14 best practices for a powerful onboarding experience

First impressions are powerful and hard to overcome. As a SaaS company, our user onboarding experience gives the first impression of our company long before a user interacts with our team. Just like a well-run onboarding meeting, the user onboarding experience should be seamless, effective, and inspiring, making the participants feel they're investing their time into something valuable.

What is SaaS user onboarding? 

User onboarding is the process of introducing users to a product and bringing them up to speed on how it works. A comprehensive onboarding process considers the holistic journey users embark on from the instant they sign up for a product to when they become regular, engaged users.

The purpose of user onboarding is to transition individuals from casual users to habitual power users of a product. You can do this by empowering them to navigate through a product with enough implementation assistance to derive value and achieve their goals. 

The most effective onboarding experiences combine several elements inside and outside of a product to keep users engaged, while consistently giving them reasons to log back into the product. 

When is user onboarding necessary? 

Have you built a product that is so simple and self-explanatory that users will instantly adopt it? If the answer is no, then you need to strategize your onboarding flow. 

You may have been doing alright without one, but a SaaS business can hugely benefit and grow exponentially more with one. You must ensure each user who signs up for a product is guided toward their aha moment, where they realize the product's value. Therefore, onboarding should begin from the signup screen. 

Here at Lou, we provide SaaS companies with the tools to better connect with and educate their users. No matter the company's industry or size, we've found that the journey to a truly phenomenal user onboarding experience begins with these best practices.

14 best practices for effective user onboarding 

Identify your users' unique onboarding requirements

Evaluate your various user personas. Are they utilizing your platform for different reasons? Are they approaching the onboarding process from different points of view due to their industry or job title?

Before we begin to craft an onboarding experience, we first need a clear idea of who the experience is for and their unique needs. If your different user segments may require separate forms of training/assistance, choose one persona to begin with, then repeat this process for the others.

Enable users to reach the 'aha moment'

It has many different names: activation point, magic moment, aha moment, etc. It's all just to ask, what point in your platform does a new user need to reach to 'get it' and come back? For new users to 'get it', they need to understand the value your platform is delivering to them. 

Reaching the aha moment is not just about the return on investment of their monthly subscription but also the value they receive in exchange for investing their time. The initial onboarding process can be one of the biggest investments of time a customer makes in a platform, and they must experience the value in that first interaction.

Map out the ideal user journey

Start at the very first page a user sees once they sign up for the platform. What workflows or steps do users have to complete to find their way to the aha moment?

Flag areas where they may get stuck or need additional assistance. Do you provide support to answer these questions? Are your customers finding and using it? Does your support guide take them to a new page and away from the onboarding experience?

Keep onboarding simple

Looking for a simple way to deeply affect customer satisfaction? Reduce the time it takes for a user to complete an individual journey (for example, use single-sign-on during the signup process or only ask for primary data during profile set-up.) 

Make your instructions and guides short and to the point while resisting the urge to tell users everything your product does in one step. Information overload can lead to user confusion and delay or squash quick wins. 

One best practice is to begin the onboarding flow by calling out the product's core features and explaining how they work. If a product is particularly complex, build an onboarding journey for each product section and keep the instructions concise. 

Implementing an in-app guidance tool simplifies SaaS onboarding by creating step-by-step product tours.

Start with a welcome series

When a user signs up for your product, don't forget to welcome them! But make it worthwhile by asking them a couple of questions about what they're trying to accomplish. By making the experience personal, you can reduce their time-to-value, help them reach their needs faster, and generally activate them much sooner than if you drag them along on a one-size-fits-all product tour. 

Offer personalized onboarding experiences

Personalization amplifies engagement, and engaged users spend more time inside a product. Since users will not be using the product similarly, you should offer different onboarding journeys. 

With a digital adoption platform like Lou, customer success and product teams can create custom onboarding flows for each user segment. Segments allow you to display different experiences to different types of users interacting with your platform. You can seamlessly add pre-defined user data to the Lou platform; or, you can build segments based on what a user has/has not done within the platform.

Front-load the product's value

The quicker a product can show users how to solve their issues, the more they will want to keep using it. Baking in "quick wins" for the user can encourage momentum and makes your users see how easy the product is to use. 

To front-load value, determine what a quick win looks like. A quick win could be walking users through an onboarding tour to completion if the product has a singular focus. For example, if the product is a text communication tool, the result could be creating a message and hitting send. To figure out what your users consider a win, analyze the data and locate where churn quickly drops off: that's where your users are finding their successes. 

But if the product is multi-functional or complex, concentrate on giving the user a fundamental understanding of a small part of the platform, encouraging them to complete a task in a specific area. For example, a task management tool could walk a user through creating a new project, then entering a few to-do's and assigning due dates. 

When creating those wins for your users, make a celebration out of it and congratulate them. Asana motivates its users by randomly generating a "celebration creature" that soars across the screen when a user marks a task complete. The recognition promotes a positive psychological reaction within your user, giving them more reason to stick around and keep using the product. 

Implement an onboarding checklist with a progress bar

The purpose of solid user onboarding is to take the user on the shortest journey to find value. We have already covered how to figure out what the user wants to achieve, but you also need to show them the fastest route to accomplishing their goals. 

Luckily, checklists are a fantastic user onboarding element that naturally triggers the innate need to complete tasks and pushes users to complete essential activation points. 

An effective checklist directs users to their aha moment and encourages them to activate quickly. But be careful, don't overload the checklist with too many tasks that may overwhelm users. And remember to include an incentive at the end of the list to reward new users. 

Build interactive product tours

Instead of multistep tours that just relay information that users may not recall, try making them interactive. 

Traditional product tours tend to dump lots of information in one go. Most users won't have the patience, attention span, or memory to retain it and will become even more confused. Not only that, but simply showing a user around a SaaS product that they can clearly see for themselves is a little pointless.

On the other hand, interactive product tours encourage the user to interact with the product. They learn by doing.

Interactive product tours require a bit more forethought up-front: you need to think about how you can motivate your users to act rather than just observe. But it is worth it: the more users engage with interactive tours as part of their onboarding, the more likely they will reach activation. 

Interactive tours work like this: each step in the onboarding flow is triggered by the required action from the preceding step. So, each step is initiated in reaction to the user's actions and follows their own pace. 

Not sure how to build this? Lou can show you step-by-step with no code required. 

Use tooltips

A best practice for your onboarding flows is to use subtle native tooltips, specifically at later stages in the user journey. 

Native tooltips are part of your native UI that only open when the user hovers over them. Generally, they are not disruptive and can be especially helpful for secondary feature adoption that users can discover by themselves. 

Make sure your SaaS onboarding flow is self-serve

Ideally, users should be able to navigate your user onboarding flow without booking time with a customer success manager or another team member. Product-led, self-serve SaaS should be accessible to its users around-the-clock. 

Be sure to create an on-demand knowledge base to allow users to search for answers to their questions. Include onboarding documents to improve the user onboarding experience tenfold. 

Keep editing and evolving the onboarding experience 

Your work isn't over when you have improved new user activation rates. You likely still need to announce new and secondary features. A simple feature release note will not be enough for your users to test and adopt. You need to consider how to implement them into an evergreen onboarding experience. 

User onboarding isn't a one-time "set it and forget it" activity. As your product evolves, along with your market, user personas, and positioning, so should your onboarding. 

Be proactive in support

Verify that you have support available to explain how users can complete each workflow that leads them to the activation point. You want to catch the user just after they have signed up while their motivation is at its peak. If the new user can't effectively onboard on their first try or if they get stuck on a step and have to wait for support, the chances that they return to complete the onboarding process lowers significantly.

Because new users place a high value on speed and effortlessness in the onboarding process, it's not enough to provide users with answers to their questions. We must be proactive in putting the answers in front of them exactly when they need it. One common example we see from working with companies' heads of customer success is that teams often receive calls and support tickets regarding questions that have already been addressed and documented in FAQs or help centers.

Watch and learn, then iterate

As with anything in life or business, the first attempt won't be perfect. Record analytics on how your users are responding to the new onboarding experience. Look at the data surrounding the completion rate, where users are dropping off, and what support they're searching for, and adjust the onboarding experience accordingly. Some essential questions to ask are:

  • Does this onboarding experience work for all our users, or do some users need additional or different training?

  • Do we understand the aha moment, or is it another point in the user experience?

  • Are our users getting to the activation point quickly enough?

  • If users are getting lost and not completing the onboarding process, do we offer enough support for their issue, and is the support in the proper form? I.e., are users not finding it, or are they not looking for it?

If you found this guide useful, check out Lou to begin creating powerful user onboarding experiences in just minutes, or send me your thoughts at rachel@louassist.com – I'd love to hear them!