Five Steps to Optimize Your SaaS User Onboarding Flows

Are you struggling to retain users for your SaaS app? A top-notch onboarding flow can make all the difference. Dig into this post and learn how to keep your users coming back for more of your product.

Mike Fiorillo
9 min read
Five Steps to Optimize Your SaaS User Onboarding Flows

We all know how supremely important user retention is for product-led SaaS companies. But the reality is, the average activation rate for SaaS products is a mere 40%. And if the majority of your users might never experience your product’s core value, they’re unlikely to stick around long-term.

Retention is a notoriously difficult metric to move. But one tried-and-true tactic to make your product more sticky is to invest in building a top-notch onboarding flow. Onboarding is the only part of the product that 100% of your users are guaranteed to experience, and users make crucial judgments about your product based on their first interactions with it. So you better make sure your product delivers value right away.

In this guest post from Mike Fiorillo, we’ll cover a 5-step process for designing a highly optimized user onboarding flow. Mike is an experiment-led growth consultant at flightdeck, and previously led product growth at companies like DuckDuckGo and InVision.

We’ll talk about how to understand the goals users are trying to accomplish, how to spot sources of friction, and some useful tactics for designing an onboarding flow that delivers value quickly. Let’s jump right in.

1. Understand users and their goals #

Before you begin optimizing your onboarding experience, you should have a clear sense of the main goals or outcomes users are looking to achieve with your product. This will help you determine the value-driving actions users should take right away.

One quick way to figure this out is to run an in-app survey targeting your most successful new users. Usually, this means ones who have signed up recently, experienced a ton of value, and decided to upgrade. 

Ask them a question like, “What were you trying to achieve when you first signed up?”. Use open-ended questions, and then bucket responses into 3-5 value themes. You could also put an open-ended survey question directly on the onboarding experience, or even ask it via email.

2. Create a journey map #

Once you understand what value your users care about the most, you can figure out which key product actions users need to take to experience that value – from the moment they first land on your site to the moment they decide to become a paying customer.

Take Miro. Their customer journey map might include steps like visiting the homepage, signing up, setting up their team, inviting teammates, creating a board, sharing it with colleagues, and ultimately hitting a paywall and upgrading.

It’s worth noting that for more complex B2B products, the user will not be able to experience the full value you can deliver right away. They might need to go through higher friction steps like setting up integrations, adding code to their website, etc. 

Make sure your journey map includes lower-friction actions users can take that help them visualize the value they’ll ultimately receive. You could include touchpoints like browsing for templates, watching tutorial videos, or playing with a demo dataset – those actions are often a great candidate to include in your onboarding experience.

If you need a customer journey map template, there are some free ones available from Miro, Figma, and InVision.

3. Identify sources of friction #

In your journey map, go through each step and think critically about what might be causing users to get stuck. Go through each step and every element on the screen and ask yourself – does this help users experience value quickly? Is this copy clear, relevant, and persuasive? Is anything superfluous or distracting? Should this long form be broken into several steps?

It can be helpful to look at product analytics data to identify any significant drop-off points. Then layer in qualitative data, such as from surveys, user testing, or support tickets.

Once you have identified some potential sources of friction, you’ll already have some ideas as to design changes you can make to optimize conversions at each step. You’ll now be ready to…

4. Brainstorm ways to optimize conversion #

Not sure where to begin? Here are some ideas and proven tactics you can use and experiment with, with real-life examples showcasing the impact of each.

Remove any unnecessary friction #

Reducing friction is often one of the best ways to optimize your onboarding flow. Unnecessary steps, confusing UX, and unclear language all increase the user’s cognitive load – the mental effort required for the user to understand how to use your product.

Keep in mind that not all friction is created equal. In some cases, adding additional friction (in the form of steps, onboarding wizards, tutorials, etc) can help users become successful. What we’re talking about here is removing any friction that gets in the way of users experiencing their first “aha!” moment.

You’ll also want to provide users with feedback and reassurance throughout the onboarding process to reduce anxiety and increase confidence. Even seemingly trivial details like showing password requirements or including reassuring microcopy can significantly reduce anxiety – every little piece adds up.

Break up complex steps using progressive disclosure #

People often become overwhelmed when they’re asked to do too many things at once. One useful trick is to break up complex tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. If you’ve ever used a step-by-step onboarding or checkout flow, that’s progressive disclosure in action.

Another way to use this principle is to only ask users to use more advanced features at the moment they need them. For example, when a new user shares a Google Drive link on Slack, they’re asked to install the Google Drive integration. If Slack had instead asked users to set up this integration when they first signed up, this would have added to the user’s cognitive load.

Use templates to reduce cognitive load #

For products that require a lot of upfront customization, templates can help new users get up and running much faster. Some of the fastest-growing product-led companies, like Canva, Webflow, and Airtable, leverage the power of templates to make their new user experience as frictionless as possible.

Example of how Airtable use a template gallery to make user onboarding smoother. There is a gallery of data base templates; including Social Media Calendar and Blog Editorial Calendar

Leverage the power of smart defaults #

The truth is, users rarely go through the trouble of changing the default settings for a new product they sign up for. So as product designers, we can help users get the product tailored to their needs by providing smart defaults when they first sign up.

For example, when you sign up for Arc browser, their onboarding walks you through a series of choices to set up defaults; selecting your favorites, turning on ad blocking, and more. 

Some other friction reducers you might consider:

  • Adding OAuth (Google, Facebook, Microsoft) if you don’t have it already

  • Making it easy for new users to import data

  • Providing an immersive walkthrough that helps you avoid overwhelming users with too much functionality all at once (more on this later)

Create a tailored onboarding experience #

One of the most effective onboarding tactics is to tailor the new user experience to the specific needs of your users. The more a product is personalized to the needs of a new user, the more engaged they’re going to be.

A really effective way to do this is to have users tell you what their main goal is, and then use the knowledge to guide users to the right place. For instance, when you sign up for Miro, you’re first asked to choose your main use case.

Once Miro has this data, they display a set of highly relevant templates.

Ideally, you should also do this personalization without the user even realizing it. For instance, if a user is looking at business cards on Canva’s website and decides to sign up, they’re immediately taken to Canva’s editor where they can select from various business card templates.

Create an immersive walkthrough #

One common tactic that’s becoming popular among project management apps is creating an immersive onboarding wizard. This is a focused onboarding experience that guides users towards setting up their first project.

For example, when a new user signs up for Airtable, new users are guided through the process of creating their very first base. The onboarding wizard allows them to customize the theme, which types of data to track, and even add automations. For Airtable, this experience led to a 20% lift in activation compared to their old tooltip-heavy design.

The immersive wizard is very powerful because it combines several onboarding best practices into one experience (reducing friction, smart defaults, and a tailored experience). It also leverages the “Ikea Effect” – once users put a little effort into creating/customizing something, they value it more!

Use persuasive copy to communicate value #

Too many companies think the marketing website is the place to be persuasive, and the product is the place to be clear (and often boring).

❌ This is a mistake.

Just because a user clicked a signup button, you shouldn’t assume they are already convinced of the value your product can deliver. You need to be persuasive at every step. Adopting a new product is hard, and users need all the motivation they can get.

The simplest way to do that is to leverage some basic conversion optimization tactics. Make sure your homepage clearly showcases the product’s features, benefits, use cases, and social proof. Make sure everything is clear, focused, and relevant. And don’t forget to optimize your signup page – a commonly overlooked component of the onboarding flow.

Take these examples from Krisp and WorkOS – they reinforce the benefits on their signup page and add some powerful social proof in the form of customer logos.

Other places to reinforce value include:

  • Onboarding tooltips and product microcopy

  • Lifecycle emails (showcase one clear use case or benefit per email)

  • Knowledge base / support content

Offer clear signs of progress #

We know from the goal-gradient effect that user motivation increases with proximity to completing a task. So if your onboarding uses a multi-step flow, make sure to always show the number of steps remaining.

Another common pattern is to use an in-app onboarding checklist, like this example from Webflow. Checklists are effective because not only do they signal clear progress towards a goal, but also incorporate the Ziegarnik effect – the tendency for users to recall unfinished tasks more easily than finished ones. 

Don’t forget the importance of celebrating small victories along the way. Every time a user completes a step, consider offering a small reward or positive feedback to encourage them to keep up their progress. By keeping users engaged and motivated throughout the onboarding process, you’ll increase their chances of sticking around for the long haul.

Have users learn by doing #

Letting users learn by doing is an effective onboarding tactic that has been popularized by mobile games (Candy Crush, Cut the Rope, etc). The idea is simple: rather than explaining every feature or function of your product upfront, you let users learn by actually using it.

One way to implement this tactic is by using interactive tutorials or walkthroughs that guide users through the key features of your product step-by-step. This can be done through the use of tooltips – but you’ll want to use these sparingly and always allow the user to skip the tour if they’d prefer to explore on their own.

Superhuman, a popular email client, is a great example of using the "learn by doing" approach. You learn to use time-saving keyboard shortcuts by practicing on your live inbox.

You can even use this tactic before users even sign, like this example from Grammarly’s homepage showing how it works.

5. Test, learn, repeat #

By following these steps, you should have a lot of ideas for designing a more impactful onboarding experience. If you have enough traffic, you should A/B test your new onboarding flow against your control version. 

Come up with a bunch of experiments and prioritize your list by impact and effort. Even if you don’t see a significant result, keep trying several different approaches until you find one that works. Onboarding is such a powerful growth lever – trust me, you don’t want to give up on it too early!

And remember to keep fine tuning your onboarding as your product evolves – this is not a one and done effort.

In conclusion...

A well-designed onboarding flow is critical for any SaaS company looking to retain users and drive long-term growth. You can follow a five-step process to improve the onboarding flow of any SaaS product. 

First, you’ll want to first understand your user's goals and learn what key actions help them realize value. Next, you create a customer journey map to pinpoint sources of both friction and delight. With your map complete, you can begin brainstorming ways to optimize conversion at each step – this might include offering templates, more helpful defaults, or tailoring your flow to the user’s needs. 

It's important to remember that onboarding is an iterative process, so be sure to continuously test and improve your flow over time. By investing in onboarding, you can increase activation rates, reduce churn, and help create successful long-term users.

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