Every product has an onboarding experience just like every product has a user experience. However, whether or not it's a thoughtful one makes all the difference.
All 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-to-paid conversions
Your acquisition efforts go down the drain if you have bad onboarding because your acquired customers will never stick around.
To make sure this doesn't happen, here we've created a comprehensive guide to tried-and-true user onboarding best practices to build healthy retention numbers and keep churn low.
In the last section, we've curated a library of our favorite user onboarding best practice resources from our customers, other companies, and B2B experts for further learning.
Let's dive in.
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 user 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.
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.
One major onboarding faux pas we see is presenting new users with a blank empty state.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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. So, be considerate of when in a user's workflow you're prompting any in-product surveys to trigger.
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.
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.
Defining the stages
Defining goals for each stage
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. 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.
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.
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.
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 8 main categories), 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.
1. 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.
Watch out for: Never ending product tours. More than 5 steps in your product tour? You might want to cut some.
2. Try 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.
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.
3. Consider checklists and progress bars
Checklists and progress bars 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 Docusign breaks its user guide into chunks, so new users don’t feel overwhelmed. After you upload you first document, a sleek onboarding checklist appears, listing six steps you must complete as part of the onboarding flow. People's brains love checklists, and pre-checking some of the items signifies that users are getting closer to completion, even though they've only just started. Here, 2 of the 6 items have already been checked off.
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.
4. Experiment with 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.
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.
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).
Your complete list of resources on user onboarding best practices
Most B2B companies do some form of user onboarding—but that doesn't mean they're actually engaging their users. How do you know you're building in the right direction?Luckily, a lot has been written by user onboarding experts about what actually works to hook users and build loyal customers. Below is a comprehensive compilation of user onboarding best practices, broken down by:
Onboarding advice you haven't heard before
Outstanding examples from real companies
Advice from B2B experts
Study and master these tried-and-true onboarding best practices so can be sure you're executing on the most effective user onboarding in the game.
Onboarding advice you haven't heard before
Get beyond the basics with user onboarding advice you won't find anywhere else. Learn how to apply an MVP framework to onboarding, how to think about onboarding for mobile, and what pitfalls to avoid.
Simplifying complex user onboarding for mobile: How do you onboard users when your mobile product is complex? While there's no silver bullet for mobile onboarding, there are a few simple strategies you can steal from the top mobile apps to tame the complexity of your mobile app onboarding.
4 examples of bad user onboarding that will ruin your UX: Somewhere between product concept and user sign-up—something goes wrong. Instead of engaging users and getting them excited about your product, they churn and never come back. We looked at four examples of elements that make for a bad onboarding experience and show you how to fix them.
Outstanding examples from real companies
Great user onboarding will look slightly different for every product—but it helps to draw inspiration from those companies that are doing it with great success. Each of these companies has developed a process that works best for them, and along the way they've hit on key insights that every SaaS company can use to develop their own user onboarding best practices.
5 excellent product release note examples and how to write your own: While new feature releases might be all your team thinks about, users have no reason to care about releases them unless you make them engaging. Here, check out six ways that companies make feature releases accessible and exciting, from companies like Facebook and HubSpot.
The 5 best user onboarding examples: There's no definitive best user onboarding because users' experiences vary so much from product to product. However, there are a lot of really outstanding ones that we can learn a lot from. This guide contains teardowns of the user onboarding experiences for Canva, Duolingo, Quora, Tumblr, and Slack.
5 notable changes Slack made to its user onboarding experience: There's a reason Slack's user onboarding crops up often when we talk about best practices. Slack has achieved massively successful growth because it's able to quickly show users why it's so essential to their workflow and get them hooked on the product right away. Here are the five most significant onboarding decisions Slack made to do this.
The 20 best product launch emails that reengage users: Too many companies don't realize the importance of the product launch email. It can truly make or break user onboarding for your very first users. This list breaks down 20 of the best product launch emails for companies like DropBox and Evernote to show how to effectively connect to your user base.
Over the last five years, we've done a lot of research on user onboarding by interviewing customers, running experiments, and surveying the SaaS community. In that time, we've also read up on a ton of data and studies about user onboarding to supplement our own findings.These are the most helpful, research-backed strategies that we've sourced and compiled to inform our best practices.
User psychology: 6 principles for better UX design: You don't need a degree in psychology to make meaningful changes to your user experiences. All you really need to get started is an understanding of a few key psychological principles that influence the way users interact with your product.
A guide to proven customer retention strategies: This resource is the result of over 1,200 hours of research and writing. It's one that you'll want to bookmark and return to consistently. The piece contains over 30 links to original articles on user onboarding best practices, so you can take a deeper dive into areas that you want to explore more thoroughly.
Today, companies have an incredible growth advantage by being able to easily learn from leading B2B product designers and marketers. The accessibility of knowledge and experience through blog posts, talks, and presentations within the SaaS community is at an all-time high.We're lucky to be able to learn from these leaders and share them with our community. Here are some of our favorite resources on user onboarding best practices from these experts.
Double your trial-to-paid conversions with smarter user onboarding: This is a summary of a presentation at Price Intelligently's SaaSFest 2016 in which Rob Walling, the CEO and founder of Drip, explains his four-step framework for improving user onboarding. The piece explains the direct, quantitative results on user engagement and conversion for each of Walling's different steps in his onboarding framework.
How to announce product updates: guest post by Hiten Shah: Hiten Shah has founded three SaaS companies and has been building web products for over 10 years. In this guide, he outlines specific dos and don'ts for product updates with references to his own experiences and those of other SaaS companies he has studied.
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.
For even more information on specific strategies and tactics to follow for successful user onboarding, check out our free User Onboarding Academy. It's 5 comprehensive, on-demand lessons that follow a proven framework.
Margaret Kelsey is the Director of Brand & Creative at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.