate metrics.

2. Test different user onboarding patterns

Among user onboarding best practices, different patterns do different things well. Regardless of which UI pattern you choose, an onboarding message should ease some of the anxiety and skepticism that people have towards a new product. Re-affirm their decision to try your product with a friendly greeting and brief reminder of value. 

Two of the most popular onboarding patterns are welcome modals and product tours. 

Welcome modals

Modal windows make a big splash and can provide that extra boost of motivation users need. You can use a single modal window or a series of modal windows to onboard users. Single modal windows tend to emphasize a warm welcome.

springboard welcome modal

A modal series gives more room to expand on your product’s top features. Keep the overview broad and focus on what’s most valuable and unexpected.

Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 1
Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 2
Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 3
Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 4
Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 5
Google Inbox's walkthrough modals - step 6

Want more walkthrough examples? Check out our picks for the 5 best.

The best welcome modals are friendly and preempt the first meaningful action step a new user should take. This article outlines welcome page best practices and contains a free welcome message template.

Product tours

Product tours often get a bad rep for being overly prescriptive, but they can be powerful in introducing key parts of your product when built with empathy. 

While product tours can be introduced by a modal window or slideout, individual steps of a product tour are usually built with tooltips and targeted to specific elements on a page. 

prodpad onboarding ideas page

For more tips, check out this post on designing product tours, and this one on improving engagement of product tours

Most products today, from robust products like Slack to one-function apps like Shazam, provide some kind of onboarding message. In some cases, dropping users directly into a dashboard can work if you’re certain that users will know what to do upon arrival. Craigslist’s bare-bones site has endured for over two decades.

For a full guide to choosing the right onboarding pattern, read our findings from analyzing over 300 user onboarding experiences.

3. Optimize your onboarding designs 

Once you’ve landed on the user onboarding pattern that works for your product, it’s time to perfect it. There are a few major components worth testing: 

Design and colors

If you use a third-party tool or open-source solution to build your user onboarding experience, you’ll want to make it look beautiful and native to your product. 

Regardless of whether you build or buy, you can play around with different colors and backdrops to maximize engagement.


The goal of onboarding is to move people toward activation. The copy should be motivational, maybe even delightful, rather than overly instructional. Entice people to keep moving on with concise and informative copy.   


Slack has long been lauded for its superb user experience, including its onboarding experience. In one of their iterations on onboarding, they reduced the amount of copy on their welcome messages.


slack old welcome screen


slack welcome message


Modal series and multi-tooltip product tours should be crafted with consideration. The more steps, the higher potential of drop-off. 

Throughout its suite of products, Google often uses walkthroughs that span multiple screens, such as the modal series above. They’re able to do this because each screen conveys valuable information. (Arguably, Google can also get away with taking more of a user’s attention since they’ve long established themselves as masters in user experience.)  

More often than not, keeping the onboarding experience simple is the way to go. Before they IPO’d in 2016, the messaging app LINE drastically simplified their user onboarding experience. One of the major changes they did was shortening the experience by combining steps.


LINE registration step before IPO
LINE registration step before IPO


Use of images and videos

Images and videos can provide a much-appreciated break for users who are tired of reading. Onboarding messages can include pictures of members of your team to emphasize customer support. They can also show off illustrations or a delightful mascot. Even a small icon or emoji can be a nice touch. 

Images can also be more informative, pointing to parts of your product that you want users to focus on next. 

The User Onboarding Academy contains everything you need to know about user onboarding.

4. Personalize the user onboarding experience 

When users sign up for your product, you only have a few minutes to hook them. Personalizing the user onboarding experience can give you an edge in engaging them and furthering them along the activation funnel

Personalization can be as simple as greeting users by their first name. Or it can be as in-depth as targeting users based on dozens of properties. When Pinterested revamped their onboarding experience with country-based personalization, new user activation and retention increased by 5-10%. See how other products, including LogMeIn and Duolingo, use personalized onboarding experiences. 

5. Evolve your onboarding with your product

As products mature and grow, the user onboarding experience should evolve with it. We’ve seen products make drastic improvements to their onboarding experiences.

 If you need ideas to improve your user onboarding, we have 77 for you to try.

As with other experiments to improve activation, user onboarding experiments should be closely measured and refined. Just building a user experience without markers of success means a missed opportunity to learn from users. As Eric Reis wrote, “If the plan is to see what happens, a team is guaranteed to succeed—at seeing what happens—but it won’t necessarily gain validated learning.”

Don’t just wait and see what happens with user onboarding. Onboarding is too important to your product’s success. Experiment thoughtfully with user onboarding best practices and gather the insights you need to keep improving.

Want to become a User Onboarding Master? Check out our free User Onboarding Academy!
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