Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 06, 2018 · 14 min read

User Onboarding: 9 Steps to Perfecting your Onboarding Process

Perfecting your onboarding process

What happens when a new user signs up for your product?

If you’re like most companies, you might send out a few half-hearted emails or give a quick ‘tip tour’ the first time they log in. But other than that, you think the tool speaks for itself. They obviously found you for a reason and should be motivated enough to figure out how to use your product on their own.

Well, they’re not.

In fact, according to writer and VC, Andrew Chen, the average app loses 77% of its daily active users within the first three days after they install.

Let’s let that sink in for a second.

You spend so much time and money building a beautiful website and tool, writing informative blog posts, running ads and marketing campaigns. So when a customer finally decides to make a leap of faith, why are you leaving them to drown?

Those first experiences with your product—more commonly known as user onboarding—are some of the most important factors in determining your user’s success. And if you get it right, you’ll have a powerful, repeatable tool for turning new signups into loyal, engaged customers.

Let’s take a deep dive into what makes a powerful user onboarding process, the tools and resources you have at your disposal, and some of the best practices used by your favorite startups and companies.

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What (exactly) is user onboarding?

Onboarding is the process of helping new users understand and experience how your product is going to help them achieve their goal.

It’s about proving to them that your product is the solution to the problem that motivated them to find you in the first place. If you can’t do that quickly, users are going to leave. And why shouldn’t they?

As Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook says:

No one cares about the thing you’ve designed until they get past the beginning.

Onboarding gets users past the awkward uncertainty of trying out your tool and empowers them to do exactly what they came to do. When done right (which we’ll get into next), onboarding should feel like magic—an invisible hand that guides them through every step of their lifecycle.

The job of onboarding isn’t to show users your features

One thing that might have felt like it was missing from our user onboarding description was your product’s features. Isn’t that the whole point of onboarding? To teach users how your product works so they have do what they want?


In fact, the most common reason onboarding fails is because you’re focusing too much on what you want, and not enough on what your user wants. So why do so many companies still fall into this trap? Because it’s easier.

Most onboarding flows fall into one of two categories:

  1. Either you quickly point out your interface the first time a user logs in and expect them to remember everything when they need to
  2. Or, you decide what you want the user to do and push them towards that generic ‘goal’ by guiding them through a predetermined setup

The problem with both of these approaches is that they’re just thinly veiled attempts to show off your features. But onboarding isn’t about features. It’s about shifting your thinking from “look at what we made” to “how can what we’ve made solve your individual problem.” It’s an important distinction that too many companies don’t take seriously.

Just think about this stat for a second: When Microsoft asked their users what they wanted added to Office, they found that 90% of the requested features were already there.

It doesn’t matter what features you show your users if they don’t see success using them.

The essential elements of a great onboarding process

So what do you do if you’re not supposed to just show users your features?

Your onboarding process should be a combination of education, inspiration, and actionable and timely insights. Every product is unique, and how you handle onboarding will come down to what you know about your users, their needs, how they learn, and what makes your product stick with them. However, before we get into the specific best practices for building your onboarding process, let’s quickly cover all the different tools and resources you can use:

  1. Sign-up form: This is the first touchpoint for your user and can quickly set the tone for the rest of their onboarding experience. Are you asking for a lot upfront or are you letting them get into the flow quickly and easily?
  2. Welcome email: This is the first time you show up in their inbox. What can you do to engage them and excite them about your service?
  3. Product tutorial videos: Visuals can be a fun and engaging way to get people started.
  4. First log-in: What happens when they first log-in? What do they see? How do you find out more about them and guide them on their journey?
  5. Educational emails: When you show up in their inbox again, what are you teaching them? Are you showing them value or are you still focusing on features?
  6. In-app messaging and ‘empty states’: Messaging when you know a user is in your app is a powerful way to give support and guidance in context. How are you using it to your advantage?
  7. Documentation and help docs: When your users need help, can they find it? Is it clear what they need to do?
  8. Data imports and invitations: What does the experience of inviting teammates or importing data look like?
  9. Follow-up calls: Do you collect phone calls and follow up with more support or offering a demo/tour? When? How do you know who to call?
  10. Event-based emails: As users start to see success and hit milestones are you communicating with them and continuing to help them get more success?

Do you have to use all of these? No. But a good onboarding process doesn’t just look at the first time someone uses your product. It continues guiding and supporting them as you learn more about their specific wants and needs.

9 best practices and strategies for perfecting your onboarding process

Now that you understand what the goal of onboarding is, some common pitfalls, and the tools at your disposal, let’s look at how to put this all together into an onboarding process that feels tailored to each one of your users:

1. Interview users to understand why they’re coming to your product and where they came from

As we’ve said before, user onboarding is all about showing value and giving your users success. And that starts with understanding who they are.

Every user has multiple goals they’re looking to get with your product. For them to be successful and convert to a long-term users, you need to empower them to hit all of them. That means their:

You won’t (and can’t) know all these reasons for each individual user. So ask.

Interview current users and ask what brought them to your app/product? What had to happen for their use to be successful? Who else has to be successful in order for them to feel like they’re getting value?

This information will give you a solid understanding of your user’s motivations and help design the actual onboarding flow.

For consumer apps, you can even work in asking these questions into your initial experience. Just take Headspace—the meditation app—for example. In a recent update to their onboarding flow, they introduced questions early on to determine and optimize the experience based on a user’s specific needs:

Headspace Onboarding Tweet by @vickiheart

For them, that means asking what your past experience is with meditation, learning why you came to Headspace, and then defining practical needs like when you can meditate and for how long.

For your product, it could be the size of their team, their goals, common motivations, or experience with similar tools. Just ask yourself, what do I need to know in order to give my users the best initial experience possible?

2. Define what ‘success’ looks like for each of your customer use cases

Asking questions about your users means that you’re going to have to design different flows for different use cases. And if you have different users, each with different, unique goals, this can get complicated.

But user onboarding isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. As we said before, it’s all about showing your user the success they came to find. And the quicker you can get each individual to one of these ‘wow moments’—where they see that success by using your product—the better chance you have of keeping them.

So, how do you know what those ‘wow moments’ look like? It all comes back to helping your users hit the goals you figured out in the first section.

Let’s say we make a project management tool for teams and we’re onboarding a new trial user. Let’s break down their specific goals and see how we can define ‘wow moments’ for each:

For their function goal, a wow moment might be when they start using your sprint planning feature and get their Agile team aligned. For their personal goal, showing them the power of your role-based task management can make them feel in control of what’s happening and who’s working on it. Finally, for their social goal, it might come down to showing off their success to their boss through robust reporting, or using time tracking to prove they’re staying on budget.

Understanding the deeper successes that your user’s are looking for is an important part of a powerful onboarding process. They’re not picking your project management tool because they want to make a better to-do list. They want to deliver a project on time and under budget. They want to show their boss they’re a leader and get prestige and acknowledgement.

Each of these successes and their associated ‘wow moments’ are goals that your onboarding needs to get your user to quickly and efficiently.

3. Create and use hooks to get customers invested in your tool

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with onboarding is assuming that it happens in a vacuum. No one is sitting down, blocking out the rest of their lives and just learning to use your tool. The same distractions that pull at your user’s attention all day long are still around when they’re first trying out your product.

However, nothing motivates users more than seeing success. So, now that you know what your user wants, it’s time to give it to them.

I can’t stress enough how this is the most important part of your onboarding process. If you can show a user what success looks like in practice, you’ve got them. Behavioral designer Nir Eyal calls this creating “hooks”—actions that, the more your user takes them, the more likely they’ll become habits.

Hooks: Trigger, Action, Reward

A hook consists of four parts:

  1. Trigger: What tells a user that it’s time to take an action? In the case of your onboarding process this could be an email, a tip tool, or a pop-up notification in the app.
  2. Action: What is the simplest action that user can take to get the reward? Is it to start a new project? Import their contacts? Like a photo?
  3. Reward: Which of their goals are you appealing to with this action? How quickly do they see the success they’re looking for?
  4. Investment: What does the user invest into the product now that makes the experience better? Is it tasks for a project? Team member profiles?

Each time you get a user to go through this cycle, they become more knowledgeable about how to use your features as well as see the success they came looking for. It’s a win-win.

Let’s look at Pinterest for a second. Rather than run their users through a step-by-step onboarding process they just put them into their own feed right away. The designers at Pinterest know that the success users are looking for is to pin items they find interesting. So, they let you do that and use that investment in the app to trigger a new series of unboarding.

If you can design your onboarding flows to always focus on the next step that gets users to more “wow moments” you’ll educate them and get them invested in using your product without them even noticing.

4. Break items down and leave something to be discovered

Another common onboarding mistake is to ask too much of your users right from the start. We call this ‘onboarding overwhelm’. Luckily, there’s a simple solution: break down the tasks they need to do into the smallest possible pieces and ask them to take one step at a time.

For example, let’s look at Dropbox. Rather than asking their users to sync folders and add all their files at once, they simply say upload one file. That’s it. In terms of Eyal’s Hook method, that is by far the simplest action you can ask someone to take in order to see a ‘wow moment’.

Small tasks like this are simpler, faster, and almost too easy. And as an added bonus, they leave room for users to find features on their own.

But wait, why would you want to actively not show your users features during their initial onboarding?

Well, we have a funny cognitive bias called the Ikea effect, which says that we place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. In the context of onboarding, this means you can create a stronger connection with users by letting them discover some features rather than spoon feeding them each and every one. Start with the simplest action, and go from there.

5. Keep momentum by setting expectations and showing their progress

Speaking of cognitive biases that can supercharge your onboarding process, showing a user their progress is another way to keep them motivated throughout the entire flow.

When we don’t know how long a process is going to take, it’s hard to commit to seeing it through. However, if we feel like we only have to take 5 more steps to complete our onboarding, we’re going to do it. This is thanks to the completion bias—another mental hiccup that makes us feel especially good when we can tick something off a list and say it’s done.

It’s also why so many onboarding processes use progress bars that clearly show how much a user has left to go. However, there’s a few things to consider if you’re going to be using a progressive onboarding process like this:

  1. Make it skippable: Progress is great if you can get through it. But certain parts of your process might require users to do things they’re not prepared (or are unable) to do right away. Don’t let this be a blocker. Instead, make sure they can get through each section of your onboarding as easily as possible. You can always ask for that information later.
  2. Chunk your onboarding: Shorter is better. But that’s not always optimal if you want to get a user seeing success early on. Instead, try chunking your onboarding into modules based around different levels of success. As long as they’re continually hitting the goal they came to do, the’ll keep coming back.

6. Use progressive profiling and reduce the friction for getting started

At this point, there’s a few themes that seem to be appearing around what makes for successful user onboarding. Mainly, simplicity and reducing friction.

Progressive Profiling

At least from the user’s perspective, each part of your onboarding flow should feel so easy that they don’t have a good reason not to do it. However, there are two places where too many companies forget this.

First, how does your user sign up and log in?

It can be tempting to ask a new user to create an account right away and verify their email, but is it absolutely necessary in every case? Can you use social logins to make it easier for a user to get started? Can you show them value before they even create an account like Duolingo (which only asks you to sign up to ‘save your progress’).

Second, how much information do they really have to give you right away?

The more you know about a customer the better you can serve them (and onboard them). But asking for their mailing address, phone number, and first pet’s name before they can see any level of success just pushes them further away.

This comes back to understanding your customer and onboarding for their needs, not yours. Do they want to write their life story before they see real value from your product? Probably not.

Let’s look at TravelZoo for a second. When you first sign up, they only ask you for two pieces of information: your email and your postal code. Because they know the ‘wow moment’ will come from getting local deals, that’s an important part of their initial onboarding.

TravelZoo Signup Form

What information do you absolutely have to have upfront to give a great onboarding process? Stick with the minimum and then use progressive profiling to let users tell you more about themselves as they get more invested in using your product.

Whenever you’re asking something of your users in their initial experience, you need to make sure you’re giving them enough value to justify it.

7. Build in flows that connect teams and create an ‘onboarding leader’

If your product is meant to be used by teams or organizations, the more people you can get using it early on, the better. Plus, remember our ‘social goal’ from earlier? Creating onboarding flows that include other teammates can help fulfill one of the more nuanced needs of users in larger organizations: showing off what the tool can do.

Once you’ve shown value to an individual user it’s important to give them an opportunity to invite teammates. However, you need to give them the proper context around why they’d want to do this. What success will inviting a teammate give them? What will that person have to do when they sign up?

You need to give your first users the proper context around why they’d want to invite their teammates.

As the person leading the adoption of a new tool, your user is most likely trying to change the status quo of their job and could be under a bit of pressure. So, it’s important to make sure they’re at a level of success and comfort with your product before asking them to bring in collaborators. There’s nothing more embarrassing than people coming to you with questions you can’t answer.

Additionally, onboarding teams adds a whole other layer of complication to your onboarding process. First off, teams often have different blockers at different stages. Who has access to a credit card or to integrations with their other tools? Who gives sign off on using a new tool or says it’s okay to upload user data?

You need to be aware that the person who you’re onboarding might not necessarily be the person who can get through all these steps at once.

An easy way to solve this is to build in ‘escape hatches’—ways for them to skip steps and complete the setup process. Just like progressive profiling, you’ll be able to come back and ask for these later.

8. Create educational and aspirational content to give hands-off support

While we all love to be told what to do, many users don’t want to be simply taken through a flow. Just like they’ve proven time and time again that lecturing is the worst way to teach students, sitting back and telling your users everything at once won’t get them engaged.

However, leaving your users to their own devices can also lead to frustration and discouragement. It’s a fine balance. Which is why offering additional, contextual resources during and after your onboarding flow is a great way to get the best of both worlds.

But what resources do you need?

First, try to anticipate the next question your user will have and provide it only when they need it.

One of the best ways to do this is to center information around user intent. For example, in my project management tool, a user shows intent when they click the button to create a new project. Which means now is a good time to show them additional information or give them links to best practices and tutorials.

In Slack—the popular team messaging app—they do this by drawing attention to important elements on each page as you explore the app. Each time you navigate to a page or try a new feature, it shows your intent to learn more about that, triggering more onboarding education.

Second, not all education and onboarding has to happen at once. Some users learn in different ways and at different paces. So, giving them options that work with their schedule and learning style can help keep them engaged.

This could mean offering:

Offering a one-size-fits-all solution for onboarding is easier for you, but leaves your customers looking for something better.

9. Make sure you have visibility into when users are dropping off

Finally, a truly great user onboarding process feels tailored for the user. And the more insight you can get into how new users are using your product, the better chance you have of jumping in and intervening when they look like they’re slipping away.

Find ways to track usage and alert you and your success team if a customer is stalled or seems to be having issues. Sure, maybe they just realized you're not the right option for them. But they might also just be having issues and not know where to turn for help.

Make your onboarding experience personal and reactive to their actual issues and you’ll become ingrained in their workflow.

Onboarding is never really “done”

If you don’t have any real onboarding process, are launching a new features, or feel like your flow could use a revamp, this list is a good place to start. However, onboarding never really ‘ends’. As your product changes your onboarding has to change with it. And, perhaps even more importantly, as your users grow and change, how you teach and empower them will have to evolve as well.

Start with deeply understanding your users and their needs and then periodically check to see if your onboarding is helping them get there. The more you know about them, the better you’ll be at helping them get the success they need to stay with your product.

And remember, onboarding and building a business in general isn’t just about the product. It’s about the experience you create and the sentiment your user has. Great support and a solid brand are just as important to your onboarding process as anything we’ve talked about. So make sure your whole time is aligned and ready to give the best possible support at all times.

There’s a lot to learn. But that’s what makes this fun. If you’re committed to giving your user’s the best possible experience, a great onboarding process will naturally follow.