7 SaaS User Onboarding Best Practices [And 18 Bonus Tips]

user onboarding drawing

I’m going to start this user onboarding best practices article with a strong statement:

User onboarding is the difference between a successful SaaS company and a failing one.

Yeah I know. Shocking, right? But bear with me.

This year has seen some huge growth when it comes to user onboarding. SaaS companies are finally waking up to the idea that successful onboarding for their users is critical to success.

Good onboarding doesn’t just introduce your users to your product, it shows them the value they can get from it. It ensures true product adoption and retention. 

We thought we’d take a look at some of the user onboarding best practices for 2021. There’s also a little bonus for you at the end. It’s a list of 18 things you should do when it comes to user onboarding. You’re going to love it!

User Onboarding Best Practice #1 –  Make Signup As Frictionless As Possible

What is your user’s first interaction with your product?

Hint: It’s not when they log in for the first time. 

In fact, the first interaction is when your user initially signs up to try your product.

Like most situations in life, first impressions count a lot. Your sign-up process will inform potential users about the rest of the product experience. It sets the tone for what’s to come.

We’ve noticed a trend when it comes to sign-up flows. The most successful SaaS companies make sign-up as easy as possible.

They don’t ask you to fill in lengthy forms, or enter your credit card details.

Instead, they extract the most necessary information, the stuff they genuinely need.

Then they give you immediate access to the product.

It’s as frictionless as a waterslide.

Consider this example from Airbnb:

user onboarding best practices airbnb

In the past, Airbnb made users sign up before allowing them to use their product.

The clever folks at Airbnb eventually realized this was putting potential users off.

They’ve now changed the order of the user onboarding flow.

You can head to their site and instantly start using their product to search for accommodation. There’s no sign-up necessary.

This means you start experiencing the product as soon as possible. It provides value upfront, so that you soon realize you can’t live without it.

Frictionless signup flows are perfect for less complex SaaS products, where the key is to let the user in as soon as possible.

As a general rule, think carefully about every bit of friction (ie. number of form fields, number of steps) and think about whether it’s really required. If it isn’t, consider removing that friction.

User Onboarding Best Practice #2 – Provide A Compelling Quick Win

Another user onboarding best practice is to provide a quick win as soon as possible.

The idea is to add value to your users as quickly as you can. The more value your user receives, the more likely they are to stay around and adopt your product.

If you’ve been around SaaS long enough, then you’ll have heard about the Aha! Moment. This is the moment where your user instantly sees the value in your product. Hopefully they’ll even shout “Aha!” at their screen.

For Facebook, that Aha! Moment was adding friends. Their Growth Team discovered that users who added 7 or more friends engaged with the platform a lot more.

The boffins at Facebook decided that they would push people towards adding as many friends as possible. This focus on the Aha! Moment played a big part in their eventual success.

Another fantastic example of a quick win comes from Buzzsumo:

user onboarding best practices buzzsumo

As you can see, Buzzsumo enables site visitors to get started right away. They can simply enter a URL or topic, and start seeing results.

The user is instantly provided with value. They experience the Aha! Moment right away. In this case, they realize how useful the Buzzsumo insights are.

You can use a few different techniques to nudge people towards the Aha! Moment. One such technique is contextualized tooltips.

Check out how Feedly onboard new users:

user onboarding best practices feedly

Those tooltips show off Feedly’s two key features: Saving articles, and adding highlights.

The user immediately understands the value of the product, and can’t wait to try it out.

You need to provide your users with an Aha! Moment as quick as possible.

Want to learn how you can create quick and effective tooltips for your SaaS? Book a free demo today with Userpilot!

User Onboarding Best Practice #3 – Segment Users For A Personalized Flow

Remember when companies hardly knew anything about their customers? That was a nightmare!

Segmenting users has become the norm for SaaS companies. It’s a great way of personalizing the user onboarding flow.

More complex SaaS products often have a few different use cases. Each of these use cases matches a different user persona.

If you try to use a generic onboarding flow for each of these user personas, then you aren’t going to help anyone.

Let me illustrate with an example of user segmentation:

user onboarding best practices canva

Canva is a versatile design tool, applicable to a range of different job roles.

One of the main selling points of Canva is that it offers customizable templates. This makes it super easy to create your designs.

But Canva realized that it needed to show relevant templates. If you present a SaaS founder with templates for birthday cards, you probably won’t hook them in. Unless it reminds them they forgot to get their Mom a card.

That’s why it presents new users with a choice when they first sign in to the product.
You can choose your use case, and then Canva will show you the most relevant templates.

It’s a clever way of tailoring the onboarding flow to each user persona.

Nowadays, users don’t expect a degree of personalization, they demand it. Personalization is more effective when it comes to engaging your users. It deepens the relationship between them and your product.

User Onboarding Best Practice #4 – Utilize Contextual Onboarding To Stay Relevant

Contextual onboarding goes hand in hand with personalization. To explain how powerful it is, I’m going to first explain non-contextual onboarding.

A lot of apps and products bombard new users with a walkthrough. Often, the user has to scroll through several screens, each explaining a different feature.

user onboarding best practices clear

(This example from Clear shows you how NOT to onboard users!)

Walkthroughs like this add more friction to your onboarding, and increase the time it takes to reach the Aha! Moment. There’s also no way for users to skip them (imagine the frustrations)!

The worst part about these non-contextual walkthroughs, however, is that they don’t really work.

New users have no chance of remembering all the information. We can hardly remember phone numbers these days!

Instead, they end up more confused than before, and may even decide to quit your product before they’ve even started.

The remedy to this problem is contextual onboarding. That means sending the right message to the right user at the right time.

The right message is one that adds context or provides instructions that are relevant to what the user is trying to do.

If your user is currently figuring out how to send an email, then a tooltip could point them in the right direction.

The right user means that your onboarding is tailored to that individual use case. I covered that in the section above.

The right time means that you send a message when it makes sense to do so. In other words, the context is right.

Here’s an example from Trello:

user onboarding best practices trello

Trello’s Product team must be some of the smartest people on the planet. They found a way to use their own product to onboard new users!

When you log in, you’re presented with a welcome board. This board has a to-do list of different features that Trello offers.

You can then work through these items in any order you choose. If you want to skip the first few cards and start inviting team members then you can do.

This means that the onboarding is contextual, and tailored to what the new user is trying to do.

Duolingo also use contextual onboarding to great effect:

user onboarding best practices duolingo

As you can see from the screenshots, Duolingo start off by asking about your experience. This will help provide you with a personalized onboarding flow.

You’re then asked to take a test which helps introduce you to some key features. This also helps you see the value in the app.

Duolingo only shows you hints and tips based on your experience and behavior. This means tips can be shown in different orders to different users, depending on the context.

Contextual onboarding is one of most crucial user onboarding best practices of 2021. So much so that we built a product, Userpilot, to help you add contextual onboarding to your own SaaS app.

Why not give it a go? Book a demo today!

User Onboarding Best Practice #5 –  Add An Element Of Competition

A healthy dose of competition never hurt anyone, right? In fact, a lot of SaaS products are now using competition to help engage their users.

Adding an element of competition to your app is scarily effective. It actually combines two psychological techniques: Social proof and gamification.

Social proof is where you show a user that other people are using (and loving) your product.

If we see that other people are doing something, we’re likely to try it too. That’s because humans are social animals (even the devs who hate everybody), and we don’t want to miss out on what others are doing.

Social proof also adds an element of authenticity. We’re more likely to trust the judgement of other people than what a product’s marketing copy says.

Gamification is where you turn aspects of your product into a game. You might add badges that you unlock by completing actions in the app.

This makes the experience a little more fun, and also taps into our desire to win. Competition is essentially the crossroad between social proof and gamification.

The idea is that you show a new user how their friends, colleagues, or even strangers are getting on with the app.

If a user sees that somebody is making more progress or getting more value, they’ll want to use the product more.

Duolingo’s “Clubs” feature is a perfect example:

user onboarding best practices duolingo

You can join a club for the language that you’re learning. You’ll then see a leaderboard of your friends and other users. To progress up the leaderboard, you need to use the app more.

This is a great way to onboard users further and make them engage with your product.

User Onboarding Best Practice #6 –  Send Trigger-Based Emails to Recapture Users’ Attention

Some of your users are going to log out of your product before they’re fully onboarded. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Perhaps they didn’t quite understand the value you offered? Or maybe a competitor caught their eye?

Whatever the reason, you need to try and get them back.

While you might not be able to reach them through your product, there is another way of communicating with them: Email.

I suspect you already use email to speak to your audience with a newsletter or to market new features.

As it turns out, email is also a great way of recapturing your users’ attention.
When a user hasn’t logged in for a while, say, a couple of days, then you need to entice them back.

You can send them a trigger-based email with a reminder about what they were trying to achieve, and how much value they can get if they log back in.

You can also use email to drive users towards your product’s Aha! Moment.

Look at this example from Disqus:

user onboarding best practices disqus

Disqus rely on the user completing two tasks to reach the Aha! Moment.

First, the user must click on a button to add Disqus to their site.

Second, the user must register their new site.

If a user completes the first task but not the second, then they are sent this email.

It assumes the main reason that a user hasn’t fully set up is simply that they don’t know how.

The email breaks the set-up down into a few easy steps, turning what can be a complex process into something that anyone can do.

It’s also a simple reminder to the user that they left halfway through, and so it prompts them to log in and continue where they left off.

Your users might be able to turn away from your product, but they can’t escape their inbox.

Email is a great way of reaching out to users and recapturing their attention before they disappear for good.

User Onboarding Best Practice #7 – Announce New Releases With Modals and Tooltips

Onboarding your users is a continuous process. SaaS products constantly evolve and innovate over time, and you need to ensure your users keep up.

Whenever you release a new feature for your product, you need to announce it to your users. This announcement should include details of what the feature does, why it benefits the user, and how to get started using it.

For major releases, you should consider an attention-grabbing approach. For this, a full-screen modal works extremely well.

Here’s an example from Drift:

user onboarding best practices drift

When Drift launched their calendar feature, they announced it with a pop-up modal. It explains what the new feature does, focusing on the benefits it provides for the user.

Using a modal means it’s practically impossible for users to miss it.

However, modals should always be used sparingly. For minor releases, consider using hotspot tooltips.

user onboarding best practices heap

In this example, Heap announced a minor feature that enables users to generate a report with a custom date range.

This probably wasn’t big enough to warrant a modal, and so they opted for a tooltip to nudge users in the right direction.

Ultimately, it’s important that you announce new features when you release them. This way you’ll improve activation for the new features, and onboard your users further.

BONUS: 18 Additional Things You Can Do To Improve Your User Onboarding Right Away!

1 – Signup for your own product every week

If you’re constantly tweaking your signup flow to make it as good as it can be, then you also need to be checking it over.

Every week, you should put yourself through the signup flow. You’ll see what works well, what doesn’t, and where you can improve.

Be honest with yourself. If you reach a point where you think that your user probably wouldn’t continue, then acknowledge that.

Frequently signing up for your product is surefire way of learning more about what your users are going through.

2 – Focus on 1st run, 2nd run, and 3rd run

A lot of SaaS folk end up focusing on optimizing users’ 1st run experience. While the first impression your users have of your product is important, it’s the next couple of impressions that make all the difference.

Every time your users logs in to your product, you need to wow them. That’s what makes them come back next time.

So, that 1st run experience needs to provide an Aha! Moment for your users. That first Aha! Moment will draw them back a second time.

When they return for the 2nd run, you need to do it all over again. If you don’t, then they won’t be coming back for the 3rd run.

Aim to constantly provide value. That’s what keeps your users coming back for more.

3 – Use page/screen level onboarding

Page level onboarding is where you help a user navigate around a specific page.

This is important if your user is initially faced with a blank state and doesn’t really know what to do next.

You should use page level onboarding to introduce your users to core functionality, but be careful not to overwhelm them.

Each screen should have its own onboarding flow, so that users are guided at every stage of your app.

4 – Show subtle cues to drive actions

Sometimes a subtle approach to onboarding works best. There are cases where you don’t want to bombard users with information, but still want to guide them.

Subtle cues offer a fantastic approach to onboarding. Generally, these cues take the form of a small, pulsating circle. This circle sits on a specific button or field.

It draws the user’s eye, without taking up precious screen space, and without being overly annoying.

You can use subtle cues to give users a nudge in the right direction.

n the example below, ProfitWell place a red marker on the feature they want you to try out. This catches your eye and entices you to click through.

5 – Use your signup page to market new features

It’s important that you drive adoption of any new features you add to your product.

A great way of doing this is to add an announcement to your signup/login page.

Your users will access this page whenever they use your product, and so it acts as an effective billboard for any new features you want to push.

You could even take it one step further, and contextualize the announcement. If you know that a particular user will be interested in a certain feature, show them it. The more relevant you make it the better. Look how drift educates on their sign-in and sign-up pages.

They introduce every new feature on their sign up page.

Drip also had the same idea on onboarding.

6 – Only focus on key activation for new users

When people think of onboarding, they often think about introductory walkthroughs and tooltips.

These techniques work really well when it comes to activating new users.

However, they get annoying if they keep being shown to older users. Imagine you’ve been using a product for a year and you’re still getting shown basic onboarding. That would be infuriating.

Contextual onboarding means that you can focus on key activation for new users, but then switch to activating secondary and tertiary features for older ones.

For example, Storychief is asking for more than key activations. We do not recommend that:

We recommend how Skedsocial does it here. They only focus on “Aha! moments” and key activation features.

7 – Don’t add too many steps to one flow

Try not to get carried away with your onboarding. You don’t want to cram too much information in. You’ll just end up confusing your users further.

A good rule of thumb is to have no more than 2 tooltips on one page. Any more than that and you run the risk of making your product seem more complex. That can scare users away.

Make your onboarding as clear and concise as you can. Use the fewest words possible, and make every tooltip count.

For complex flows, consider breaking it up into smaller sequences, and then onboard one sequence at a time.

8 – Focus on higher-value features that drive Aha! Moments

Every interaction your user has with the app during their first-run should be moving them closer to the Aha! Moment. This is the moment where your product “clicks” with the user and they see the full value in your product.

Typically, these Aha! Moments are a key high-value feature of your product. For a social media marketing platform, it might be when your user first connects to a social media feed.

You can use onboarding elements, such as tooltips, to drive users to the highest-value features. This will help them experience the Aha! Moment as soon as possible.

9 – Reduce “time-to-value” as much as you can

Time-to-value is a really important metric when it comes to user onboarding. The quicker you provide value to your user, the more likely they are to activate and convert to being a paying user.

This is similar to the point above, in that your onboarding should focus on driving users to the features that will provide the most value.

Reduce friction as much as possible. That means you should remove unnecessary fields on forms. It means you shouldn’t make users sit through boring walkthroughs.

If a user can’t extract any value from your product within 30 minutes of using your product, then they might not have the patience to carry on.

10 – Analyze and do A/B testing

None of us ever really know what will work best. Sure, we have ideas, but ultimately they’re always educated guesses.

The best way to know for sure is to test it. A/B tests provide an easy way of seeing which onboarding elements work the best. Show half of your users a slideout, show the other half tooltips. See which works best.

You should also be testing every little aspect of your onboarding, including the copy you use and the color of the buttons.

11 – Write compelling copy

It’s easy to forget about the actual words you use in your onboarding flows when you’re busy choosing which onboarding elements to use. But the copy is actually incredibly important.

In fact, a change of copy for Google’s hotel booking product dramatically improved conversions. A simple change from “Book a room” to “Check availability” led to a 17% increase.

It needs to inform the user not just about what a particular feature does, but what benefit it provides to them.

Here’s a quick hack: Every time you write onboarding copy for a feature, ask yourself why the user should give it a try. Then include your answer in the copy.

If you’re struggling, refer to the marketing copy on your site, and use the same phrasing in your app.

Here are some more great examples of effective user onboarding email copy.

12 – Respect your users’ attention

Our attention spans are limited. We can only focus on so many things at once. Yet so many products bombard new users with all kinds of onboarding elements.

Instead, you should focus on one or two at the most. If you have a checklist in the sidebar, and tooltips guiding your user, then don’t also have a slideout with extra information.

Keep it simple, and respect your users’ attention. If you don’t, you risk confusing your users and turning them away from your product.

13 – Allow users to continue their journey with permalinks

Permalinks are an underused tool when it comes to user onboarding, but they’re extremely powerful when used correctly.

Implementing permalinks into your product enables you to send users right back to where they were when they left your product. If a user leaves halfway through setting up their profile, you can send them a link to carry on.

This makes it easier for your users to return to your app, and makes them more likely to actually log back in and try again.

14 – Add “custom events” to accurately measure your onboarding

There’s no use putting all of this work into improving your user onboarding if you can’t accurately measure the impact it’s having.

You can create custom events in your product, which will enable you to measure metrics like activation rates for each feature.

An example might be setting a custom event to fire when a user invites 3 team members into your app. Knowing when, where, and how this happened can help you to improve future onboarding flows.

15 – Create segments to better analyze your users’ activity

You’re going to have users at different stages in the onboarding flow. While you might be tempted to simply split users into non-activated and activated, it’s more useful to go deeper.

You should use 5 different segments:

  • New users – Signed up 7 or 14 days ago
  • Active users – Signed up 30 days ago
  • Partially-activated users – Signed up and did half key events
  • Fully-activated users – Signed up and has used all key events
  • Users who did X but not Y – For example, in Gmail, we all try compose email and send but we didn’t try snooze or send it later features.

Separating users into these distinct brackets enables you to better understand how they use your product. It also helps when it comes to personalizing your onboarding flow.

16 – Use checklists to guide your users

Checklists are becoming a popular option for lots of SaaS products. They are great for showing key tasks to your users.

We recommend focusing on 3 or 4 tasks, 5 at a push. This way you don’t swamp your users with a long to-do list. Nobody likes that!

It’s also worth including a progress bar. This way your users can see how much more they need to do.

We have a lot of advice on creating the perfect checklist here.

17 – Include some psychological cues to give users a nudge

Understand how your users think, and what motivates them to take action, and you’ll be able to onboard them as effectively as possible.

There are a number of psychological hacks you can use to nudge users in the right direction. We’ve compiled a load of them here.

A good one is endowed progress. This is the phenomenon in which people are more likely to do something if progress has been made already.

In the example from Paypal above, you can see an example of a checklist. The first step, “Account created” is ticked off as soon as you first log in to the app. It feels like you’re immediately making progress, and you’re far more likely to continue.

You can use this with your own checklist. Provide a checklist, but cross off the first item on the list. This item can be as simple as “Log in.” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that your user thinks they’re already making progress.

18 – Always be optimizing

Your user onboarding is never finished. There’s always room for improvement.

That means you should constantly analyze the impact your onboarding is having, and then improve the parts where users are falling through the gaps.

You should really be reviewing and revising your onboarding every week, maybe every month if you don’t have the time. See it as a continuous process, not just a job you can finish.

Set yourself targets with your onboarding. If you had 15% activation this quarter, aim for 25% next quarter. Then figure out how you can improve your onboarding to reach that goal.

User Onboarding Best Practices Summary

We’ve covered lots of user onboarding best practices in this article.

There are a few key patterns and themes that we’ve spotted when analyzing successful SaaS companies’ onboarding flows.

Adding value and helping users reach the Aha! Moment as quick as possible is crucial to success. The more benefit a user gets upfront, the more likely they are to stick around.

Personalization is becoming more and more common, and users are starting to demand it. Tailoring your onboarding flow to the user is essential. Contextual onboarding means the right user sees the right message at the right time.

Psychological techniques, such as social proof, are useful ways of onboarding users. Adding an element of competition is a great way of driving engagement further.

If there’s one thing that’s crystal clear, it’s that user onboarding is one of the most important aspects of a SaaS product.

For that reason, you NEED to make sure your onboarding flow is as perfect as possible.

Want to get there quicker? Let us take you through a free demo with Userpilot

More resources:

  1. User onboarding email best practices
  2. User onboarding guide
  3. How to add context-driven user adoption
  4. More insights in this podcast

About the Author

Aazar Ali Shad

Aazar Ali Shad is the VP of Growth at Userpilot, and has more than 5 years of SaaS Experience. He is currently helping 500+ SaaS companies improve user onboarding and increase product adoption.

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