15+ User Onboarding Best Practices

Whether you’re launching your first startup or refining your UX design skills, revisiting user onboarding best practices is always beneficial. No time to waste so let’s go!

Best practice #1: Know your activation metric

The purpose of user onboarding is to drive user activation, which means helping them understand your product’s value and create a habit around using it. So before you start the design process, focus on identifying the recurring action that keep users coming back. This action will be your focus point for optimizing the onboarding flow.

For a deeper dive into this topic, I highly recommend exploring this article.

Best practice #2: Shorten the Time to Value (TTV)

Shortening the Time to Value (TTV) is crucial in evaluating your onboarding experience. It measures the duration until users experience the “Aha!” moment with your product. Given the limited attention span today and the busy lives we lead, there’s no room for delay. Users must quickly see the value in your product to prevent them from moving on.

So what can you do to shorten the TTV?

Identify the critical path and delay non-essential steps

Determine the absolute necessary steps users must take to reach the “Aha!” moment. This involves identifying the main milestones within the setup process, such as integrating software or adding a payment method.

Review each step of the process meticulously, counting clicks and noting the fields that need to be filled. This scrutiny will likely reveal actions that, though currently required, are not essential for users to perceive the value of your product initially.

Consider whether some steps can be postponed or if there’s a way to simplify the flow to reduce friction. If a step isn’t directly contributing to the user reaching the “Aha!” moment, it shouldn’t be part of the initial onboarding experience.

By focusing on these strategies, you can design an onboarding process that quickly and efficiently brings users to realize the value of your product, enhancing their overall experience and satisfaction.

Implement a setup/signup flow

Directing users through a setup or signup flow immediately after registration can significantly benefit user engagement. These flows are designed to simplify the setup process and introduce early motivation boosters, which are crucial for maintaining user interest.

However, it’s essential to balance the flow’s complexity. If, despite streamlining the critical path and eliminating non-essential steps, the setup demands considerable effort, it’s wise not to overwhelm users during the signup phase. At this early stage, users are still deciding whether your app meets their needs.

Therefore, I advocate for an initial onboarding flow that tailors the experience, delivers immediate value through quick wins, and incorporates a simplified setup process. This approach ensures users are not deterred by complexity and are more likely to engage deeply with your app from the outset.

Automate what’s possible

In the onboarding process, automation can be a game-changer.
By automating certain tasks, you can streamline user interactions and focus on delivering value faster.

Consider these examples:

  • Instead of requesting users to upload their logos manually, utilize a brand/logo API service to automatically retrieve and apply their logos.
  • Automatically import data from other tools your customers already use.
  • Suggest a specific subscription plan instead of showing all the possible tiers.
  • Use web scraping or business registry APIs to get their business addresses.

You get the idea.

Demonstrate how your product works

Getting users to see the value of your product quickly is crucial in the onboarding process. You can show them how it works with examples that don’t require setup. Depending on what your product does, you might:

  • Set Up a Demo Environment: Let users explore a demo version of your product. This way, they can click around and see what your product can do without any pressure.
  • Walk Through a Key Process: Create a “preview” of the most important process and guide users through it. This direct approach helps users understand the value of your product quickly.

Best practice #3: Keep Users Motivated

A good user onboarding experience relies on two things:

  • Lowering Friction: This means making the onboarding process as easy as possible.
  • Boosting Motivation: Ensuring new users are motivated enough to go through the entire process.

We’ve already talked about reducing friction. Now, let’s focus on how to keep users motivated.

Gauge motivation with the Psych framework

Starting with the Psych framework can provide a clear picture of users’ motivation levels throughout the onboarding journey. The process involves:

  • Mapping the Onboarding Flow: List every step in your onboarding process.
  • Creating a Psych Chart: Plot a chart that tracks user psych levels from 0 to 100 at each step.

The starting motivation level is influenced by your product type and the user’s initial situation. For example, essential solutions (painkillers) might begin at 75, nice-to-haves (vitamins) at 40, and luxuries (candy) at 20.

Next, assess each onboarding step for its impact on motivation. Assign positive or negative points based on how likely each step is to increase or decrease motivation. For instance, a lengthy form might deduct 10 points, whereas successfully importing data might add 5 points.

This method isn’t exact—it’s more interpretive, aiming to mirror the shifts in motivation and mood users experience with each action. If the cumulative score approaches zero, it signals that motivation may dip too low for users to complete the onboarding.

To counteract this, you have two options:

  • Simplify the Process: Make each step easier or remove unnecessary ones.
  • Enhance Motivation: Integrate rewards and small “Aha!” moments to uplift and engage users throughout the process.

This approach helps identify and adjust for potential motivation pitfalls, ensuring users remain engaged enough to fully onboard.

Introduce moments of delight/Aha! moments

Enhancing the user onboarding experience isn’t just about minimizing friction. It’s equally important to intersperse elements that boost users’ motivation throughout the journey. Introducing moments of delight, or “Aha!” moments, can provide the necessary mental boost to keep users engaged, even if it introduces a bit of friction.

For instance, consider the example of Better Proposals. Uploading a logo might not be strictly necessary to understand the tool’s functionality, but the added touch of seeing a proposal personalized with your company’s logo creates a positive impact. It transforms an otherwise mundane setup step into an engaging, personalized experience.

Use psychology to your advantage

Utilizing psychological principles can significantly increase the chances of users completing the onboarding process. By understanding and applying cognitive biases and psychological triggers, you can design an onboarding experience that naturally keeps them going. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Pre-Completion: Mark the initial steps of the process as already completed. This leverages the Zeigarnik effect, where people are more likely to finish tasks that they’ve started.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Congratulate users upon completing each step. Positive feedback triggers the release of dopamine, encouraging them to continue for more rewards.
  • Social Proof: Showcase testimonials, user counts, or success stories. Knowing others have successfully used your product builds trust and motivates new users to continue.
  • Rewards: Offer tangible rewards upon completing the onboarding process. This can be access to premium features, extended trials, or other incentives.
  • Create Urgency: Implement a sense of urgency, perhaps through limited-time offers or highlighting immediate benefits. This can motivate users to act quickly to not miss out.

Best practice #4: Use progressive learning

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

With potentially numerous features at their disposal, overwhelming them from the get-go can hinder their ability to grasp your product’s core value.

Embrace progressive learning to help users uncover your product’s functionalities step by step. This method not only maintains engagement by celebrating small victories but also ensures that users are not bombarded with information they are not yet ready to process.

This strategy should be applied universally—not just at the product level but down to each feature’s introduction. When designing feature tours or setup pages, prioritize guiding users through the essential functionalities and workflows. Introduce more complex or advanced features only after the foundational elements are understood. It’s worth noting that many users may never need the more sophisticated options, making it unnecessary to impose them on everyone initially.

Best practice #5: Personalize the experience

Personalization isn’t just a nice touch—it’s essential. Here’s how you can implement it on two levels in your onboarding experience:

  • First Level: Make It Their Space
    Begin by making users feel at home within your app. Simple gestures like displaying their logo or avatar in the navigation bar or greeting them with a personalized message such as “Welcome back, {{name}}!” can make a world of difference. Tailoring the greeting to the time of day can add an extra layer of personalization, making the experience feel even more specific to the user’s current context.
  • Second Level: Tailor User Flows and Messaging
    The deeper level of personalization involves creating distinct user flows and messages for each user persona or job to be done. Use data from users’ past interactions, external profile enrichment tools, or direct questions during the signup process to inform your segmentation.

While asking for this information upfront may add a step to the onboarding process, the payoff in terms of long-term engagement and a shorter Time to Value (TTV) is well worth it. Directly inquiring about users’ goals or interests allows you to offer customized guidance that’s truly relevant to each individual.

Potential questions to ask:

  • What features are you most interested in?
  • What are your goals with our product?

Best practice #6: Fine-Tune 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 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.

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, or adding links to helpful content. 

For inspiration and to learn what top SaaS companies are doing right, consider exploring the following resources:

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

Navigating a new app without direction can feel like being asked to shop for groceries without knowing what meal is being planned. It’s easy for users to feel lost and aimless. This analogy perfectly illustrates the importance of clear guidance for new users in your app.

To prevent this sense of aimlessness and to streamline the user’s journey towards value realization, employing checklists is a highly effective strategy. Checklists serve as a roadmap, clearly outlining the necessary steps users need to take. This ensures that:

  • Users have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them next.
  • Essential setup steps are completed, preventing users from missing out on crucial aspects of your app.

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

Best practice #8: Guide through core processes with tours

Product tours complement checklists by not just listing what to do but actually showing how to do it. They guide users through your app’s interface, spotlighting key features and workflows. However, crafting effective tours that users won’t immediately dismiss requires a thoughtful approach. Here are some strategies to make product tours more engaging and effective:

  • Limit the Number of Tours: Focus on creating tours only for the essential processes that users need to understand. An abundance of tours can overwhelm or annoy users, leading to them skipping the tours altogether.
  • Keep Tours Short and Sweet: Aim for brevity in your tours. In most scenarios, 3-4 steps are sufficient to convey the necessary information without losing the user’s attention.
  • Skip the Introductory Step: Instead of showing the first step with a “Start tour” button, throw them right into the action and use the momentum to your advantage.

For more detailed insights and strategies on designing effective product tours, refer to another article I’ve previously written on the topic.

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. However, 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. 

By viewing conversion as a secondary goal of your feature pages, you open up a realm of design and content strategies that can significantly boost feature adoption. or a deeper dive into effective feature page designs and to uncover 13 innovative ideas to increase feature adoption, refer to the detailed guide here.

Best practice #10: Utilize empty states

Leaving empty states empty is a missed opportunity. 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 

Accessible learning resources are crucial for effective user onboarding. While it’s beneficial to proactively offer insights based on user behavior, it’s essential to recognize that users prefer to learn at their own pace and on their own terms.

To accommodate this, compile all educational materials—such as video tutorials, webinars, and knowledge base articles—into a centralized location. This approach guarantees that users can easily find the information they need when they need it. Here are a few strategies to enhance accessibility:

  • Centralized Learning Hub: Create a dedicated area within your app or website where users can find all learning resources. This hub should be easy to navigate and search, enabling users to quickly locate specific information.
  • In-App Access: Whenever possible, integrate this learning hub directly into your app. This integration allows users to access information without disrupting their workflow, providing a seamless learning experience.
  • External Resources: Consider setting up a dedicated section on your website or a specific subdomain. Ensure that links to these resources are prominently displayed within your app, guiding users to the help they need.

Best practice #12: Support habit creation with variable rewards 

Creating a habit around app usage is the ultimate aim of user onboarding. Drawing insights from Nir Eyal’s Hooked, one key strategy to encourage this habit formation is through the use of variable rewards. This approach involves offering unexpected rewards after users complete a desired action, adding an element of surprise alongside the core value your app provides (such as saving time or money).

The concept of variable rewards is based on the principle that unpredictability in rewards significantly increases engagement and curiosity. Here’s how you can implement it:

  • Diverse Congratulatory Messages: After a user completes a task, display a variety of animations or messages that congratulate them. The novelty of not knowing which animation will appear next adds an element of surprise.
  • Randomized Rewards: Consider offering rewards that vary in type or value. This could range from in-app currency, additional features, or customizable options for their profile or dashboard.
  • Surprise Features: Unlock hidden or unexpected features as a surprise after certain milestones are achieved. This not only rewards users but also encourages deeper exploration of your app.

Best practice #13: Prioritize Jobs To Be Done over features

The concept of “Jobs To Be Done” (JTBD) shifts the focus from what your product does to why people use it—the problems it solves or the needs it fulfills. This perspective should be a cornerstone of your messaging and 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

The principle of “Less is more” truly applies to user onboarding. Overwhelming your users with excessive pop-ups and lengthy product tours detracts from the very reason they signed up: to experience your product firsthand. Strive to integrate onboarding seamlessly with the product experience, avoiding the temptation to overload users with unnecessary information. Keep it straightforward and allow the product to speak for itself.

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 is shipping software that lets merchants generate and print shipping labels faster. To streamline the process, we integrate with systems like WooCommerce. One of my suggestions to the product team was to add Ship with Sendcloud buttons right next to orders in WooCommerce. This placement ensures that users are regularly reminded of Sendcloud within a familiar system, reinforcing the habit loop every time they ship an order. Such strategic positioning not only increases visibility but also makes it easier for users to adopt and rely on Sendcloud for their shipping needs.

Continue learning

Learn crucial concepts and lay the foundation for your strategy

Whether you’re launching your first startup or refining your UX design skills, revisiting user onboarding best practices is always beneficial.

15 best practices inside

Increase conversion from visitor to signup

The signup page is the most universal touchpoint for all users—make it count.

13 Tactics & 101 Examples inside

Shorten the Time to Value

Users must complete essential steps to reach their first “Aha!” moment. Streamline this process to quicken the journey to setup completion.

26 Tactics & 32 Examples inside

Weclome new users to your app

What comes after signup? Explore effective strategies to welcome users and navigate them through their next actions.

8 Tactics & 81 examples inside

Optimize the initial interaction with your product

Once users land on the first dashboard after signup, the next steps are crucial. Find ideas for designing this screen to maximize user activation.

10 Tactics & 97 Examples inside

Guide users through crucial processes

Product tours are unparalleled in helping new users get comfortable with your interface. Discover how to implement them effectively.

11 Tactics & 18 Examples inside

Lay down the path to success

Checklists are foundational to user onboarding. Learn how to leverage them to enhance user experience.

15 Tactics & 94 Examples inside

Drive feature adoption

The feature setup page is critical for encouraging feature adoption. So what can you do to influence its effectiveness?

13 Tactics & 92 Examples inside

Let users learn at their own pace

Targeted messaging is essential for onboarding, but ensure users can access information when they need it, not just when deemed appropriate.

15 Ideas & 81 Examples inside

Find out which software is worth your money

Don’t choose based on popularity. Find the best user onboarding software for your needs with this in-depth comparison.

9 user onboarding software tested

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