One of the most — if not the most — important points in a product user’s journey is where it begins. That first step is referred to as onboarding, and it can make or break a user’s experience with a product. After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

What is user onboarding?

User onboarding is the process by which new users become proficient in an application. User onboarding encompasses the initial experience in the application, online or offline training, goal-setting, and the organization’s customer success process.

Why is user onboarding important?

Onboarding happens whether the experience is curated or not. Companies that prioritize the onboarding experience can make their users proficient much more quickly. The growth of SaaS applications has dramatically reduced customers’ switching costs. They are much more likely to churn if they don’t realize value quickly, thus helping a customer accelerate time to value is key to churn prevention.

How do I measure user onboarding effectiveness?

Onboarding should be measured like any other aspect of the user experience. Usage of specific onboarding guides, the rate at which users complete the process, and how long it takes them to complete it are all important elements of a healthy onboarding process. Successful onboarding is highly correlated with customer satisfaction. Therefore, conducting post-onboarding Net Promoter surveys can be helpful for benchmarking. Ultimately, the goal of onboarding is to accelerate product proficiency. Many companies establish feature milestones or usage frequency benchmarks to measure the success of individual user onboarding.

Who is responsible for user onboarding?

User onboarding is a team effort and can take place through multiple channels. For example, users can be onboarded directly within the product through guides and walkthroughs. In that case, the product team definitely has a hand in crafting the onboarding experience. Onboarding is also a function of customer success or professional services teams, who might hold training sessions to get new users up and running.

What are the steps to successful onboarding?

Successful onboarding drives new users to experience “a-ha” moments, or the personal realization of a product’s value proposition or fulfillment of marketing’s promise. There is a distinct series of steps that are required to lead a new user from their initial product experience to their first a-ha. They include:

Welcome and orientation

User onboarding should include an introduction to the app and an orientation to the main navigation patterns. Users will understand the general purpose of the app, and how to access the pages and areas needed to complete key tasks.

Configuration

Some products require setup or installation before the user can get started. For a file-sharing or collaboration tool, the user may need to add contacts or teammates. For a music discovery app, the user may need to define their listening preferences. Onboarding should guide the user through any configuration steps needed to accomplish the important outcomes.

Setup tasks and payoff tasks

An a-ha moment (or payoff task) happens when the user experiences the action or outcome that initially brought them to the product. For a to-do app, this might be checking off a task, or for a billing tool, it might be receiving payment from a customer. These payoff tasks are often paired with a setup task. For the task management app, before a task can be completed, the user must first create a task. Effective user onboarding will guide the user through the payoff tasks while calling attention to the setup tasks that make up the complete process.

What’s the difference between product onboarding and user onboarding?

Product onboarding and user onboarding are related, but distinct terms. Product onboarding refers to the macro systems in place to make a product discoverable during the early stages of a customer’s journey, while user onboarding is the application of those systems at the individual user level.

What are some best practices for user onboarding?

Here are a few of the ways your team can set users up for success:

Design onboarding experiences for each unique user segment

If the app serves different user roles, tailor onboarding to the specific needs of each persona. By designing onboarding for each unique type of user, companies can drive new users to their specific a-ha moments more quickly and deliver the context needed to keep users engaged.

Differentiate between new users and new accounts

For business-to-business products, each account likely has multiple users, with new team members joining regularly. A new user to an existing account can take a more streamlined onboarding if the primary account configuration has already taken place. In this scenario, the goal of user onboarding is to get the new team member up to speed on the existing account activity, not to establish the account from scratch.

Adjust for different learning styles

Think through different ways that users could progress through the onboarding experience. A company might design modularized onboarding content that allows users to explore topics in the order they prefer. Indicators like a progress bar or completion percentage are helpful, especially for longer, sequence-dependent onboarding. When possible, try to incorporate multiple communication modes, like video demos and illustrated walkthroughs. Finally, gamification can provide motivation and encourage onboarding completion.

Treat onboarding as a discrete user experience

Remember that onboarding is fundamentally a user experience (UX) challenge that is both a part of, yet distinct from, the overall application. Onboarding design should be approached and tested using conventional UX practices including a customer journey map or story map as well as user testing (to verify assumptions about how the user will interact with onboarding flows, consume information, and measure onboarding effectiveness).

Recommended reading

Onboarding Is Your Product’s Résumé: Maria Thomas of Insightly by Eric Boduch

What do you put on your résumé? Ideally, it includes not only the highlights of your past achievements but also what you’re capable of. In this interview, Maria Thomas of Insightly shares why you should think of your product’s onboarding sequence as a kind of “product résumé.”

5 Unique Ways to Improve User Activation [Tips & Examples] by Yazan Sehwail

Looking to get your users to those critical “a-ha” moments even faster? This article shares five tips for doing just that, plus an interesting case study that demonstrates how teams can put these recommendations into action.

Sticky From the Start: How to Create Products That Stick by Shaun Juncal

Learn why stickiness isn’t always the best thing for your users, plus how you can encourage more of the “good kind” of stickiness during your onboarding process.

From Conversion to Retention: Industry Experts on Improving Your Onboarding from Inside Intercom

Read or listen to this conversation on conversion, onboarding, stickiness, retention, and churn featuring experts like Scott Belsky of Adobe.

How to Reduce Churn to Increase Profitability by Sharanya Manola

Churn is a tough topic for every company. This article explains why a strong onboarding experience heads off potential churn from the very start.