6 User Onboarding Best Practices for 2019

How to keep new users from quitting and never coming back

Benjamin Brandall
12 minute read

Without effective, strategic user onboarding, here’s what happens:

  1. Spend thousands on user acquisition
  2. Get new customers
  3. Lose those customers
  4. Repeat

Ouch - what a waste! And yet, it’s true. It’s all too easy to treat building a great product and getting new customers as separate processes – especially since those goals are handled by different teams.

That’s where user onboarding comes in. User onboarding is the bridge between acquiring new users and turning them into highly engaged customers.

Think of it as the conversion funnel between new signups and long term paying customers.

These user onboarding best practices (fresh and on-point for 2019) will guide you in impressing and retaining your users.

The definition of user onboarding to beat all definitions

Before we dive in to these best practices, let’s quickly recap what user onboarding really is. It’s not just a product tour any more than fully expressing yourself as a human is just a 5-minute improv performance.


User onboarding is the system of actively guiding users to find new value in your product.


If it sounds vague, that’s because it can take many forms. You can onboard users with a series of help documents, email sequences, product tours - or likely a strategic mixture of these components, with one goal:

Actively guide each and every user towards greater and greater adoption until they can’t imagine life without your product.

The journey of a successful user, supported by great onboarding, looks like this:

user onboarding customer lifecycle

...But that's not what happens most of the time.

Each step of the way, there's a hidden risk of that user deciding to click the little red 'x' and never come back.

It happens between 40 and 60% of the time.

user abandonment chart

It's rightfully known as the SaaS killer! 😨

Luckily, it's what we're here to help with.

Best practices to engage your users from the start

To help you achieve the goal of turning new users into fully engaged customers who’ve adopted your product into their lives, we’ve put together six best practices for user onboarding.

1. Know your customer and their needs

user onboarding modal example

Sift Science has identified their ideal user's two biggest motivations: fighting fraud, and stopping bad users. This onboarding modal reassures the user that they're in the right place, and reminds them of the product's value.

Why do your customers need your product?

If you don’t know the big “why” for existing users then you can’t master the onboarding for new users. Conduct customer surveys to understand what customers really get from the product, and build your user onboarding experience around that value.

To cater to your customers, you need to know:

  • Who they are (e.g. their role)
  • What they want (e.g. the metrics they care about)
  • What pain they’re experiencing that your product solves (e.g. why now)
  • What tasks they need to complete (e.g. what they report in their standup)
  • What would stop them from using your product (e.g. what they consider risks)
  • The reason why any users who churn end up churning (e.g. where they got stuck)

Once you’ve got a grasp on these critical (but easy to overlook) details, you can begin to treat user onboarding like a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a guessing game.


2. Remove barriers to the Aha moment

wistia user onboarding empty state

For a platform that thrives on user content, an empty account = an unsuccessful user. Wistia lowers the barrier to entry by giving users three easy options to get started.

“Aha! I totally get it. I need this.”

That’s what you want your users to feel as quickly as possible.

The Aha moment is when users understand the value of your product and are willing to spend money for it.

Tips for removing barriers:

  • Don't require account creation before trying the product
  • Ask for user information as late as possible
  • If you have no free trial, use your marketing site to share the Aha moment (include testimonials or highly relevant screenshot gifs)

Ultimately, you need to discover what is keeping people from getting to the Aha moment. Is it a problem with the sign up? Is it a problem with bringing them to their first in-app action after sign up?

Find the product friction and remove it!


3. Be your brand

playbuzz user onboarding email

Playbuzz's user onboarding email makes its brand obvious straight away, with bold colors, playful copy and pop culture references.

Here’s what Sir Richard Branson has to say about branding:

Branding demands commitment; commitment to continual re-invention; striking chords with people to stir their emotions; and commitment to imagination. It is easy to be cynical about such things, much harder to be successful.

Just like branding can be the thing that makes your product stand out to your ideal target audience and gets your users to sign up in the first place, it can also be the factor that keeps them on board. Product teams can sometimes forget about the brand experience, and when they do, they risk losing users.

We’re human, after all. We don’t want to just achieve things, we want to feel good while doing it. We want our software products to be like our favorite work friends, totally productive and astoundingly brilliant, but also chill, funny, relatable, or whatever else adjective that applies to who your customers are.

Would MailChimp have as many diehard users without the Freddie high five that appears after every new campaign gets scheduled? Likely not.

Absolutely, a best practice for user onboarding is to go all in on branding and bring that brand to life immediately. Value isn’t just about checking a task off your to-do list, so devote time and creative intensity to bringing your product’s full value to life.


4. Create a multichannel experience

google analytics mobile user onboarding

Google knows who's using its Analytics app on mobile. It's not users who want to sign up for a new account, it's users who already have Analytics access and want to know how the experience translates to mobile.

To increase engagement and retention, you’ve got to make use of multiple channels, because users now consume information in many places, and have different preferences for learning styles.

And ideally this multichannel experience should be as consisteny and synchronized as possible. To do this, architect your users' journeys and evaluate what information you need to provide at which point, and what the best channel for this is.

Will they start with a video and then go to a walkthrough? Will they read a quickstart guide and later watch a webinar? Will they use tooltips in-apps and receive emails with links to more resources? What do they need to know immediately? What resources do they need in a few weeks or months?

Check out the middle section of a welcome email from Dubsado, a business management platform for entrepreneurs. After a warm welcome, the email points new users towards personalized help.

Dubsado user onboarding email

There are many different channels that you can use to create the user onboarding experience:

Email - Your email autoresponder for new sign ups should guide users towards the Aha moment and initially help them understand where they can turn for help. Later emails can provide additional resources to cater to many learning styles, and behavior-based emails can be used to reduce churn.

The email below is part of the first autoresponder sequence new Chameleon users recieve. It helps users become successful by teaching them how to get the most impact with their product tours.

chameleon user onboarding best practices email

Videos - Videos are great resources in user onboarding. They can be used as a quick 1-2 minute introduction in place of a walkthrough or in a list of resources. For very visual products, the more videos the better. Why? Even if your user doesn’t have time to make use of the product right away, if they see someone else quickly get to the Aha moment, then they will remember it. Snappa shows a one-minute blog header image tutorial, so that users instantly see how valuable the tool is.

Snappa user onboarding video

Product tours - Product guidance is essential. You want to pull users towards creating their first project or achieving their first task. Bear in mind that users sometimes perceive product tours and tooltips as popups and find them annoying, so gear your product guidance towards your users’ needs.

Are users very tech savvy? They might just need to be shown where critical features live. Are they pressed for time? They might just want a 3-step tour and not a 12-step tour. The best practice here is to survey your customers and optimize over time.

eventbrite user onboarding modal

💡 The Eventbrite user onboarding tour above was built with Chameleon. Click here to find out how to recreate it in your own product.

In-app chat - User onboarding isn’t just something that happens in the first 10 minutes or hour of usage. Providing users with a way to ask questions (whenever they have them, be it immediately or 13 days into their 14-day trial) is critical to increasing retention.

user onboarding live chat in-app

Webinars - SEMrush has really mastered their user onboarding webinars. Their “101” webinars help new users understand how to use the platform, while their high-level SEO webinars increase user engagement over time, enforce their brand authority, and help push out content that brings in new users looking for professional development content.

There are very few companies who do this well, but every single SaaS platform has the opportunity to create beginning tutorials and professional development content geared towards their unique users.

Personalized training - Demo request, anyone? Especially for complicated B2B products, many users won’t take the time to move their business processes over without a personalized demo showing them exactly why they should. If many of your users are confused or if your Aha moment takes more than a couple hours to discover, you absolutely need to offer 1:1 training.

Gainsight user onboarding demo request

Documentation - Only highly motivated new users will pour through your training docs to learn how to use your platform. But remember, user onboarding is a long term process, and written documentation and help centers are very valuable for experienced, engaged users.

Comprehensive documentation can also help reduce user anxiety. This example below from Chargebee demonstrates a powerful piece of onboarding content that clearly outlines the steps a user needs to take to suceed:

chargebee help documentation checklist


5. Tailor the experience to each users’ journey

picmonkey user onboarding modal

PicMonkey's choose-your-own-adventure user onboarding flow helps the user choose the most relevant tutorial.

Behavior-based user onboarding is incredibly valuable.

Let’s say user A and user B both sign up at the same time. User A needs your solution right away, so he immediately spends two hours completing a task. User B however, has signed up with the intent to explore your product later.

How can you cater to such different needs?

Ask users what they’d like to do, like PicMonkey, so you can engage different desires easily.

After the initial welcome series, send email based on behaviors like time spent in app or task completion so you can guide experienced users towards further value (additional features) and inexperienced users towards the Aha moment.

Consider a trial that is project- or task-based instead of time-based so you don’t lose out on users who might be a great fit (just not right now)

Tailoring the journey doesn’t stop there. Where in a user’s journey are they most likely to upsell and cross sell? The answer will be different for highly engaged users versus users who haven’t yet made use of the product.

Automate your upselling and cross selling by identifying the right subsets of users and presenting them with more product options. When you tailor the experience and sell the right product add-ons to the right customers, you increase your revenue while increasing the customers’ satisfaction and delivering greater value.


6. Measure success and treat user onboarding like an ongoing project

Chameleon user onboarding analytics platform

Measure your user onboarding performance with Chameleon's tour analytics dashboard. Track how many users engage with your product's onboarding, and get the insight you need to drive new user adoption.

Not only is user onboarding an ongoing process for your users (as they become more acquainted with all of the features), but it’s also an ongoing opportunity for you to increase product adoption.

It’s definitely not one and done.

User onboarding requires that you set and analyze goal metrics, track conversions and churn, discover any issues or drop off, and commit to regular reviews and updates.


To sum up these best practices will help you tack user onboarding ten times more successfully:

  1. Know your customer
  2. Remove barriers to initial value
  3. Brand the product
  4. Create a multi-channel onboarding experience
  5. Tailor onboarding to individual users or user subsets
  6. Measure success and adapt

User onboarding is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, your promise and your offering all fall apart. Commit to beautifully intelligent, intuitive, helpful, and branded user onboarding, and you’ll see the results for yourself.

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