What is User Onboarding? (Not what you may think!)

A clearer definition, with examples, to help frame your approach to user onboarding and shape up your user onboarding experience to empower your customer acquisition.

Pulkit Agrawal
11 min read
What is User Onboarding? (Not what you may think!)

"User onboarding” does not mean what you think it means.

The term gets thrown around a lot in the software world, but has varying definitions — even to people on the same team! Some say it's teaching new users, others that it's indistinguishable from user experience, while others imagine it to just be swipe screens or a quick product tour.

How are you supposed to have great user onboarding if your team isn't on the same page about what user onboarding is? Let's get clear about what user onboarding is, and clear the air about what it isn't.

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What is user onboarding? #

User onboarding is the system of actively guiding users to find new value in your product. Through this onboarding process, companies make sure the customer will be successful when adopting the product, usually a SaaS product, for the first time. The onboarding experience usually includes the initial experience, the training, and finally, the acclimation. The final goal of the onboarding experience is achieving the aha moment — the exact instant where the user internalizes the value of the product.

Pulkit Agrawal clarifies what user onboarding is

This onboarding definition works well for two reasons:

  • It acknowledges that onboarding extends throughout the user lifecycle. It begins before a user even signs up and it extends past the point they convert to a premium account.

  • It understands that user onboarding is much more than just showing users how to use your product. In order to make users successful, you need to also show them why they need to use it, and give them the help they need to find value.

In order to effectively apply these principles, you need a lot more than just a great UX or a product tour. You need to understand your customer and nudge them to take the appropriate next steps using onboarding best practices.

Why an excellent user onboarding experience is so important? #

Investing time and effort in getting new users to extract value from the tool as soon as possible can bring huge benefits. The sooner they can see your proposal's value, the more we can reduce the churn factor. Having an easy-to-use product is not enough — we need an excellent onboarding process.

Let's not forget that SaaS products' growth, especially in 2021, makes today's users used to the highest levels of user onboarding, often through providing an onboarding solution. Not just a negative experience, but a mediocre one, will make them abandon the tool and prevent them from becoming active users.

A good user onboarding experience should not only teach the user how to operate the tool - it has to make them feel valued, receive a good welcome, and perfectly handle the learning curve— curating our onboarding flow so they can explore freely, and at the same time, learn what we know they need to learn to be proficient with the tool. All of this will positively affect our retention rate, thus reducing the cost of customer acquisition.

user onboarding

The onboarding process formula #

The onboarding process formula, therefore, for great onboarding, is to nudge users to take action via:

  • the right content

  • in the right channel

  • at the right time

By nailing the content, timing, and channel of your user onboarding, you'll go much deeper than just good UX and a product tour to retain and delight your userbase. It will also prevent churn thanks to helping customers see your proposal's value as quickly as possible. And since there is a correlation between the churn rates and low customer satisfaction, you will get those rates to a record low by perfecting the whole user onboarding experience.

Picture by Solen Feyissa

Product Tour is not the same as onboarding #

Product tours or checklists are really helpful, especially for first-time users. But they're just one of many channels you need to use for effective onboarding.

Let's not forget that effective product tours help new users get familiar with your software tools quickly and easily. Through a series of windows or steps that appear in the user interface, tours allow you to show the basic elements' general layout, the first steps to follow, and the most important actions that a new user must perform to set up the product.

It starts with what the user needs — the email may provide a case study to re-engage outside of your app, while in-app chat can pre-emptively help when users get stuck. Onboarding can't simply start and end with a product tour, because you can always deepen a user's mastery of your product with increased guidance.

For a more detailed look at how to create a cohesive engagement for new users, check out our guide to cross-channel onboarding.

Great UX is not the same as user onboarding #

User onboarding and UX design have similar goals: make your product easy to understand for users. But great UX design can't replace user onboarding and vice-versa!

Great UX improves the ability of people to use your product. But they also need motivation, as BJ Fogg explains in his model of why people behave the way they do.

They need: motivation, ability, and triggers to act.

When applying this to the product, it translates to a strong value proposition, intuitive interface, and timely prompts. Therefore just a simple interface isn't good enough; as almost always users don't want to learn how to use your product!

behaviour model for user onboarding

Fogg's behavior model — a framework for behavior change

You need user onboarding on top of a great UX in order to prompt users to take actions within your app. These prompts don't come from the steady-state UX; they come from delivering dynamic UX, such as product tours, tooltips, emails, etc. And ideally, they utilize the right format at the time when users need them most.

Applying the definition to 3 Stages of User Progression #

In order to increase the odds of your users' success, you need to match what you're telling them to do—whether that is signing up for an account, exploring your product, or using a new feature —to their abilities and motivations.

With a combination of the right content, timing, and channel, users progress from one stage of the customer lifecycle to the next. But it's never a smooth progression from being a new user to becoming a power user.

Instead, it looks like more of a step-function:

  • Value plateaus as usage become habitual.

  • Users jump to a higher value as they realize the product's capabilities.

When users are guided to the new value within the product, they evolve—they use the product more and understand how it can help them.

customer lifecycle in user onboarding

To encourage users to progress in the customer lifecycle, you need to guide them to the new value, through user onboarding.

1. Preview User → First-time User #

Onboarding starts before customer education. It starts with marketing. That's right: before the first product experience!

It's easy to forget that many new visitors to your site know next to nothing about you. When you're trying to get these visitors who are “previewing” your product to actually sign up, you need to focus on content that delivers a clear value proposition and positions your company as credible.

  • Timing: First-time visitors, or people who haven't experienced your product first-hand.

  • Content: Value proposition; knowledge leadership (to increase authority and credibility); customer case studies/testimonials — all as specific to the viewer as possible.

  • Channels: Your landing page (incl. explainer videos); ads; blogs/content (incl. on networks such as Medium and LinkedIn).

Clearly communicating your product's use cases and core value provides the motivation they need to move from knowing about your product to actually using it.

2. The first-time User → Committed User #

In the next level, your goal shifts from getting users to sign up to make sure that you fulfill those promises and then some.

At this stage, the content is about specific use cases. You need to explain to users how they can shape the product to match their specific workflows, like how to integrate your app with Slack or Trello.

  • Timing: When users have experienced your product, but aren't regular users.

  • Content: Most critical concepts / high-level functionality; specific use cases for your product; setup requirements (e.g. connecting to data sources); highest value actions; the path to “aha”.

  • Channels: Tooltips/product tours (Chameleon helps you build and manage these 😇); in-app messages; lifecycle emails.

When users know how to use your app, they'll be able to see it as a tool that actually helps them and they'll develop a habit around it.

user onboarding process

3. Committed User → Proponent User #

The next transition turns your regular users into your biggest fans.

Some companies do this really well by establishing a community. The community can take various forms, from getting users to attend your conference to wearing your company t-shirt on BART.

The content and channels are a bit more personal at this stage. Since users already know how to use your app (and are doing it well), you need to deepen your relationship with them. Respond to them when they tag or mention you, create an online relationship with users, and share content that shows personality and isn't strictly product-related.

  • Timing: When users have made a habit of using your app.

  • Content: Anything evangelizing your product, or deepening the connection between the user and your app.

  • Channels: Conferences, social media, company t-shirts, company Slack channel for customers.

Every level of user onboarding expands on how much your users can actually use your product—from promising solutions to showing them how to use your product to creating solutions to finally moving past solutions to form a relationship between your company and them.

User Onboarding Examples #

We can't claim that user onboarding can really be reduced to screenshots and gifs, but it's easier to think about how to start building your own after seeing how other companies do it.

That's why we put together a library of Product Marketing Inspiration, featuring examples of in-app campaigns and copy from top teams. Get inspired by the library's user onboarding examples.

Gusto's Feature-Defining Landing Page #

Preview User → First-time User

gusto user onboarding

In one of its key marketing pages, Gusto already starts to onboard users by communicating the features and their scope.

The copy uses benefits as a way to cement the idea that a feature exists and get the user thinking about how they would use automated forms, the mobile app, and automatic payroll — before they're even inside the product.

Voxox's User Onboarding Tour #

The first-time User → Committed User

As part of a new product rollout, Voxox built the onboarding tour above using Chameleon to boost user activation after seeing sharp drop-offs. With the new UX, Voxox achieved a 50% reduction in churn and a 20% increase in user activation.

The tour works well because it's short, focused on communicating the feature's purpose and guides the user to the next key action.

Help Scout's Social Engagement #

Committed User → Proponent User

On Twitter, Help Scout celebrate the success of their customers - who aren't shy about sharing their love for the platform. In this example, Help Scout is deepening their relationship by interacting on social; in another tweet, it's clear they've even sent donuts to congratulate customers in the past!

Creating committed advocates is one goal of user onboarding, and self-serve doesn't always suffice — high-touch activities like this help make it happen.

Get inspired with user onboarding examples from top products

How companies like Airbnb and HubSpot retain new users

User onboarding makes or breaks your product #

Guiding users to a new value within your product is an active and continuous process —it can't be solved through just interface design or product tours. User onboarding is a multi-channel system that shows users how they can expand their use of your product and derive new value each time they do so, but only with the appropriate combination of timing, content, and channels to help that user be successful.

As users move through the customer lifecycle, they progress when they understand how the product fits into their lives. And if they don't understand, they churn. User onboarding can be the difference between users staying and leaving.

So now you've got a better handle on what user onboarding is, check out the guide to building great onboarding.

We are great advocates of the importance of a good continuous user onboarding process rather than the set-and-forget approach. Therefore, to help you become an expert on the subject, we have prepared a series of articles that you can access from here:

Effective engagement, made easy.