UX Design

We Categorized More Than 500 User Onboarding Experiences Into 8 UI / UX Patterns For You to Use

2 minutes read

User onboarding is a once in a user’s lifecycle experience that—when done well—bridges a delicate journey between your sign up page and your user’s first value gained from your product.

We refer to this moment of value as a user’s wow or aha moment—aha like, “Wow this is awesome!” Or “Aha! Now I get it!” 

User onboarding UX / UI experiences often include welcome messages and product tours to get users acclimated. These experiences incorporate common UI patterns that overlay or augment the app’s true interface with annotations. 

These annotations aim to guide a user to their 'aha' moment faster than if they were simply dropped into your app after signing up. And by getting your new users to that aha moment faster, you are more likely to retain a larger portion of your new users past their first session.

Building user onboarding UX / UI experiences

Each common UI pattern can be built with either open source or SaaS solutions, and both have their advantages. 

Here’s how they compare:

Open source tools

  • Free
  • Built and maintained by developers
  • Style is customizable with hard-coded CSS
  • Content is hard-coded into product
  • Requires deploy
  • No analytics attached
  • One UI pattern per plugin

SaaS solutions

  • Paid
  • Installed by developer; maintained by anyone
  • Style is customizable with WYSIWYG styler
  • Content is created through WYSIWYG editor
  • No deploy necessary
  • Analytics come with
  • Multiple UI patterns per solution 

In my opinion, it is sensical to give your non-technical team the keys to engage new users by purchasing a SaaS solution. However, if you’re bootstrapping and have an abundance of dev time, open source solutions may make sense. 

At Appcues, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to analyze every user onboarding experience we come across. Cumulatively over the last few years, we’ve analyzed over 500 user onboarding experiences and categorized them down into 8 UI patterns for you to get inspiration from.

1. Welcome messages

Slack welcome message
Soapbox's friendly welcome modal
Via ReallyGoodUX

When to use them

How often do you sign up for a new product and are met with a welcome message? 

Sifting through our screencaptures of user onboarding experiences, about 9 out of 10 new user onboarding sequences begin with a welcome message. 

To be clear, we’re defining a welcome message as any greeting that is only seen once for new users and usually contains text such as hello or welcome—the message doesn’t have to be dedicated entirely to saying hello; it most often includes an opportunity for action.

Welcome messages help users feel more—well—welcomed to an application, and can help set expectations and the tone for their first-run experience.

Tips for welcome message design

Welcome messages are most often contained within a modal window—something that visually separates the user onboarding experience from the application’s interface itself. They often have either a layer of transparency behind them, giving users a peek into the actual application in traditional pop-up fashion. This design helps users keep an eye towards their end goal and may motivate them to complete your user onboarding experience in order to start using your app. 

Alternatively, some welcome message modals take over a user’s full-screen, blocking visibility into your app and focusing a user entirely on the message and user onboarding experience in front of them. We refer to this pattern as a full-screen takeover. This pattern may be best when there are some required inputs a user must fulfill before using your product.

modal window vs full screen takeover

Here’s a good deep dive on in-app welcome messages.

You can build welcome messages with Appcues’ modal windows or with one of these open source alternatives:

2. Product tours

The first step of airtable's product tour shows how to customize your fields
the second point in Airtable's product tour is to create multiple views to filter your records
The third step in Airtable's product tour is to use a link column to reference records in other tables

When to use them

Product tours orient new users and help them figure out the fastest way to get to their first moment of value. Tours often walk a user through an important workflow—as seen above—or point out a few key steps along the way that might otherwise be missed.

Asana's product tour
Via ReallyGoodUX

Tips for product tour design

Product tours most often come in the form of tooltips. Tooltips are boxes with pointers that call out and contextualize certain elements within a product. A few tips to optimize your product tour’s oboarding UX:

  • The best product tours are typically between 2-5 tooltips. Any more than that starts to feel like a hassle for new users.
  • Make your first tooltip open on pageload.
  • Keep the text in the box very short. 140 characters or less—like twitter.
  • Focus your copy on value rather than how-to. This will help keep a user motivated. 
  • Design your tooltips to look native to your product’s brand, but make sure it also stands out enough to be noticed. 
  • Make sure you have easy to read analytics on your product tour. You should know how far users are making it and how this affects their ultimate success with your product.

You can build product tours with Appcues’ tooltips or with one of these open source alternatives:

3. Progress bars

Quora user onboarding progress bar

When to use them

Humans are biased towards completing tasks they are given. Products often play upon this bias by including progress bars into their UI to motivate new users to complete their onboarding. A progress bar reminds us that we’ve been given a task, and we feel as though we should complete it.

Tips for progress bar design

Progress bars that play best to our bias starts with a substantial percentage of the bar filled out. This helps a user feel like they are already underway instead of starting from scratch, and it increases a person’s desire to complete the task at hand.

You can add progress bars to your user onboarding with Appcues’ modal windows or build your own with one of these open source alternatives:

4. Checklists

A screenshot of evernote's quick win checklist

When to use them

Checklists, like progress bars, can help users know what is expected of them to get onboarded. The main difference, however, is that checklists are more often used for long-term onboarding items. 

Quora uses a checklist for long-term user onboarding tasks.

Quora checklist user onboarding ui patterns

Tips for checklist design

Checklists can hook into powerful psychological principles, motivating new users to complete—and even enjoy—the crucial setup tasks required to get your product up and running. The lists turn complex, multistep processes, such as scheduling out a month of social media content, into simple, achievable tasks: Choose five posting times, import your RSS feed, and hit “schedule.” 

From what we’ve seen, checklists should live alongside your product as a present reminder of what needs to still be completed. For more checklist design inspiration, check out 5 other examples of best-in-class checklists.

We're currently working hard on checklists for Appcues. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good open source checklists to recommend. If you know any, please tweet us @Appcues with your recommendation!

5. Hotspots

InVision uses a hotspot to show the comment mode functionality
Via ReallyGoodUX

When to use them

Hotspots are a relatively new UI pattern that have started popping up all over the SaaS world. Hotspots are a nice alternative to tooltips because they are less invasive to users. They do not open automatically and can be easily ignored.

Hotspots are often used to give a little bit of contextual help to entice new users to activate certain elements or features of your product.

Tips for hotspot design

Hotspots may have unique pulsing animations to catch a user’s eye. You’ll likely want to adjust the intensity of your hotspots’ animation depending on how important the hotspot information might be to your users’ success.

You can build hotspots with Appcues. There are no open source alternatives at this time.

6. Action-driven tooltips

Slack uses an action-driven tooltip to educate first time users
Via ReallyGoodUX

When to use them

For more technical workflows or account activation across multiple pages, action-driven tooltips can be a game changer in terms of your activation and retention rates.

Action-driven tooltips isolate elements such as form fields or buttons to guide a user through account set up. Once a user completes a step, they are guided on to the next one. This heavy hand-holding can deliver similar results as a white glove onboarding service with the time and scaling advantages of a low-touch relationship.

Tips for action-drive tooltip design

By highlighting a given element in your app and darkening the space around it, you force users to follow a certain set of instructions. This heavy hand-holding should be used sparingly as it may make users feel a bit trapped at times.

Appcues’ action-driven tooltips are under development. Until then, you can build your own based on the open source alternatives listed above.

7. Deferred account creation

Duolingo user onboarding via deferred account creation to save progress

When to use them

It’s common sense that you can increase conversion rates on your sign up page by decreasing the number of form fields to fill out. You’re lowering the barrier of entry.

Some products delay certain form fields required for account creation until after the initial landing page. Others go so far to delay account creation entirely until after a user’s Aha! moment.

Typeform, an application for creating beautiful surveys, lets users create their first surveys without ever entering anything about themselves. Once their survey is created, however, and they are ready to distribute the form, a user is required to create their account. More on Typeform’s user onboarding experience here.

Typeform automagical registration save wall

Tips for deferred account creation design

Because account creation after sign up is so critical, the UI for such an experience needs to be hyper focused. If a user doesn’t realize they need to save their account, you may lose them if they bounce, or perhaps worse, they may lose their progress.

You can build user surveys with Appcues’ modal window tool and pass information into your database through integrations. Or you can use one of the open source alternatives listed above.

8. Persona-based user onboarding

Canva user onboarding by use case

When to use them

When a new user starts using your product, they may already have an idea in mind for what they want to do first. Some user onboarding flows prompt users to select their own course of action. Each option leads into different first-run experiences. 

This branching can happen without the user knowing it—by using data collected on signup—or perhaps they ask the user what they want to do. In either case, persona-based user onboarding should help users get more relevant first-run experiences that should lead to higher engagement rates.

Tips for persona-based onboarding UX design

Most often, personified user onboarding starts with an option after a user has filled out a signup form. The option may be a clear  choice for the user to make based on their desires, or it may be to select their job role.

It’s important not to have too many choices for the user to select as you do not want to overwhelm them. From what I’ve seen, 3 options seem to be the magic number.

GoDaddy personified user onboarding welcome

You can build persona-based user onboarding with Appcues or by hard-coding the logic and data loops with one of the open source alternatives listed above.

Bonus footage

We put together this video for you to give some additional color commentary on what these UI patterns mean to SaaS businesses. Enter your email and take a look:


[Editor's note: We've this article from a previous version that published in March of 2016—hope you enjoyed it!]

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