We get this question all the time. And the answer is, well, complicated.
User onboarding best practices are a highly idiosyncratic function of who the new user is—their motivations and pains—and a product’s ability to satisfy that new user’s desire. Can we really say whether Netflix or Slack has a better user onboarding experience?
Even within a product category, subtle differences in value propositions and user personas make attempting an apples-to-apples comparison a dangerous game.
A complex platform that offers an all-in-one solution will attract more users with different needs than a best-in-class tool that’s made to do one thing exceptionally well and integrates with hundreds of other SaaS products.
Every product’s user onboarding experience is different. And it should be.
So while we can’t crown a single champion, some onboarding experiences really stand out from the pack. Below, we’ll take a look at five of the best onboarding examples—and explain what makes each onboarding tactic so effective and delightful.
What does great user onboarding look like?
Onboarding is the process of acquainting a new user with a product. As a rule, a great user onboarding experience shortens your new users’ time to value, guides them to their aha moment, and gets them to activate faster.
In the Product-Led Growth Flywheel framework, onboarding is one of the primary levers for turning your product’s evaluators into beginners. With great onboarding, your beginners will soon become your advocates, who in turn recruit more evaluators. At that point, the flywheel really starts to pick up speed.
Great user onboarding experiences fall into 8 categories
A welcome message greets the user with a short, friendly message that acquaints them with the product.
Product tours take the user by the hand and explain the product feature by feature.
Progress bars indicate how long the onboarding experience is.
Checklists provide an explicit list of tasks for the user to complete.
Hotspots direct attention to certain product features without interrupting their workflow.
Action-driven tooltips are small pop-ups that provide advice when a user performs a specific action.
Deferred account creation drops the user right into the product without requiring the user to register.
Persona-based onboarding tailors the product experience based on the user’s responses to a short survey,
These onboarding experiences are not mutually exclusive—many products will combine aspects of two or three types depending on what their new users need. Each of the five onboarding examples below relies on one of these UX patterns as the core of the onboarding experience while also using other patterns.
All onboarding experiences should follow 4 steps
Each of the five onboarding examples we’ll go through have their own unique style, but they all fundamentally follow the same progression to onboarding. These four steps of successful user onboarding are:
Drive users toward specific, key actions.
Focus your product around onboarding first.
Add new UI where it's needed most.
Analyze, adjust, and repeat.
The onboarding examples below each take a different approach, as they should, since all of these products offer different experiences and attract different users. But they have one important thing in common: all five products do an excellent job of guiding users to see their value.
1. Slack educates users with empty states and a friendly bot
Slack, the ever-popular team-messaging app, does a great job explaining itself to new users with well-designed empty states and clever use of its own core functionality: messaging.
Slack starts off with a simple signup form and a fun welcome message—“Tada!” Then, Slack gently drops users into the channels and messaging interface using empty states that keep users from feeling overwhelmed with information. Slackbot, Slack’s chatbot mascot, will also walk users through a short conversational product tour,while action-driven tooltips appear only when needed.
This isn’t Slack’s first onboarding experience—they’ve been iterating on their new user experience for years. Each iteration has been better than the last. The latest version is more pared down than ever—they’ve trimmed out a lot of the introductions and cut straight to the chase. The result is a minimal, contextual onboarding experience that helps users familiarize themselves with the interface and get up to speed as swiftly as possible.
How Slack creates a good onboarding experience
During signup, the images change after each step to reflect previous user inputs. It’s a nice touch that makes the whole experience feel more personalized.
Slack uses its very own Slackbot to host a walkthrough of the software. This interactive approach drives users to take meaningful action while educating them on how to use the software.
Rather than dragging new uses through an exhaustive tour of every feature, Slack introduces them to features like Threads and Activity through their empty states—helpful microcopy explains how these features will function once the user is active in the platform.
2. Duolingo leads with the product experience
Unlike most apps, Duolingo has a user onboarding experience that begins with the product and ends with a signup form. It’s an excellent example of gradual engagement and deferred account creation.
Deferred account creation involves postponing registration for as long as possible—usually until the moment when users must register in order to progress further.
Duolingo does this expertly. Their onboarding flow guides visitors through a quick translation exercise of their choosing (an example of persona-based onboarding and progress bars), showing how quick and easy it is to learn a new language—before asking users to commit to the product by signing up.
Certain features remain off-limits to unregistered users. But these unregistered users can still access the app's core value proposition of daily language learning without creating an account (though they will receive periodic prompts as they complete lessons, an example of action-driven tooltips).
Gradual engagement isn’t an approach that will work for every product (a banking app, for example, requires the user to enter personal information in order to demonstrate value). But the core lesson—that you should let users interact with your product and understand its benefits before requiring them to make a commitment (like subscribing for your service)—is an important part of a product-led strategy.
How Duolingo creates a good onboarding experience
Users are prompted to choose a learning goal. Getting users to commit to a mission before even signing up has a huge impact on how likely the user will be to stick with the platform. That's because humans have an inherent completion bias or the desire to get things done.
A progress bar helps set a user’s expectations of effort to complete a lesson. As users watch their progress move along, they may feel more committed to driving it to completion. Progress bars take advantage of the goal gradient effect, which suggests that as people move closer to a goal, their efforts increase.
By allowing their users to engage with the app gradually, the actual registration feels like a small step within a larger process instead of a frustrating obstacle on their path to achieving value.
3. Grammarly takes a “learn by doing” approach
Grammarly is a popular tool that acts as a personal writing assistant. Users can check for spelling, grammar, word choice, and more through in-line suggestions. All of these features are communicated with an onboarding-specific demo document that contains hotspots users can explore on their own.
We’re big fans of Grammarly’s UX in general—they do a great job with everything from emails to upgrade prompts—and their onboarding experience is no exception. Their clever learn-by-doing demo doc does an excellent job of encouraging discovery and teaching users how to use the tool’s myriad features within a controlled environment.
How Grammarly creates a good onboarding experience
The demo document is a brilliant example of "learn by doing." Grammarly introduces folks to the UI patterns they'll need—one step at a time and true to form. You learn how to use its features by using its features.
Notable features are pointed out with pulsing hotspots—just subtle enough to not obscure the interface but just eye-catching enough to make users engage. When clicked, the hotspots reveal tooltips that give short explanations of the feature being highlighted.
The onboarding unfolds sequentially to take users through the app. After you fix the spelling error in the first line, for instance, you’re drawn over to the "Correct with Assistant" button, which unveils a feature you may not have explored otherwise.
4. Tumblr charms with personality and personalization
Tumblr’s user onboarding experience is bolstered by its creativity and personality. Using persona-based onboarding, Tumblr really shines with visual design and microcopy that are tailored to each unique user (featuring user-generated content!).
From its use of personalization to its witty copy and value-focused product tour, Tumblr’s user onboarding tactics are widely applicable to B2B software, especially tools that rely on curated content to deliver value.
How Tumblr creates a good onboarding experience
The signup page showcases user content and does a great job of explaining the platform and setting user expectations with clever copy.
After creating their login credentials, users are asked to select five or more interests. This not only lets Tumblr personalize users’ feeds in the future, but they also gives users an immediate sense of ownership over their account. The tendency to ascribe value to products that people think they own is known as the endowment effect.
Tumblr’s walkthrough points out important UI elements that users will need to engage with the platform. Teaching users how to like and share other people’s content is not only an important part of getting them to their first aha moment, but it’s also critical for maintaining and growing Tumblr’s network effects. The more people join and engage with the platform, the more valuable Tumblr becomes for other users.
5. IBM’s Cognos Analytics delivers consumer-grade UX in an enterprise product
IBM’s Cognos Analytics is an AI-driven business intelligence solution. To acquaint users with the complex tool, IBM uses modals and a choose-your-own-adventure style product tour.
With complex enterprise products like Cognos, successful onboarding depends on the user’s ability to prioritize between a wealth of useful features. IBM avoids the urge to drag new users through every single feature one by one. Instead, it focuses its onboarding experience around a few essential features using a persona-based product tour and simple checklists.
How IBM creates a good onboarding experience
The product tour starts with a “choose your own adventure” modalthat lets users opt in to an onboarding experience that fits their needs. This sort of segmentation lets users feel like they’re in control of their own onboarding while allowing you to provide more tailored experiences.
All the copy is clear, concise, and adds value to a succinct and selective onboarding experience that gives new users the lay of the land without overwhelming them with too many features.
A three-item “Getting Started” checklist helps users prioritize their first actions in the platform and motivates them to complete the onboarding process by tapping into a number of powerful psychological principles.
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More user onboarding examples and best practices to learn from
Onboarding isn’t just about giving new users a warm welcome. It’s about helping new users experience the value of your product first-hand and setting them up for long-term success.
These examples are just 5 of hundreds of onboarding flows that we love. Head over to ReallyGoodUX to see more of our favorites (or nominate your own). For more on user onboarding best practices, be sure to check out the resources below: