User Onboarding Best Practices

Written by: Ty Magnin Ty Magnin 

It’s time to take user onboarding seriously

Most apps have some semblance of onboarding since they don’t want to throw new users into the deep end of their product. But too often, the answers to users’ questions are buried in an IKEA-esque manual somewhere deep in the product rather than where (and when) users need them most.

The effects are disastrous. Bad user onboarding can lead to:

  • steep drop after signup
  • low free → paid conversions
  • churn/non-renewals 

Your acquisition efforts go down the drain if you have bad onboarding. Here are a few tried-and-true user onboarding best practices to keep your retention numbers healthy and your churn low. 

User Onboarding Starts with Knowing Your Customers

Customers bought or signed up for your product because they saw a promise in it. They learned from your website, a friend, or your description in the app store that they could get some value out of your app. User onboarding is your time to make due on that promise. 

It’s easy to make onboarding exclusively about the product—logistics, how-tos, and the nitty-gritty details about your product. But your onboarding still needs to be all about the customer. That starts by creating a seamless user experience centered around buyer personas and jobs-to-be-done to align the promise of your product with the onboarding experience. 

  • Buyer personas: who is signing up for your product
  • Jobs-to-be-done: why are they signing up for your product

PMs need to understand what success looks like for each of these jobs and personas—why did they come to your app and what are they seeking to achieve? You need to frame onboarding around achieving that success.

Here’s how a couple different apps have done that. 

Persona-Based Onboarding

Your marketing is different for each of your buyer personas. And if your onboarding is an extension of your marketing, buyer personas have a place in your onboarding. 

The design app Canva, for example, offers three options for users to select who they are (and why they’re on the app). Not only does it make the onboarding process feel personalized to the user by asking them about themselves, it allows PMs to segment the experience to the persona. 

canva personalized user onboarding

If a user selects that they’re using Canva for work, it triggers a specific onboarding experience with templates for work-based design projects, like presentations or pamphlets. If they’re using the app for personal reasons, Canva’s onboarding experience might list sample projects like birthday invitations. 

Here’s how you can use Appcues for persona-based onboarding.

How BaseCamp Uses Job Stories to Train Users

One major onboarding faux pas we see is presenting new users with a blank slate.

When you’re teaching a kid to write the alphabet, you don’t give them a blank slate. You give them a model of the goal, like a perfectly drawn “Q,” some dotted lines for them to trace the letter “Q,” and then, finally, they get to try on their own. They’re working towards a specific goal (the job to be done) and have the example right in front of them. 

That’s exactly what Basecamp does with their onboarding. They don’t have users start with a blank slate. They start with really specific job stories. Basecamp quite literally asks users what jobs they need done, and then takes them to a specific template for that job. If the job-to-be-done is a check-in, you can use this sample. If your job-to-be-done is messaging, go to the other. All new users play around with a sample Basecamp to learn the ins and outs, and then go on to make their own. 

BaseCamp user onboarding

Basecamp is able to use job stories to motivate customers to start building their own projects. It’s not a laundry list of all their cool tools and features—it’s centered around the customer and ties back to the messaging of why they signed up for the app in the first place. 

Identify Your Aha! Moment

Beyond just outlining what they can get out of the app, users need to get a feel for it during onboarding. When the lightbulb goes off, users can start getting value from the product. This is called the aha! moment. Jobs-to-be-done is strategic. Aha! moments are tactical.

The way to get users to stick around is to get them to an aha! moment—fast. As Samuel Hulick says in Elements of User Onboarding, you need to give users “a small win that provides them with a positive outcome to their first excursion, and one that can be used as a springboard for future efforts.” 

So how do you actually identify your “aha!” moment? Here are the two best ways.

Work Backwards from Your Product Data

Onboarding is about finding your best customers, then working backwards to figure out what actions they took early on.

You can’t plan a great onboarding experience if you don’t know what your Aha! moments are. Once you’ve pinned those down, you can map out the entire user journey—onboarding and beyond. 

Amplitude is an analytics tool that gives PMs powerful insights into specific segments of their users, called behavioral cohorts. By looking at behavioral cohorts like “users who have signed on 3 or more times,” or “users who only spent 2 minutes on the app,” you can start understanding what’s sticky and what’s not. 

Amplitude user retention onboarding graph

Equally important in onboarding is identifying your red flag metrics. What are the behavioral cohorts that don’t lead to stickiness. Amplitude also offers great visualization for the inverse of a behavioral cohort. Here’s the retention curve for users who have added a community, and inverse: those who haven’t. 

Amplitude retention curve

If you don't have stat significance to run analytics, or if you're pre-product-market fit, there are other ways to get this feedback.

Take a Dive into User Feedback

There’s another way to hear about stickiness: by getting feedback straight from the horse’s mouth. 

Asking your users for feedback is a delicate dance. You don’t want to bother them with lengthy questionnaires, but you also want to get valid responses, not just a bunch of random answers from someone trying to get back to why they really logged on to your app. 

It’s a huge part of Sean Ellis’ growth framework, which is why he started Qualaroo. It’s an easy way of formatting your surveys (NPS or open-ended) and viewing qualitative answers in a quantitative fashion. 

In app surveys

It’s easy to ask a question like, “what was the first feature you started using” or “what’s the one feature you can’t live without,” and see exactly what percentage of your respondents say different specific features. 

Map Out & Benchmark the User Journey

To use Brian Balfour’s framework, there are 3 stages of retention that you need to plan for in your user journey: 

  • Week 1 retention (Inspiring the “aha! moment”)
  • Mid-term retention (habit building)
  • Long-term retention (keeping the spark alive)

Now that you know what it is, you need to map out the user journey. There can actually be multiple “aha” moments, since there are multiple stages for users. It’s a bit like this rollercoaster. The first drop—the biggest aha!—comes at the beginning, but the ride doesn’t end there.

Kryshiggins user journey illustration

Image Source

It’s really important to map user journeys for every stage of the user lifecycle, much like this rollercoaster. 

You can’t just forget about them after they’ve used one feature. Instead, you need to design a path guiding them through the features that help them achieve their goal, no matter what stage they’re in. That means:

  1. Defining the stages
  2. Defining goals for each stage
  3. Setting the right prompts to help users achieve each goal

Once you have those, it’s time to plot your map. For every stage, you need to keep users on track in your journey by mapping it out, and continuing to help them stay on the planned path. 

Stage 1: Clear the Path for Aha! Moments

It’s important to generate early value for the user, and that means clearing the path. Your job is to remove snags and make sure users stay on course and shorten the time to aha!

Best practices include:

  • Avoid email confirmation steps, since it takes users out of the app
  • Answer questions right as they arise, use a chat app like Olark as a strategy for making users feel special. 

A lot of this involves removing barriers, which first requires identifying them. One way to do this is through user testing, which can reveal friction points you didn’t even know were there. By getting an unbiased third party to narrate as they go through your onboarding experience, you might learn about barriers you didn’t think were a problem.  

There’s even a guy who will do it drunk. If a drunk guy on his couch can get to the aha! moment, your sober users will, too. 

Stage 2: Build the Habit

Sean Ellis stated that Twitter discovered something really powerful in cohort analysis about habit building: “once a user follows 30 people, they’re more or less active forever.” Analytics tools can help you uncover what your app’s version of this is, but the goal is to turn the product from a “once in a while” tool into an “everyday” tool. That’s going to take some nudging from you. 

Here’s an example straight from Twitter—they email new users whenever they have a new follower, and send additional emails with suggestions of who they should follow to get to that magical number of 30

Twitter follow user onboarding

In addition to emails, you can use Tooltips or push notifications to give users a nudge. The end goal is to just keep users coming back and making a habit out of the app. Sometimes this requires incentivizing using an app every single day, for instance, through a reward for using an app regularly. 

Stage 3: Re-engage to Get Back on Track

Long-term retention involves looking at the retention curve well past the first couple days. Instead, your job is to make sure that your old users—the ones who completed the first couple phases of your onboarding, are still there, still using the product, and continue to use whatever new features you release.

There are a ton of strategies to bring your inactive users back—it’s just a matter of testing out different strategies to see what works. If someone is straying from the path, try sending an email to prompt activity (or further activity). This re-engagement email from Earbits takes the “break-up” strategy to heart, but is really effective.

user renengagement

Not only is it funny, it offers something of value—a mixtape—to incentivize coming back to the app. 

Test Out Your UX Patterns 

Designing a great onboarding process is going to take some iteration. Let’s look at all the different tools at your disposal to actually help users stick to the map you’ve planned out. There’s a bunch of different user onboarding UI patterns (we broke them up into 9 main camps) and it’s good to take a look at what else is out there before deciding which one works best for you. There’s one question you need to ask yourself when evaluating which UI workflow pattern to use:

How can users get the most value out of this workflow while investing the least amount of time?

You don’t want to bother your users too much, but you want them to actually finish the workflow and learn about your product. Finding that perfect balance is going to involve testing different UI patterns that employ different psychological techniques to get users to actually complete your onboarding workflow and get on with using the app. 

Here are some smart strategies you can start with. 

Assign Some Homework with Active Walkthroughs

If you’re going to do an active product tour, it can’t feel like you’re leading users by the ear through an introductory activity. They have to want to complete it. Here’s how to create easy-to-use walkthroughs.

The app Robin Hood has users complete a “fake” purchase in their app tutorial. It allows them to get to the Aha! moment (even though it’s a simulated one) really quickly. It ends with a clear call to action to sign up, which removes friction.

robinhood purchase tutorial customer onboarding

Watch out for: Never ending product tours. More than 5 steps in your product tour? You might want to cut some.  

Use Tooltips 

Tooltips are a minimally interruptive way to get your point across. Since they’re triggered one at a time, it doesn’t feel like information overload—they just come up naturally as a new user moves through your app.  

appcues-tooltip-product-tour.jpg

Action-driven Tooltips can also be really effective, especially in the early stages of onboarding. Instead of having an opt-out feature, action-driven tooltips require users to check a box or fill out a form before they can move on to the next stage. So if you’re looking for a way to capture information, or there’s a feature you really need users to understand, that might be the way to go. 

Watch out for: Overcomplicating the UI. Tooltips are all about simplicity. If you get too many in there at one point, it confuses the user and totally defeats the purpose. 

Progress Bars and Checklists

Progress bars and checklists tap into a very basic psychological principle: we care about completing things. A lot. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, which states that we’re more likely to remember things we haven’t done than things we have. 

When users know exactly what’s expected of them in an onboarding workflow (and especially, how close they are to finishing it), they’re likely to keep their eye on the finish line and actually complete the workflow.

This onboarding workflow from Process Street breaks its user guide into chunks, so new users don’t feel overwhelmed. They learn about Process Street (while using the platform), and feel like they’re making meaningful progress as they check off each chapter. 

process street checklist

Watch out for: An impossible to-do list. If you have a laundry list and that progress bar just barely inches forward as the user moves through your workflow, they’re likely to just give up. It’s far better to just set benchmarks, and encourage movement, than to overwhelm and see users drop off. 

Coach Marks


Coach Marks are one of our favorite UI workflows at Appcues. It’s a fullscreen takeover that can have really sudden effects on how users engage with your interface. Because they’re full-screen, they can explain a complicated UI with just a few tips. 

stumble upon coach marks

They’re especially great for minimal design interfaces, like this one from StumbleUpon. If icons don’t have labels, users need to learn what they are early on in their lifecycle. 

Watch out for: Too many coach marks in one screen. If the full-screen takeover gets too cluttered with arrows and text, it’s hard for users to know what to pay attention to. Try limiting coach marks to three per page. 

Modals and Sliders

Modals have a lot of different use cases, but they combine aspects we love of coach marks and progress bars. They’re great for new features later in the user lifecycle, or during onboarding when a user is exploring a new feature of the app. 

adroll-mailchimp-integration-announcement-modal-appcues.jpg

Modals can be very powerful. AdRoll communicated their MailChimp integration inside of their application to users of both platforms. This modal created a hockey stick growth curve tracing the adoption of their product integration.

Adroll-integration-activation-graph-2.jpg

Watch out for: No opt-out. If users don’t want to do the tour now, they can do it at a later point. Opt in and opt out is crucial, since no one wants to be forced to do something they don’t want to do (even if it might help them in the long run).

Never Stop Onboarding

Onboarding is a progressive process. Your real job is to never stop onboarding—to continue helping existing customers, but also to review the data, iterate, and create an even more seamless experience for your future users.  

Whether you’re getting to the first aha! moment, encouraging habit-building, or engaging long-standing users, it’s all about experimenting. You need to customize your experience, and that means playing around with the different tools at your disposal. Check out our easy-to-use UI patterns to find the onboarding experience that gets users amped about your product. 

user onboarding academy

The User Onboarding Academy

Everything you need to know about user onboarding in 7 weekly emails.

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