Good user onboarding for SaaS is part science, part art.
Given how closely onboarding relates to important metrics like activation and retention, it’s essential to get it right.
In this ultimate guide, you’ll find all our top tips for onboarding in one place, including how to build a great onboarding flow, what software to use and the best examples!
Let’s get right into it.
- Onboarding is the ongoing process of educating users about a product.
- It’s an essential topic for SaaS because of how closely onboarding correlates with financially significant metrics like activation and retention.
- Common onboarding tools include signup flows, onboarding emails, welcome screens, checklists, tooltips, interactive walkthroughs, and webinars.
- Onboarding processes can be proactive, where the company is driving users towards a known behavior. Or they can be reactive, where the company is waiting for the customer to make a move before deciding how to proceed.
- Before you set up your own onboarding process, be sure to segment your users and determine what constitutes activation for each segment.
- Additionally, determine whether you want your signup flow to be frictionless or friction-based.
- Don’t forget secondary onboarding, and keep A/B testing your process to improve it over time.
- When selecting onboarding software, make sure you choose something that allows you to segment users, communicate with them in-app, customize walkthroughs, analyze user behavior and provide users with self-service support.
- The best onboarding software on the market is Userpilot.
- Other options include Appcues, Chameleon, Pendo, Walkme, and Whatfix.
- It’s easier to take inspiration from other companies’ onboarding flows than it is to reinvent the wheel.
What is SaaS user onboarding?
Onboarding is the ongoing process of educating users about a product, especially familiarizing users with features as a way of reducing Time to Value.
In the SaaS world, the word “onboarding” is most often used to describe primary onboarding.
That is to say: teaching a customer about a product which they’ve just started using.
The initial goal of primary onboarding is to take users to their so-called “Aha Moment” — the instant when they understand the value of your product for the first time.
For simple products, the “Aha Moment” might occur during sign-up (or even before it), but most of the time, this happens during primary onboarding.
After the user reaches their “Aha Moment,” the next goal of primary onboarding is to get them to activate. This means that the user experiences the value of your product for the first time.
Activation is visceral, practical, and real.
It’s more than just an abstract intellectual understanding of how your product works.
For example, if a project manager is using software to help him organize tasks, the “Aha Moment” would be when he recognizes that a tool like this has the potential to save him a lot of time.
But activation only occurs when he builds the first project management board, inserts a few tasks, and assigns them to his team.
Putting all this together, you can think of primary onboarding as encapsulating all the experiences that a new user encounters before activating.
It’s one step in the product adoption process, as described by the Product-Led Growth Flywheel. This process outlines how users move from merely evaluating your product to advocating for it.
But what many SaaS executives forget is that primary onboarding is only the first step in what should be an ongoing journey of customer education.
If you accept our definition of onboarding as ‘customer education’ in a broader sense, you’ll understand that learning about anything is actually a life-long process.
So even when you release a new product feature, two years into a customer’s experience with your product, the learning that takes place at that moment can still be termed as onboarding.
We like to think of onboarding later on in the customer lifecycle as “secondary onboarding.”
You can also conceive of “tertiary onboarding,” or even say “evergreen onboarding” to highlight the fact that it’s a never-ending process.
Good onboarding software will allow you to manage the onboarding process regardless of where you are in the customer lifecycle.
Why is user onboarding important for SaaS?
Don’t take activation for granted and think that it happens automatically.
You’d be surprised at how many customers the average SaaS company fails to retain on Day 1 of their product usage alone.
Users are only going to stick around to experience activation if you make it smooth and easy for them to do so. That’s where onboarding comes in.
Ideally, you want to reduce the time between sign-up and activation to a minimum. This metric is called Time-to-Value, and it’s inversely correlated with the quality of your onboarding process.
Later down the customer journey, continuing to educate users through secondary onboarding drives even more value, since customers won’t use secondary product features if they don’t understand them.
The more features of your product that your customer deems valuable enough to use, the less likely they are to want to stop using your product. Lower churn = more growth for you.
And it’s retention that is the real money-maker for SaaS businesses, as those monthly subscription payments compound over time. You’re unlikely to recoup the investment of building your product on the basis of one or two monthly payments alone.
We see evidence in the market that more and more SaaS businesses understand the commercial value of onboarding.
Our State of SaaS Onboarding report for 2021 found that as many as 96% of SaaS businesses are using at least 1 in-app onboarding element — that’s an 8% growth from 2019.
And the financial benefit of good onboarding extends beyond just the revenue side of SaaS businesses.
The more optimized your in-app onboarding becomes, the less there is a need for large, salaried customer success and support teams.
Think of all the costs this could save you — and think of how all those savings will compound over time!
Now that I’ve got your attention…
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what your onboarding process should include.
What to include in SaaS new user onboarding
Here are some UI patterns that are effective for SaaS user onboarding processes.
For each pattern, we’ll explain what it’s used for, and why it matters.
As in the offline world, first impressions matter.
The moment when your user signs up for your platform for the first time is therefore one of the most critical stages in any SaaS product’s customer journey.
You have two options for how to design your signup flow:
- Frictionless signup: where the signup is as quick and smooth as humanly possible.
- Friction-based signup: where the signup is designed to take longer, in exchange for more value provided later on.
Most SaaS companies will want to go for a more frictionless signup, especially if their product is simple. Your user wants to get stuck into your product, so get out of their way and let them.
Friction-based signups are useful for products whose value depends on the user providing large amounts of information upfront. Sometimes the product won’t work at all without all of this initial information gathering.
For more information about signup flows, read this post.
Most SaaS companies send their new users a welcome email to thank them for joining their platform.
Sometimes these emails form an extended sequence.
For example, I recently signed up to a software platform to help me move house, and they sent me a four-email welcome series.
Of course, these emails should say more than just “Hi, thanks for using our platform.”
A typical onboarding email flow might consist of an invitation to an onboarding webinar, a case study about a power user, or suggestions for how to invite friends to collaborate on your platform.
The point is to share knowledge about how to get the most out of using your product.
Here are some best practices to consider for writing your welcome emails:
- Match the copy and tone of the emails — even the subject line — to your brand. Be as human and relatable as possible, even if the sequence is an automated one.
- Use plain-text emails to maximize clicks and interactions, as opposed to HTML emails. Otherwise, you risk landing in Gmail’s “Promotions” tab or, worse, in spam.
- Send your emails from a real person’s email address, not from email@example.com. You want to be personable and show that you will reply to any queries.
For more email copywriting tips, check out this post.
Since onboarding is an evergreen process, you’ll also want to occasionally send out email drip campaigns to keep users up to date.
This is especially valuable for reactivating users who have not logged in for some time.
In-app SaaS user onboarding: interactive walkthrough vs. product tour
When most people think of onboarding, they tend to think of a blow-by-blow guide to all of the product features at once.
This is called a “product tour,” and it takes place in-app. Businesses that use them typically show users the same list of features each time, even in the same order.
The problem with product tours is that they are top-down and generic. No one learns efficiently when they are being lectured to in a way that doesn’t speak to their individual needs.
Also, asking someone to complete step 3 in a process when they haven’t even taken step 1 isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
Just look at this GIF from a product tour of a small email marketing tool – it literally doesn’t care if I’ve actually completed the required action or not before showing me the next one.
No wonder product tours aren’t exactly SaaS users’ darlings…
Enter the “interactive walkthrough.”
Like a product tour, a walkthrough shows customers product features in-app.
But, unlike a product tour, a walkthrough only showcases the specific features that a particular user needs to activate.
What’s more, a walkthrough is an active process.
Rather than passively watch a boring video on how to use dozens of irrelevant features, the user will normally be given a checklist of key features to work through, like this.
This naturally leads the user on a pathway towards activation, which, as we’ve already discussed, is an important commercial milestone.
Welcome Screens in SaaS user onboarding
A welcome screen is an initial message that pops up when a user signs into your app for the first time.
It contains two main elements:
- A modal that greets new users in a friendly manner
- A microsurvey that segments users into use cases so that their subsequent product experience matches their individual needs
Best practices for the modal element include:
- Greeting the user by their first name
- Introducing yourself and your company
- Adding a photo of one of your team
- Communicating next steps
Using the microsurvey element correctly all comes down to your perspective.
Think of your welcome screen as an opportunity to help your users reach their desired product outcome as efficiently as possible. Anything else will just be seen as additional friction.
The welcome screen can be harnessed to personalize interactive walkthroughs, secondary features, and more.
Onboarding checklist for your SaaS user onboarding
Checklists are often used during SaaS user onboarding as a way to organize the key tasks that you want early-stage users to perform.
Checklists make use of the Zeigarnik effect as a way of encouraging users to complete tasks that are important steps within the overall user onboarding process.
Here are some best practices to help you get the most value out of creating a checklist for new users:
- Keep the checklist brief. Include only the 2-3 points that are needed to get that particular use case to activate
- Break complex tasks down into simple, actionable, specific todos
- Where possible, make users feel good about themselves by giving them credit on the checklist for tasks they’ve already done previously
- Make the first task as quick and easy as possible
For more tips on how to construct a good onboarding checklist, refer to this post.
To ensure the user progress through the interactive walkthrough is as smooth as possible, many companies use tooltips to create an “onboarding flow.”
These tooltips are not immediately visible when the customer first logs into the app, but rather appear on the basis of the user’s in-app actions over time.
For example, imagine you’re designing an onboarding process for a social media sharing app. Activation for this app consists of users adding a social media profile and then sharing their first post.
In this instance, you could define a custom event called “user has added a social profile,” and only display the tooltip highlighting the steps to share a post once your software has recorded the user as having completed that custom event.
This makes the onboarding process much smoother for your user. They wouldn’t want to see UI telling them to make a post if they haven’t connected their social media yet.
For more subtle onboarding hints, lots of SaaS companies use native tooltips.
These are standalone tooltips, in the sense that they don’t require other UI elements in order to function, nor require the user to go through an onboarding flow before they display.
For this reason, native tooltips are often used to highlight to the customer UI elements that are somewhat straightforward, but not completely intuitive.
One example might be a help tooltip that displays when a user decides to scroll over a particular feature.
Building tooltips can be a rather frustrating process if you do it with HTML and CSS, but fortunately, there are onboarding platforms that make this easy to do without code.
For more on tooltips and how to build them, we suggest you check out this post.
Proactive vs. reactive user onboarding
These are twin concepts that describe two different types of onboarding processes:
- Proactive onboarding is when you know the exact steps a user needs to take in order to activate, and proactively drive them down that exact path.
- Reactive onboarding is when the steps a user needs to take in order to activate are not fully understood and dependent on in-app behavior. You therefore need to wait for the user to take action before your software can show them the next stage of onboarding for their specific use case.
You might remember our earlier example of a social media scheduling app that activates users by getting them to add a social account and then post.
This is a very linear path to activation and a good example of a company with a proactive onboarding process.
A company like this would need to create a mind map and push users down a pre-set path according to yes/no in-app events.
Conversely, a project management app probably needs to have an onboarding process which is more reactive.
That’s because there are so many different personas that use project management software, each of which has its own set of needs.
Exactly what those needs are will be discovered through the welcome screen and subsequent in-app behavior.
To learn more about proactive and reactive onboarding, we recommend this post.
Webinars are commonly used in onboarding as a way of shortening the distance between your company and its customers.
They make customers feel cared for, and invitation-only webinars even have a degree of exclusivity.
Webinars provide value at every stage of onboarding, for every type of user. Here are some possible examples:
- Giving a nudge to users who are about to churn can be a great way of guarding against issues with Day 1 retention.
- Once customers have activated, you can onboard them into using secondary product features using a webinar, thereby converting them into power users.
- Power users are likely to understand all of your product features already, so consider creating personalized webinars for them to discuss their specific individual use case.
For more information about how to use onboarding webinars, consider reading this post.
Gamification is often used in onboarding to make the process more fun for users.
Various rewards are used as incentives for desired tasks, such as:
In this example of a gamified welcome screen, the user is asked to choose their avatar!
This makes a nice difference from the usual onboarding surveys which ask users about their job.
From the user’s perspective, it feels more like designing an MMO character than work.
For more on gamification, check out this post.
How to build SaaS new user onboarding step by step
Now that you know what UI patterns are commonly used in onboarding, let’s look at how you might go about constructing your own onboarding process for your SaaS company.
Disclaimer: there is no “universal onboarding process” that will apply 100% to all companies. What follows is a template that is a good starting point for most SaaS businesses.
- Segment your users into distinct use cases.
- For each use case, determine what the “Aha Moment” is and the steps they will need to activate.
- Also, determine whether each segment will require proactive or reactive onboarding.
- Decide whether your sign-up flow needs to be frictionless or friction-based.
- Build that sign-up flow, and have your system send a welcome email to users after they sign up.
- Use an onboarding platform to create a welcome screen for new customers that appears in-app to greet users and assign them to a user segment.
- If necessary, create an onboarding survey to give to users in order to find out further segmentation information after the welcome screen.
- Build an interactive walkthrough for each use case, complete with its own onboarding checklist and onboarding flow.
- Make sure that the walkthroughs lead customers to activation by pushing them to adopt the key activation points you determined in STEP 2.
- A/B test and iterate as appropriate to ensure that this is the case. Use goals for each activation point and measure how tweaking each step in your onboarding flow affects the adoption rate of each of the activation points.
- Don’t neglect secondary onboarding. Webinars, drip email sequences, and native tooltips are all useful tools at your disposal for this.
For more detail on this process, please check out this article.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by looking at this massive list, fear not. You don’t have to do all the work alone.
There are lots of onboarding tools on the market these days that will make your life considerably easier.
But the million-dollar question is: which software should you pick?
How to choose SaaS onboarding software
When reviewing onboarding software options, look for the following features:
What delights one group of users might alienate another group.
It is therefore impossible to make a successful onboarding process without first segmenting your users.
If you miss this step, your onboarding will seem generic, as you try to be all things to all people.
For this reason, look for a tool that allows for segmentation.
There are two main ways to communicate with users in the SaaS world:
- Inside your app itself
- Via third parties such as email
In-app communication is preferable because it keeps your users where you want them: inside your product.
Email communication opens the possibility of too many distractions, and the other third-party possibilities only get worse from there (Facebook? Texting?? Post???).
Look for a tool that lets you communicate with users in-app.
Easy, customizable product walkthroughs
Your walkthrough is one of the most important parts of your onboarding process.
You’re therefore going to need a tool that allows you to build them quickly and easily for multiple use cases.
In particular, look for a tool that lets you build walkthroughs without code.
The alternative is just too much hassle.
No onboarding process is going to be perfect right out of the gate.
For this reason, it’s essential to be able to track user behavior in order to measure the success (or lack thereof) of your onboarding.
So you’ll want a tool with a sophisticated analytics suite built in.
Easily accessible user help
You never know when your users will have questions.
If it’s at a time when you’re asleep, you will need a tool that allows you to build support guides that users can access self-sufficiently.
Best SaaS user onboarding tools
Here are our top recommendations for onboarding tools:
Userpilot is super easy to set up and get started with.
Just install the Chrome extension, and then you can start building interactive walkthroughs — completely code-free!
You can make just about any UI element you can possibly imagine: from modals and slideouts to checklists and tooltips (pictured).
Because Userpilot goes the extra mile on all things product adoption, the sophistication of the product walkthroughs you can build with this tool is extraordinary.
There are multiple options for segmenting users, including by in-app behavior, custom events, user attributes, and event attributes:
Put together, this has the ability to supercharge your activation rates.
Just ask Kontentino: they achieved a 10% boost in activation within just one month!
Or Kommunicate, who increased the number of users integrating their chatbot by 15%.
To make sure your walkthrough is a success too, Userpilot lets you set goals for your in-app experiences and then see how many users reach them over time.
If your walkthrough is not up to scratch for some reason, fear not!
Userpilot also comes with A/B testing features to let you conduct product experiments and iterate on your onboarding flow until you find the formula for success:
Here’s what that looks like:
If your users are breaking off their walkthrough prematurely, Userpilot also includes analytics so that you can uncover churn indicators early, and then build experience flows to mitigate them.
But that’s not all.
You can collect qualitative and quantitative customer feedback at every stage of the user journey thanks to in-app microsurveys and NPS scoring.
If your customers have any concerns whatsoever, features like a resource center and help center widget mean that they will never be waiting on you to respond to their questions.
And any time you do want to communicate with your customers, it’s very easy to do so in-app.
For more detailed information, please refer to this article.
Userpilot’s pricing starts at $249 per month for 2,500 MAUs. All the features are unlimited in all plans, and you only Pay-as-You-Grow when your user count increases.
- Create tooltips, modals, and other UI elements to build onboarding flows.
- Track feature adoption, and segment users who haven’t used a particular feature in order to encourage them to do so.
- User-friendly UI and a free Chrome extension make this easy to download and test. Note that complex UI patterns require CSS knowledge.
- Collect customer feedback using NPS surveys.
- Analytics lets you measure how many users reach the “Aha Moment” and how many convert from free to paid.
- Make in-app announcements and release in-app guides that drive feature adoption.
- Measure product adoption through data visualizations and event tracking.
For more detailed information, please refer to this article.
Like Userpilot, Appcues’ pricing starts at $249 per month for 2,500 MAUs.
Note however that this basic plan limits your usage of onboarding features (user segmentation, custom events, and feature tags) that you would get unlimited for the same price from Userpilot.
- Product tours are built using a WYSIWYG editor, so you can see what you’re building in real-time.
- A high degree of visual customization options, with CSS styling available if you want to create something really advanced.
- Create NPS surveys to gather customer feedback and structure it by persona.
- Main UI patterns you can build include tooltips, launchers, microsurveys, banners, and hotspots.
- Segment your users and customize product tours based on user persona. Note that this feature is not quite built properly and so can sometimes be confusing to use.
- Build onboarding patterns without using code.
- Manage and edit themes within the app, making it faster to deploy styling changes.
- The Launcher feature allows you to set event triggers to activate pop-up windows offering contextual help.
For more details, please refer to this article.
Chameleon’s pricing starts from $279 per month for 2,000 MAUs, although this startup plan has limited features.
User Onboarding for ‘Enterprise’ users who don’t need simple UX
- Is a solution to both user onboarding and employee onboarding needs, from one provider.
- Main features include product tours and onboarding checklists. Lacks tooltips, slideouts, and modals.
- Product engagement solution helps you understand which product features customers like, and which they don’t.
- Robust analytics allows you to compare churn rates across user segments, or identify where more awareness is required to bring attention to a particular product feature.
- Good segmentation options mean that you can separate customers into distinct use cases and offer a unique product experience to each one.
- Implementing checklists and product tours will save you time and money on your customer support and customer success teams.
- The text editor is simple to use but lacks more advanced capabilities without using CSS and code.
- Collecting in-app feedback is straightforward, leading to better-informed product decisions on your end.
For further information, please refer to this article.
Pendo’s pricing is not publicly available. You have to ask them for a quote, which makes us think that it’s probably quite expensive.
User onboarding for employee onboarding use case
- Add onboarding goals in the backend and track the extent to which users reach them.
- Multi-step triggers for onboarding flows.
- Share your onboarding flows with third parties by exporting them as a PDF.
- Context-detecting algorithm allows you to offer users contextual support during onboarding.
- Includes provision for your support team, meaning that your onboarding and support teams only need one tool between them.
- Bespoke styling options are available, but they require code, and sometimes even a certified expert as well!
- Tool for pushing upsells and cross-sells.
For more detailed information, please read this article.
Walkme pricing is bespoke to the customer and is in the range of $9k-$50k per year. This makes it better suited for enterprise customers.
- User adoption software that helps you build walkthroughs and guides for your users.
- Main features include product tours, onboarding task lists, and contextual interactive walkthroughs.
- Walkthroughs can be integrated into training programs and deployed using learning management systems.
- Helpful user community which shares libraries of onboarding ideas when you sign up.
- The segmentation feature helps personalize onboarding flows, thereby increasing user engagement.
- The Analytics suite is designed to help you make data-driven onboarding decisions.
- Self-service support options such as guides and tutorials mean that customers are less likely to require manual support, reducing your costs in these areas.
To find out more, please refer to this post.
Whatfix pricing is not publicly available. You have to request a quote manually.
Before we wrap up, let me leave you with some inspiring onboarding examples from other SaaS companies, so that you can see what’s possible with tools like these.
Best SaaS onboarding examples
Here’s an example of a great new user onboarding flow from Kontentino, a social media scheduling tool.
It begins with a microsurvey:
It’s especially important for Kontentino to know whether their users will be a brand with one set of social accounts, or an agency managing different clients’ social media.
So they ask this question right upfront.
Next, you’re welcomed personally by Hana, one of Kontentino’s employees.
This is a friendly touch that makes you feel at home right away.
To activate, users of a social media scheduler like Kontentino need to do two things:
- Connect a social account
- Schedule a post
So Kontentino leads its users to do those two things straight out of the gate.
Here’s a tooltip encouraging the user to connect their account:
And here’s the next tooltip leading them towards scheduling a post:
Super simple, and super effective.
If you’re looking for an example of a secondary onboarding sequence, you might consider taking inspiration from Kommunicate, a chat-based customer support suite.
This is the sequence they use to encourage users to integrate their chatbot.
First, a simple checklist highlights the need to integrate the bot after installation:
If this is missed, a simple notification bar appears to remind the user that they haven’t installed the chatbot yet:
Once the user has installed the chatbot, several tooltips appear prompting the user to customize it to fit their brand:
Since the introduction of this sequence, 86% of users have installed the chatbot and customized it.
For more examples, we invite you to check out this post.
Having read this article, you should now be able to:
- Tell what onboarding is and why it matters for SaaS
- Recognize common onboarding UI patterns
- Understand the steps you need to take to build your own onboarding process, and in which order
- Understand what to look for in onboarding software
- Take inspiration from other companies’ onboarding practices
If you’re looking for a great onboarding tool, we hope you’ll consider Userpilot. It offers an incredibly versatile range of onboarding features — at a competitive price.
Click the banner below to book a free demo today.