The Ultimate Guide To Product Onboarding For SaaS
Love it or hate it, one thing is clear: product onboarding is an important driver of activation and retention in SaaS businesses.
If you see onboarding in the broader sense as customer education, there are few things more essential than educating your customer about how to derive value from your product.
But product onboarding is a massive topic with lots of moving parts. And if you’re new to the subject, most of the posts about onboarding online might seem confusing.
Allow us to walk you through the product onboarding best practices that we’ve learned through working with hundreds of SaaS businesses.
- Product onboarding can be equated with educating your customers about how to get the most out of your product. As such, it’s a process that never ends.
- You can only set up a successful onboarding process if you know what constitutes activation for each individual user segment.
- SaaS businesses should keep sign-up flow friction as low as possible unless their product is extremely complicated to use.
- A welcome screen is more than just an opportunity to say hi. It’s a place to segment users and gain information that informs the rest of the onboarding process.
- Use interactive walkthroughs, not product tours. Product tours are top-down, generic, and boring. Interactive walkthroughs only show the features a user needs to see in order to activate.
- No onboarding process was perfected in the first iteration, so conduct regular A/B tests to improve as you go.
- Want the tool that can do all of the above? Book a demo for Userpilot!
What is product onboarding?
Let’s begin with a basic definition.
Product Onboarding is the ongoing process of educating users about a product, especially familiarizing users with particular features as a way of reducing Time To Value.
The term “onboarding” is most frequently used to describe primary onboarding, that is to say: giving a user their first impression of the product after they’ve signed on.
The goal of primary onboarding is to guide users to their “Aha Moment” and get them to act as quickly and consistently as possible.
If you look at primary onboarding through the lens of the Product-Led Growth Flywheel, primary onboarding is just one step in the product adoption process. This process describes how users progress from merely evaluating your product into becoming advocates.
What many SaaS companies forget, however, is that onboarding is really a constant process. Customer education shouldn’t end after primary onboarding.
Later we’ll show you ways that you can continue educating your customers when they’re much further down their product adoption journey.
Regardless of when in the customer adoption journey it takes place, SaaS product onboarding is valuable for the following reasons:
- Users who have been onboarded are more likely to engage with your product.
- They are also more likely to activate and therefore be retained for longer.
- A user who really understands why your product is valuable is less likely to churn.
- Higher retention correlates with increased profitability in SaaS businesses, because most of the money is made from repeat subscriptions, as opposed to one-off acquisitions.
In the rest of this article, we’ve laid out the onboarding steps that each of your customers will follow in chronological order, starting with when they sign up for your product.
Caveat: this order of activities is a generalization, so it won’t apply to every SaaS business, but it will apply to most of them.
We’ve also noted some cases where you might consider deviating from this order, and you’ll see those as you read along.
Product onboarding step 1: identify the aha! moment and activation points
Before the user’s journey can start, you first have to know exactly what you wish to achieve by onboarding them on your product. You can’t exactly measure the success or failure of an onboarding process if you don’t know what you’re aiming at!
The goals of primary onboarding are generally getting to:
- The “Aha Moment:” that first moment of “Eureka!” where the user understands the value of your product for the first time. For simple products, this can sometimes occur before sign-up, but more frequently this happens during onboarding.
- Activation: the moment where the user has completed the tasks required of them to experience the value of your product first-hand.
When you first conceived of your product, you probably had some idea of the value you were providing in both of these areas.
For example, if you’re building project management software, then the “Aha Moment” might come when a project manager understands that using your tool is going to make their operations much less chaotic.
And perhaps the moment of activation might come when the PM builds their first project board, adds a few columns to it and inputs data into some of those columns. At this point, the PM has really experienced that feeling of order that your software was designed to bring.
You can validate your educated guess as to what both of these points are for your business by looking at product usage data.
Specifically, look at which features the users who have become regular users have interacted with. Compare that against the features that users who have churned interacted with, and see what patterns you can find.
An important nuance to bear in mind here is that the Aha Moment and activation probably look different for each user segment. In our project management software example:
- The PM cares about bringing order to operations.
- The CFO wants to make sure that tasks are done on budget.
- The CEO wants to make sure that operations align with the overall vision of the company.
Each of these different use cases will translate into a different activation point. This means that the goal of onboarding each of these personas will be different in each case.
So, to summarize the steps you should take, in order:
- Reflect on the value your product was designed to bring to users.
- Segment users into different groups.
- Come up with an Aha Moment and activation point for each segment.
- Test your assumptions with product data to see if what you think activation is correlated with what the data says.
Once you’ve come up with measurable definitions of the Aha Moment and activation, you can start to optimize the first part of the product onboarding journey: the sign-up flow.
Product onboarding step 2: reduce sign-up friction
It stands to reason that most SaaS companies will want to make the sign-up process as quick and easy for their users as possible. You want to get those users onboarded and activated as soon as you can.
In the SaaS world, obstacles to a smooth process are often referred to as “friction.” So another way of making this point would be to say that SaaS companies should think about keeping sign-up friction to a minimum.
How does this work in practice? Let’s look at some concrete examples:
- Get rid of pointless conditions in forms, such as requiring at least one number and upper-case character in a password.
- Use social sign-ups so that users can sign up with Google or Facebook, as opposed to creating a new account specific to your product.
- Minimize the number of sign-up fields. You wouldn’t want to start using a product with 27 fields on their sign-up form, and neither does your customer.
- If you can get an important piece of user data after they’ve registered, then do so. Don’t keep them on the sign-up page any longer than necessary.
- Use autofill as much as possible, so that customers don’t have to manually fill out dashes or slashes in phone and date fields.
The bottom line here is that the Internet has reduced our attention span and made us lazy! The easier you can make product onboarding for your customers, the better.
A great example of a business with a frictionless sign-up flow is Airtable.
Just look at how short and simple this form is. And note that you can sign up using Google if you’re feeling lazy.
Important caveat: My experience has been that most SaaS products benefit from a frictionless sign-up flow, but this is not always the case.
If your product is extremely complex to use, or making a mistake while using it would have life-changing consequences for customers, then you will need to spend more time on the sign-up stage than other SaaS businesses.
This is often the case if a given product requires tons of integrations before a customer can get value out of it, or if installation is highly technical and requires advanced coding knowledge.
If this is you, we suggest reading this post on SaaS sign-up flows.
Once the user has signed up, the first thing they will see is the welcome screen.
Product onboarding step 3: create a welcome screen
In our 2022 research on user onboarding trends, we found that 90% of SaaS MarTech companies utilize welcome screens.
And rightfully so, welcome screens are an important part of product onboarding for a number of reasons.
The clue for the first reason is in the name. You want a welcome screen to welcome new users. Consider gestures like:
- Greeting them by their first name
- Introducing yourself
- Add a photo of one of your team members (ideally a photogenic one!)
- Communicating the next steps
But it’s not sufficient to just be cute with your welcome screen message.
This is a product onboarding tool, after all. You want to make use of the welcome screen to help your users reach their desired product outcome as quickly as possible.
View it instead as an opportunity to boost new user activation and retention.
A welcome screen is really an opportunity to segment customers by use case, and then customize the remainder of their onboarding to their individual needs.
The more personalized the onboarding experience, the more your users will enjoy it, and the more likely it is that they will reach the Aha Moment and subsequent activation.
The way to segment users in a welcome screen is by building a microsurvey into it. This is a short survey that is taken in-app.
There are a couple of different ways of doing this.
You could combine the welcome screen with the microsurvey on one screen, like Postfity does:
Or, if you think that’s too much for your users to handle at once, you could also build the microsurvey into a separate modal that pops up immediately after the initial welcome screen.
This is what Kontentino decided to do:
Both these solutions accomplish the job of segmenting users by their use case, which is an important part of product onboarding.
And both solutions were built with Userpilot. See our YouTube tutorial on how to build Welcome Screens.
After the welcome screen, you have the option to give the customer a short onboarding survey.
Product onboarding step 4: create an onboarding survey
This is the time to gather any essential customer data that you haven’t already managed to collect during the sales call or in the sign-up flow.
Note: for businesses that need a sign-up flow with more friction, it can sometimes be advisable to get users to fill out the onboarding survey prior to sign-up, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Regardless of where in your onboarding flow users fill it in, an onboarding survey is a valuable tool for 4 reasons:
- The data you collect can be passed onto your product and marketing departments to make a better experience for your users. Practically speaking, this might mean a better UI, or fewer bugs.
- The data is automatically written down and recorded. This isn’t always the case in SaaS companies, and it can be handy to have all the data organized in a logical manner.
- You’ll make a professional impression on the customer, especially if the questions in your survey imply an understanding of the pain point that led them to use your product in the first place.
- Collecting sentiment data at this stage gives you a yardstick against which you can measure any future changes in customer sentiment.
Be sure to keep your onboarding survey short, unless, as previously discussed, that extra friction is important to your particular business model. This should be the exception, not the rule.
Here are the 5 most commonly used categories of question in SaaS onboarding surveys:
- Questions that assess purchase intent, such as “Why did you choose to work with us?”
- Questions that assess user goals, such as “What specific metrics can we use to measure success for this collaboration?”
- Questions about your customer’s broader experience with your market, such as “What solutions did you try? Please explain why they were not a perfect fit for you.”
- Questions that gauge customer sentiment, such as “How are we doing so far?”
- Open-ended questions that invite feedback about unknown problems, such as “What more can our team do to ensure this is a smooth, satisfactory process for you?”
You can find out much more about onboarding surveys, including dozens of sample questions and 5 survey templates that you can adapt, in our previous post on the subject.
After the onboarding survey, it’s time to walk your customer through the product features that are most relevant to their particular use case.
Product onboarding step 5: take the user on an interactive walkthrough
When most people think of a product walkthrough, they imagine showing each user the same list of features, in the same order, in the same way.
Put yourself in the position of someone receiving a product tour like this. Would you enjoy a top-down product tour, one where the features shown may have been pre-determined by the powers that be several months before you even came onto the scene?
I didn’t think so.
If onboarding is like customer education, then product tours like these are like school. Top-down, generic, boring. No-one learns successfully like this.
If you show the user too much irrelevant information, there’s a good chance they’ll just churn on Day 1. Not good.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, there was a reason why you used your welcome screen to segment your users earlier.
The walkthrough is the point where you showcase the specific features a user needs to activate, based on the data that the user gave you during sign-up and via the welcome screen.
If a product tour is like a lecture from a boring professor, think of a product walkthrough as a two-way conversation in which you respond in real-time to the user’s in-app behavior.
Look at how social sharing app Kontentino does it.
To activate their customers, social sharing apps need to get them to accomplish two things:
- Connect a social media account
- Make a post
We already showed you Kontentino’s welcome screen.
After collecting some initial data about their users, they then point them towards these two main features that are needed for activation.
Here’s the UI pointing the user to connect a social media account.
And here’s the user getting directed to make their first post.
Super easy. By adding this walkthrough, Kontentino were able to increase activation by 10% within one month of installing Userpilot. That’s a pretty efficient product onboarding process.
You can read more about Kontentino’s successful onboarding process here.
Product onboarding step 6: the aha moment
We previously mentioned how you should define the “Aha Moment” and what activation means for each user segment, right when you first start thinking about designing your product onboarding process.
If you’ve done everything correctly, the walkthrough is the latest stage at which your user should experience the “Aha Moment.” As mentioned earlier, for some more simple products, the user might even understand the value of the product before even signing up in the first place.
The beautiful thing about a product walkthrough is that it neatly leads the user to activation.
If activation is the end goal of the product walkthrough, it’s literally impossible for a given user to complete the product walkthrough checklist and NOT activate.
That’s because by completing the walkthrough, the user has experienced the value of the product in a visceral, real way.
Note again how different this is from a traditional product tour, which would probably just leave users confused by all the range of features available.
Since the concepts of the Aha Moment and activation can sometimes be hard to relate to in abstraction, here’s a concrete example for you.
We previously interviewed Daniil Kopilevych, Growth Marketing Manager at HelpCrunch. HelpCrunch is a customer communication platform for support, marketing and sales.
Daniil told us that the Aha Moment for HelpCrunch’s most common use case arises when a user sees the live chat widget on their own website after installing a code snippet.
“We realized that without installing the live chat widget on their website, our users cannot talk to their customers in real-time and thus use HelpCrunch to the fullest potential.”
Daniil Kopilevych, Growth Marketing Manager at HelpCrunch
To maximize the odds of users reaching the Aha Moment, Daniil set up an installation wizard that users see directly after signing up. It’s easy to use, and directs customers to the feature they’ll need in order to activate later down the line.
For the users that still struggle to activate, HelpCrunch also decided to offer a customer success manager to help install the widget, along with documentation from their knowledge base. They made this available in-app, by email, and even through a Facebook retargeting campaign.
Quite the impressive product onboarding strategy, and we’re not surprised that this led to increased numbers of users reaching the Aha Moment.
Product onboarding step 7: don’t forget secondary onboarding
So you’ve activated your users. Congratulations! This is a point that many SaaS companies struggle to reach consistently.
But your work isn’t done yet.
Remember how earlier we said that onboarding was a never-ending journey? Well, now is the time to think about onboarding customers onto new feature releases, or onto upsells.
You can think of this as continually leading the customer further down the product adoption journey. Or you might call it “secondary onboarding,” “tertiary onboarding,” or even “evergreen onboarding!
There are 4 main tools you have at your disposal for secondary onboarding:
- Native tooltips. These are little beacons in your UI that get highlighted when users mouse over them, as a way of pointing out parts of the UI that perhaps aren’t the most intuitive.
- Checklists. If you want your customer to take certain steps in a pre-determined order, a checklist is a great way to accomplish this. You often see short checklists in product walkthroughs.
- Experience flows. Perhaps you want to serve a particular user segment a tooltip, followed by a checklist, followed by a modal that shows them a video. But you want each of these steps to occur only after the previous one has been completed. This mixing and matching of different product experiences is called a flow.
- Support center. This is a little widget that lives inside your app and allows users to pull up documents from your knowledge base if they get stuck. It’s a really handy tool for self-service support.
Rather conveniently, Userpilot has the ability to allow you to create each of these!
Again, a concrete example is instructional. Let’s look at how Hubspot uses a tooltip for secondary onboarding purposes.
As a well-established company, Hubspot needs to pay attention to turning its large number of activated users into advanced users who really understand all the nuances of their platform.
In this example, Hubspot’s tooltip encourages users to save their email as a template, in order to save time in the future.
It’s not something that the user necessarily needs to understand on Day 1 of using Hubspot, but it’s a helpful nuance that will make them a more efficient user of the product.
In other words, a good candidate to show customers in a secondary onboarding flow.
Product onboarding never ends: test and iterate
Plot twist: it’s not a set it and forget it kind of deal.
No product onboarding process will be perfect the first time you implement it. In fact, most onboarding processes are intelligent guesses at best.
It’s much more likely that you devise the best way to implement the steps above through trial and error, and learn from your mistakes along the way.
You’ll make better decisions if you rely on hard data, as opposed to intuition or assumptions.
This is where a tool like an A/B test can come in handy. It’s smart to think like a mad scientist! You should run different product experiments and let the data show you which product iteration is best for onboarding users.
You can run A/B tests using Userpilot as well, by the way.
Here are some examples of things you could test:
- Add a tooltip that highlights a specific feature to a specific segment, and see if engagement increases.
- Put CTAs in different locations, or try experimenting with different colors.
- Change the order of the options on the navigation bar.
- Use a checklist to see if showing a user how far they have come with completing a task increases the odds of them seeing it through to the end.
- Add contextual help to a page where a majority of users get stuck.
The limit is really just your imagination with this one.
Whatever you choose to test, your experiments will give you data that shows which UI designs are the best for onboarding users and, perhaps more importantly, why users behave the way they do.
They might also be a great thorn in the side of that annoying person on every product team who “just knows” that their favorite design is the best, but you didn’t hear that from me…
Ready to start on your own SaaS onboarding?
We hope you’ve enjoyed this ultimate guide to product onboarding! We’ve strived to make it as comprehensive as possible. If there’s anything you feel should be added, let us know in the comments below.
You may have noticed that Userpilot is a fantastically versatile onboarding tool. Among others, it has the capabilities to:
- Deploy a product walkthrough
- Segment users
- Create tooltips
- Create a Help Center
- Create checklists
- Analyze which onboarding element is working best
Want to learn more? Book a call with one of our product onboarding specialists. Just click on the banner below to get started.