How to Build a Self-Serve SaaS Onboarding Experience

How to Build a Self-Serve SaaS Onboarding Experience

Best practice tips and a simple process for onboarding success.

Monika Adarsh
14 min read
How to Build a Self-Serve SaaS Onboarding Experience

The SaaS onboarding process is a long and complex journey. It begins before the user even signs up, and extends well past the point of premium conversion. It shouldn’t (and ultimately can’t) be a one-size-fits-all experience. Just as your users are all different, it’s your job to tailor your own onboarding experience to each individual user, so that new customers can find value in your SaaS product.

The term “user onboarding” can be confusing. It gets thrown around rather carelessly, and on any day of the week you might find it referring to:

  • Product tours

  • User education

  • Good UX design

None of these are really what user onboarding is about. Product tours and checklists are great tools to help you improve your onboarding experience (especially for first-time users), but alone they are just a small part of the overall customer onboarding journey.

Here’s a great description of user onboarding from Chameleon CEO, Pulkit Agrawal:

“User onboarding is the system of actively guiding users to find new value in your product.”

In other words, it's all about that “aha!” moment, where a new user first recognizes the value provided by your product. To make this lasting positive first impression, you need a great user onboarding flow.

According toa study from Harvard Business Review, an increased focus on user onboarding offers a significant or moderate positive impact over the life of the contract for revenue, client renewals, and client referrals. Creating great SaaS onboarding experiences is not only the key to winning over new users, but also to loyal customers. It is a must-have for every SaaS business.

What SaaS onboarding actually is #

Most SaaS companies fail to address the elephant in the room - user onboarding for SaaS products is a continuous process. There is no arbitrary endpoint for user onboarding, and it doesn’t make sense to think of user onboarding as a problem that can be solved simply with UI design or product tours.

Instead, SaaS onboarding is a multi-channel system that shows users how they can succeed with your product.

Formula for an effective SaaS user onboarding #

You want your users to find success in using your product. Therefore the goal of product onboarding should be to encourage users to take the necessary actions in your product that will result in success.

If we think about user onboarding best practices in terms of this actionable framework, the formula looks like this: 

Product onboarding = right content, right channel, right time

By hitting these three marks, you are guiding users to success with your product.

How to create a compelling onboarding process #

For your SaaS customer onboarding to be successful, new users have to act on initiating their onboarding journey, and that may involve some nudging. So how do we push users toward action? We can use BJ Fogg’s behavior model to help, which basically states that people need three elements to be compelled to action:

  • Motivation

  • Ability

  • Triggers

We can then apply this model to product usage, which translates to:

  • Strong value proposition

  • Intuitive interface

  • Timely prompts

A clear value proposition is hopefully why your customers are using your product in the first place. How, then, do you consolidate an intuitive interface with the need for timely prompts? 

We’ll call this “dynamic UX”, which basically means UX that is delivered intelligently and responsively, based on the data associated with that user or account.

Mapping the customer onboarding journey #

To understand user behavior across the onboarding process, we can use lifecycle segmentation to mark key milestones of product success.

Advancing each stage in the customer lifecycle requires that you guide them to value discovery with user onboarding.

Preview user → first-time user #

The customer journey starts with prospective users “previewing” your product. Usually, their initial exposure and impression comes from marketing materials (i.e. landing page, blog posts, social media), through which users learn about the value they can get from the product.

To compel preview users to become first-time users, they need to clearly understand your core value proposition and use cases.

First-time user → committed user #

Once you’ve got them using your product, the next test is whether or not their initial experience lives up to the marketing message. This is where you onboard users and make your potential customers realize that there is indeed value with your product.

Therefore, turning a first-time user into a committed user is all about understanding what they expect from your product, and aligning those expectations with appropriate education and calls to action, leading to customer success.

This is why the idea of dynamic UX is so powerful; you can serve hyper-focused in-product experiences that present relevant information when your users actually need it, minimizing noise and avoiding distracting and invasive popups that do more to frustrate users than educate them.

Once users know how to use your app, they begin to develop habits around it.

Committed user → power user #

The difference between a committed user and a power user is customer love. Power users are habitual users that understand your product well; but it’s not just about how much they use your product - it’s about the quality of your relationship with them.

Cultivating customer love and true loyalty/evangelicism involves giving them a reason to care about your product. This isn’t something that can be easily summed up, but it involves efforts like community-building, responding and interacting with users on various platforms, and going the extra mile to prove that you truly care about and are invested in their personal success.

9 Examples of great self-serve onboarding experiences #

1. Customer.io (preview user → first-time user) #

The live demo is usually the first step when you want to guide users to value. But pushing demo prompts can be quite irritating if it's too intrusive.

customer.io demo request prompt

Here, Customer.io achieves the goal of prompting users for a live demo with a simple side-pop modal. It doesn't get in the way of the user's navigation, and it is straightforward, wasting no words at all.

2. Mixmax (preview user → first-time user) #

If you have a product that could benefit from network effects like, let's say, a meeting scheduler, every user event could bring many other new users. For instance, whenever users receive meeting invitations with Mixmax, each of those users presents an opportunity to begin a signup process.

mixmax signup modal

After users accept the calendar invitation via Mixmax, it pops up a signup modal, with a firm reminder that it is free, as well as copy that communicates Mixmax's value.

3. Voxox (first-time user → committed user) #

Voxox built their product onboarding tour (shown above) using Chameleon. The new UX resulted in a 20% boost to user activation, after seeing sharp drop-offs previously; they also achieved a 50% reduction in customer churn.

This tour is well-designed because it’s short, to-the-point, and focused on clearly communicating a single feature’s purpose. Once that goal has been achieved, it guides the user to the next action.

4. Zendesk (first-time user → committed user) #

In order to drive new user activation, you need to be able to guide users to value. Otherwise customers churn away from your product.

This is where an onboarding checklist comes in handy, through which you can introduce key features and reduce time to value for new customers, just like how Zendesk has done below.

Zendesk User Onboarding Checklist

Zendesk's onboarding checklist gives new users a shortcut to follow and makes onboarding less confusing.

Plus, by gamifying it through showing completion by percentage, Zendesk is motivating users to follow the onboarding flow.

5. Clockshark (first-time user → committed user) #

Here, Clockshark built a video modal that demonstrates how to use their time sheet features. Videos tend to be much better for user engagement, and they can educate users effective when used within the user onboarding process.

Plus, Clockshark personalizes the experience through addressing the user by their name.

6. FullStory (first-time user → committed user) #

Let’s look at how FullStory (a digital experience analytics platform) begins its SaaS user onboarding experience.

Information is collected in a simple persona-based user survey. This helps FullStory to understand the goals and probable use-cases of each new user, so they can deliver a more relevant user onboarding experience.

7. Baremetrics (first-time user → committed user) #

For many freemium or free trial products you may have users who have already had a positive onboarding experience, and clearly see the value in your product, but simply haven't converted yet. In such cases, a gentle nudge can drive users to grab a premium plan.

baremetrics trial upgrade banner

In this trial upgrade prompt, Baremetrics reminds the user with a nice unintrusive bottom banner how many days are left in the trial, and then gives an incentive for conversion with a discount.

8. SendGrid (committed user → power user) #

One of the ways to make your users feel empowered is to involve them more into the feature development process. This could be in the form of inviting users into a beta, or run exclusive pilot tests for gathering feedback. Such involvement encourages users to be more expressive champions of your product.

Here SendGrid has a section within their product where they run feature experiments. They openly invite users to be testers of new features with a tooltip.

9. Help Scout (committed user → power user) #

On Twitter, Help Scout champions their users by publicly celebrating customer success. Clearly, Help Scout customers aren't shy about sharing their love for the platform.

In this example, Help Scout is building a deeper relationship with their customer with one-to-one words of affirmation.

Cultivating true evangelists should be a long-term goal of SaaS user onboarding, and self-serve help doesn't always suffice - high-touch activities like this help make it happen.

How to plan an effective self-serve onboarding experience #

While it’s true that SaaS onboarding is best thought of as a continuous process, fixed, concrete milestones are still important. You should be meticulous about plotting the steps users need to take to get to their “aha!” moments.

Similarly, the first 90 days of onboarding are crucial (this is just an arbitrary number, but the point is, first impressions count).

To plan and implement an effective product onboarding experience, you can use this four-step process:

  1. Clearly define “aha!” moments for each user profile

  2. Map steps users need to get there

  3. Test your hypothesis with microsurveys

  4. Optimize the path to “aha!”

Clearly define “aha!” moments for each user profile #

Don’t ignore the most basic step of the onboarding process - to identify your customers’ goals. Neither should you assume that training customers on every feature of your product is the goal.

You might not be able to clearly articulate the “aha!” moment today, but you can start by generating and testing a few hypotheses. 

Start by identifying the core value proposition of your product (for example, you might consider the most used feature, or features that have received the most positive feedback).

Aha moments will differ by persona and should be clearly defined and measurable.

Map the steps users need to get there #

Once you're confident, map out the steps users need to get there and how long this typically takes.

This doesn’t need to be complex; in fact, simple is better. What’s important is that you understand user behavior and can gauge how long and how straightforward the path for each user will be.

Gather user feedback continuously with Microsurveys #

On average only 4% of dissatisfied users take the time and effort to get in touch with a business (which means that there are ~26 other unhappy people for every person that complains). 

This is why continuous feedback is necessary; to collect feedback throughout the entire product and user lifecycle, not just part of an early design phase.

We’re already seeing a shift to this kind of responsive feedback gathering; just take this example of ChartMogul triggering NPS surveys at key user lifecycle events:

During onboarding, continuous feedback via Microsurveys can be leveraged to understand goals and motivations of different user personas.

Optimize the path to “aha!” #

Once you’re confident with your hypotheses and have gathered some feedback with Microsurveys, consider the following 2 questions:

  • Is this the right path? Are there steps that are not necessary in this path? Which steps lead to the greatest fall-off? What would be the shortest path to wow?

  • Do users know how to get there? Is there clear direction on what to do next (and why)? What do users need (motivation, ability, triggers) to get to the next step?

Best practices for great self-serve SaaS onboarding #

Reduce friction in the signup stage #

Keep the signup stage as seamless as possible; you want to eliminate unnecessary points of potential friction (like asking for unnecessary information) and ultimately lower the barrier to signups as much as possible.

Other ways you can reduce product onboarding friction:

  • Get rid of trivial form-field validation (like requiring at least one lower-case character in a password or username)

  • Use social signup buttons (i.e. using your Google or Facebook profile to sign up)

Leverage multiple channels #

There are 3 main user onboarding channels, which you should use in combination to motivate, engage, and educate your users:

  • Emails (great for transactional messages and re-engagement)

  • In-app messaging (great for delivering context-specific messages to active users)

  • Product tours (versatile channel that includes takeovers, modals, tooltips, hotspots, notification bars, etc.)

If you’re not confident you have the capacity to build these solutions in-house, check out one of these tools (or just go with Chameleon 😎).

Use data-driven insight to test and iterate with agility #

Set-and-forget is not the best way to think about onboarding. You can’t just build an onboarding solution once and revisit it 6 months down the line.

Rather, think of it as a feature that needs fine-tuning for best results. It makes sense that, since you have (hopefully) defined clear goals for onboarding, that you now have to measure and test variations.

Don’t be overwhelmed; you can set your goals, sketch out rough flows, and identify points of engagement in about a day. You just need to be lean and focus on completing a first draft to start testing and iterating. Perfect is the enemy of continuous improvement.

Create a process for product onboarding #

User onboarding is something you’ll be doing time and time again, so it makes sense to create a clear process that can be assessed and improved upon.

Having a clear process can also help your onboarding to be more robust and flexible, because you’ll have a clear reference point for how and when to introduce new features into the scope of customer education.

This diagram nicely illustrates the cyclic model of new user onboarding:

Source

Keep your onboarding flows simple #

A common cause of customer churn is being overwhelmed by an overload of unfamiliar information, so much so that it becomes more logical for them to look for a different solution that’s much simpler.

Making things skippable, and giving users the option to return to complex flows at a later point will also do wonders to reduce churn and frustration.

Build SaaS user onboarding experiences fast #

No need for onboarding to sit on your engineering backlog

There are many no-code or low-code solutions that help you offload work from your engineering team. Intercom or Customer.io for emails, Mixpanel or Heap for analytics, Zendesk or oLark for live chat, Readme.io or Help Scout for documentation; the list goes on. 

If you’re interested, you can see thefull stack of user onboarding tools we use at Chameleon. We have the deepest product adoption tools that can be used to create user onboarding experiences that are targeted and contextual.

And, if you’re interested in designing and building targeted and personalized in-product flows, you can get started today with Chameleon.

After a one-time setup, you can do all of this with zero technical knowledge - no need for onboarding to sit in an engineering backlog anymore 🎉

Get inspired with user onboarding examples from top products

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