15+ User Onboarding Best Practices

No matter if you’re a new startup founder or an experienced UX designer, if you don’t have experience with user onboarding, it won’t hurt to review user onboarding best practices. No time to waste so let’s go!

Best practice #1: Know your activation metric

The goal of user onboarding is to drive user activation, in other words, to help users understand the value and create a habit around using your product. So before you begin any design process, you need to know what your users do repeatedly that keeps them coming back. This is the action you’ll optimize your onboarding for. 

If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to read this article.

Best practice #2: Shorten the Time to Value

Time to Value might be the most important metric to evaluate your onboarding experience. It tells you how long it takes users to get to the Aha! moment. In a world where our attention span is short, and we all have so many things to do every day, you don’t have the luxury to make users wait. They need to experience your product’s value as fast as possible, or you risk losing them forever.

So what can you do to shorten the TTV?

Define the critical path and remove unnecessary steps

After defining the Aha! moment, you need to find out what steps users have to go through to get there. And I’m talking here about the bare minimum. 

First, list the main milestones in the setup process, e.g., integrating the software or adding a payment method. Then, go through each process, counting clicks and listing fields to be filled. 

Quite possibly, you’ll notice actions that are currently required but unnecessary to experience your product’s value for the first time. Perhaps you can ask users to do this at a later stage? Or design a more streamlined flow, taking a part of the friction away? 

If something doesn’t play a pivotal role in reaching the Aha! moment, it should not be a part of your initial onboarding. 

Have a setup/signup flow in place

Instead of letting people explore your app right after signup, you might want to have them go through a setup/signup flow. Setup flows are a perfect way to streamline a setup process and introduce the first motivation boosters, keeping new users engaged. 

However, if after defining the critical path and removing all the unnecessary actions your setup still requires quite some effort, you shouldn’t put it all in the signup flow. At this point, users don’t know yet if they want to use your app. For this reason, I recommend using the initial onboarding flow to personalize the further experience, introduce the first quick wins, and mix it with a light setup.

Automate what’s possible

Some of the actions might be possible to automate, e.g.: 

  • instead of asking users to upload their logos, fetch them using one of the brand/logo API services,
  • import data automatically from another tool your customers use,
  • suggest a specific subscription plan instead of asking users to choose on their own,
  • find new users’ business addresses by scraping their websites (you can get the domain from their email addresses).

You get the idea.

Demonstrate how your product works

As we already know, having your users experience the Aha! moment fast is the number one priority during the onboarding process. Fortunately, there are ways to do it without requiring users to set things up in advance — demonstrate how it works on an imaginary example. Depending on your product, you can:

  • create a fully-fledged demo environment and let users click around, or 
  • choose a specific process you want to highlight and have users go through it.

Best practice #3: Manage the motivation levels

A proper user onboarding experience is based on an interplay of two factors: 

  • reducing the friction (making the onboarding process as simple as possible), and 
  • boosting new users’ motivation high enough to complete it.

In the previous section, we focused mainly on the first factor. Now, let’s look at what we can do about motivation. 

Check the current status with the Psych framework

We’ll start with the Psych framework that can give you decent understanding of where your users are in terms of their motivation during the onboarding journey. The idea is to list all the steps in your onboarding flow and create a chart showing your users’ motivation levels during the onboarding process (from 0 to 100). 

The initial level is defined by your product (for painkillers you might start with 75, for vitamins with 40, and for candy with 20) and the situations in which people signing up are.

Then, go through each step and assign them positive or negative values. It’s more of an art than a science, so there’s no instruction here — they need to reflect the change in your motivation and mood after completing each step. So filling out a long form might have -10 points, while seeing your data imported +5 points. You need to work your way through the whole flow, and if you reach zero, it means your motivation is too low to complete the process. 

To alleviate this, you can either further simplify the process, or boost their motivation with rewards and by introducing small Aha! moments along the way.

Introduce moments of delight/Aha! moments

Not everything revolves around reducing friction. As I mentioned briefly in the previous section, to improve your flow’s efficacy you should also identify elements that can increase users’ motivation and weave them into the experience. Even though it might mean increasing friction, they will add the mental fuel needed to complete the entire process. 

Let’s take Better Proposals as an example. Uploading a logo is not needed to experience how their tool works. However, seeing a preview of a proposal with your company’s logo adds a positive twist to the otherwise tedious setup.

Use psychology to your advantage

On top of that, there are cognitive biases and aspects of human psychology you can use to increase the likelihood our users will go through the onboarding process. Among others, you can:

  • 1mark the first steps of a process as done,
  • congratulate,
  • use social proof,
  • reward users for completion,
  • create urgency.

Best practice #4: Use progressive learning

You have to learn how to walk before you can run. The same concept applies to every human being, and every skill. Also — using your product.

So no matter how many features your SaaS application has, you don’t want to show them all upfront. Instead, use progressive learning and help users discover functionalities gradually, introducing small wins along the way. 

This concept applies not only at the product level but also to each feature. So when you design feature tours or setup pages, focus on guiding users towards understanding the core value or explaining the main workflow. Only when they learn the basics suggest more advanced options. From my experience, the majority of users will never even want to use them, so forcing them on everybody right from the start is counterproductive.

And even if you think that to get the value of your product users need to see it all, that’s most likely not true. During the initial evaluation, your users won’t have the time to discover everything, so make sure to use their attention wisely.

Best practice #5: Personalize the experience

Come on. It’s 2022. Personalizing the experience is a must rather than a nice-to-have. How does it work in terms of user onboarding? I like to think there are two levels of personalization you can introduce. 

The first step is to make users feel your app is their space. Here, you can apply the basic tactics like making their logo/avatar visible in the navigation bar, or adding the text “Welcome back, {{name}}!”. You can go a step further and differentiate the message with regard to the time of the day, which will always feel a bit more tailored to your users’ current situation. 

The next (and much more critical) type of personalization is about creating separate user flows and messaging tailored to each of your personas or jobs to be done. To inform your segmentation use previous interactions with your brand, fetch additional data from external profile enrichment tools, or ask questions during the signup flow. 

While the last option will increase the friction of the initial flow, the long-term benefits have often proved to greatly outweigh the costs. Asking explicitly about the reasons your users signed up will let you provide the guidance appropriate to each person’s case. And the result? A substantial reduction of the Time to Value. 

Examples of questions you can ask:

  • In what features are you interested?
  • What do you want to achieve with our product?

Best practice #6: Optimize the first interaction

Your new users completed the signup flow, and here they are – on your first dashboard. It’s the first touchpoint with your app, so make sure you optimize the hell out of it. Changes here will have the highest impact on how your new users interact with your product, and in the end, on your activation rate.

Additionally, apart from the signup flow, this is where you can collect the most interaction data, which is crucial for A/B testing. So make it a habit to run tests consistently and experiment with different approaches like showing an introductory video, an embedded checklist showcasing the steps to take, or adding links to helpful content. 

To discover the tactics used by the top-performing SaaS companies, read the articles below:

Best practice #7: Lay down the path to success with checklists

Imagine your second half asks you to do groceries without telling you what they plan to cook. You go to the store and you’re lost. You end up roaming around without a clear plan.

This is what happens when new users enter your app for the first time, and you don’t provide them with clear instructions on what they need to do next. 

So make sure you lay down the path to success, e.g., using checklists. This way, you can ensure that no crucial setup point goes unnoticed.

In another article, I wrote down 15 Tactics to use in User Onboarding Checklists.

Best practice #8: Guide through core processes with tours

While checklists tell you what to do, product tours show you how to do it, pointing out relevant UI elements. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. I mean, done properly as many users dismiss tours. They expect to understand it all without wasting time reading instructions.

But I have a few suggestions that might help you:

  • have as few tours as possible (only for the key processes users need to learn as otherwise people will skip them by default), 
  • keep them as short as possible (in most cases, I’d suggest aiming for 3-4 steps), and
  • don’t ask users to start a tour — throw them right into the action and use the momentum to your advantage.

In another article, I wrote these and other ideas for product tours.

Best practice #9: Facilitate setup with the feature page design

It might seem natural to think that your in-app feature pages have only one goal — to set the features up. Wrong. 

Many users will sign up for your software with limited knowledge of its functionalities. They’ll just want to try it out. 

So when they decide to use your product, they will need information on what features do and why they should use it. 

When you acknowledge conversion as the secondary goal, a new world of tactics and design possibilities will open up ahead of you.

Read about these possibilities in: Increase Feature Adoption [13 Feature Page Ideas]

Best practice #10: Fill empty states

Leaving empty states empty is simply a missed opportunity. So don’t settle for the Nothing to show text. Use this real estate to demonstrate how the end effect can look and add a CTA pointing users to where they can make it happen. 

Best practice #11: Offer easy access to information 

Learning resources are one of the key components of user onboarding, to state the obvious. And while proactive sharing of relevant insights based on user behavior is a great way to facilitate the learning process, you can’t expect everybody to engage with your messaging when you want it. 

Everybody learns at their own pace and only when they feel like it. Make it possible by gathering video guides, webinars, the knowledge center, and other resources in one place so that users always know where to look for information. 

Ideally, they would be able to access the content from inside your app, but if it’s not possible, you can have it in a separate section of your website or on another subdomain.

Best practice #12: Support habit creation with variable rewards 

As we already know, establishing a habit around using an app is the #1 goal of user onboarding. Thinking about habit creation from the perspective of the book Hooked by Nir Eyal, we can differentiate an element that will help us facilitate this process — the variable reward. The idea here is to keep surprising your users after they complete the desired action. 

In other words, do not rely only on the central value, e.g., saving time or money, and introduce an additional element of surprise. It can be as simple as a set of different animations congratulating users for completing the task. It will spark curiosity that will keep them coming back for more.

Best practice #13: Focus on Jobs To Be Done instead of features

Customers hire your product to do a job. So instead of simply explaining functionalities, shift your approach to solving users’ problems. It should be reflected in both your messaging, as well as the structure of your onboarding process. 

A decent source of information about applying JTBD to user onboarding is this article from Chameleon.

Best practice #14: Get out of the way

User onboarding is one of the places where the concept of Less is more is as real as it gets. The worst thing you can do is overloading users with too many pop-ups and tours. They signed up to try your product out and not to read extensive guides. It’s as simple as that. Try to make your onboarding a part of the product experience itself instead of throwing an additional layer of information explaining it all.

Best practice #15: Think outside of your product

User onboarding doesn’t need to be limited to your in-app experience and an email sequence. If you offer integrations with other software, you might want to explore the possibility of embedding your product into your customers’ workflows in these external systems. Sounds vague? Let’s think of an example. 

Sendcloud, the company I currently work for, is shipping software for online stores that lets you generate and print shipping labels faster. To streamline the process, we integrate with systems like WooCommerce. One of my suggestions to the product team is to add Ship with Sendcloud buttons right next to orders in WooCommerce. So when users install our plugin, they will be constantly reminded about Sendcloud in the system they use on daily basis anyway. And when such exposure is tied to the main action you want your users to take, it can dramatically strengthen the habit loop.