Lesson 2
5 mins

What is user onboarding?

We’ll walk you through some real examples, introduce the all-important “aha moment” as well as “time to value,” and discuss the benefits of “omnichannel onboarding.” All of these phrases will be familiar to you by the end of the lesson. Promise.

User onboarding 101 badge with a map and location marker

What is user onboarding?

We thought you’d never ask.

User onboarding is the process of guiding new users to discover value within your product. As you think about how to get your newbies up to speed, you’ll definitely want to consider the in-app experience (most of this course will be focused on this). But also think about the emails you’re sending, the educational content you’re creating, and maybe even a community for these folks to exchange questions and ideas. Obviously, the onboarding process can look entirely different from product to product, but the main objective remains the same: encourage users to reach that all-important aha moment as quickly and easily as possible.

Aha moment definition - the pivotal moment when new users first realize the value of your product.

Aha moments come in all shapes and sizes, and in some cases, onboarding experiences will lead to multiple aha moments (exciting!). To complicate things even further, aha moments might differ from user to user, depending on their unique role or needs. 

Let’s use Toggl—a time-tracking app—as our first example. 

In Toggl’s onboarding flow, concise tooltips guide us around the core product and encourage us to interact with key features. Throughout the experience, we create our first project, learn about tagging and billing, and discover how to start and stop the timer. At the end, we get the satisfaction of seeing our first time entry in the log. Aha! I can easily keep all my projects tracked and organized with Toggl.

And in case that initial tour doesn’t create enough of a lightbulb for some users, Toggl offers additional onboarding experiences that focus on other benefits of the product. Their next tour is all about flexibility within the time tracking experience. Sounds pretty helpful!

Now, could a new user poke around and discover these features on their own? Of course. Would it take longer for them to see that master view with their first time entry neatly tucked away? Probably. Would they miss out on key functionality and run into some friction along the way? In all likelihood, yes.

In our second example, we’ll see how Airtable, a collaboration platform, introduces new users to their product. Buckle up, cause this one’s a bit more involved.

After signing up and answering some brief questions, users arrive in the application, where they’re welcomed by a personalized modal. From there, Airtable highlights several key features within their platform, using a combination of modals and tooltips (plus some slick animations). There is a lot to take in visually, so Airtable uses a thick outline and the occasional hotspot to make sure users are following along. 

Now that you’ve seen some real examples of educational flows guiding new users to value, we’ll introduce another key term in the world of user onboarding: time to value (aka TTV). 

Time to value

As you can probably guess, TTV is the amount of time it takes a user to reach their first aha moment. Think about the last time you heard about an app from a friend and completed the signup process, only to be turned off by a confusing or disappointing first impression. 

Maybe the setup was too complicated. Maybe it was unclear how to get started. Maybe it didn’t deliver on your friend’s promise. The bottom line is, the TTV was too long. These days, users are more impatient than ever. They want to experience value quickly. Time is money, people! 

This is why reducing the time to value should be one of your main goals as you create a user onboarding experience. 

Beyond in-app

As we mentioned before, the best user onboarding experiences go beyond your app. “Omnichannel onboarding” is a fancy way of saying “cohesive onboarding across all marketing channels,” and it’s a smart strategy to embrace. Why? Because users get distracted easily. We need reminders and repetition to stay on target. 

Your raw ingredients for omnichannel onboarding might look something like:

  • in-app messaging

  • onboarding emails

  • educational content (e.g. guides, webinars, case studies)

  • communities (e.g. a Slack channel for new users)

  • push notifications (for mobile apps)

After you build your in-app onboarding experience, you’ll want to make sure all the other ingredients look (and taste) like they’re part of the same cake. How’s that for a metaphor? Your messaging and branding need to be aligned, so that the entire experience feels connected (and delicious). More specifically, if you’re highlighting the same key features across all these different channels, there’s a good chance your new users will reach their shining aha moment. 

Just remember, if you’re using different channels in tandem (which we encourage you to do), make sure to be strategic and remember each channel’s purpose. For example, you probably don’t want to use email to walk a user through the details of a feature. Instead, you’ll want to create awareness in your emails and encourage users to go check out the nitty-gritty details within the product. From there, you can use in-app messaging to help a new user dive deeper and reach success with a feature.