The 3 Key Types of User Onboarding

Yoel Eliat, PLG expert and author of the Everything Product Substack, shares his framework for approaching user onboarding for new, returning, and existing users.

6 min read
The 3 Key Types of User Onboarding

Having executed and overseen many user onboarding experiments throughout my career, especially in the realm of Product-Led Growth (PLG), I’ve seen product managers and product-marketing managers run into unnecessary hurdles.

While designing effective user onboarding isn’t a walk in the park, breaking it down into micro-challenges helps declutter the process and focus on the right things at the right time.

Two of the most common faux pas I’ve seen are (1) leveraging the wrong onboarding tactics for the wrong purpose, and (2) launching an onboarding journey and never coming back to it.

To tackle these common issues, I’ve structured my learnings into a framework, that consists of a three-fold approach to onboarding: Product Onboarding, Success Onboarding, and Re-Onboarding.

Each of the three categories serves different audiences with the purpose of achieving different goals. But first and foremost, let’s start by debunking a prevalent myth: onboarding is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Here's a TL;DR video to get you started:

User onboarding is not a one-size-fits-all solution #

User onboarding is an ongoing process that goes well beyond the first day of sign-up and essentially never ends. It's like building a house; first, you need a solid foundation, but once the house is ready, it’s going to need continued maintenance.

As our products evolve, we continuously unearth insights for enhancing user experiences. With the release of new features and modifications to existing ones, it is imperative that onboarding journeys adapt accordingly.

Onboarding users is all about offering help to your users throughout their journey, whether they’re new users, retained users, or dormant users.

Let’s dive into each onboarding category.

User onboarding type #1: Product onboarding #

🥅 Goal: Rapid realization of product value (AKA Activation/Aha-Moment)

🎯 Audience: New users

The initial interaction with the product is a delicate defining moment. New users are usually eager but also skeptical. It’s imperative to put your best foot forward and captivate them instantly. 

During the Product Onboarding stage, our goal is to get users to the quickest realization of value or, at the very least, to understand what they can achieve with the product.

Many stumble with this stage and provide an overview of the entire product, but it’s important to stay focused on the goal at hand.

I’ve seen too many long, overwhelming, and over-elaborate Product Onboarding journeys that bite off more than they can chew.

Stay laser-focused on the goal (quick time-to-value and user activation), your users will thank you, and you’ll hit your KPIs.

What can you do?

  • Icons 300 UX patterns: Choosing to use an embedded empty state in the product, for example, or a popup message overlayed on top, can help decrease the number of steps in a journey and can decrease dropoffs
  • Icons 300 Micro-journeys: Splitting the onboarding journey into micro-journeys helps maintain user engagement and focus over a period, can increase engagement and decrease dropoffs
  • Icons 300 Formats: Experimenting with formats (text, videos, GIFs) to understand what resonates best with your audience
  • Icons 300 Internal and external onboarding tactics: Incorporating onboarding emails in conjunction with in-app tactics are a powerful supplement to the onboarding journey
  • Icons 300 Know your user personas well: See below 👇

Segment your users by persona #

Of course, before diving into onboarding, it's vital to understand who your users are and to define them as personas.

Aside from defining their role, industry, and company size, have you considered their level of patience?

Some personas are happy to learn through guided onboarding journeys, while others just want to move on and get sh*t done. That’s the cold hard truth.

Taking user patience into consideration will help you (and the Product Designers you work with) decide what the overall UX should be and how to best help your users, thereby increasing the likelihood of all your coveted metrics - user activation, engagement, retention, and conversion.

User onboarding type #2: Success onboarding #

🥅 Goal: Educate users on achieving success through new or existing features (AKA Adoption)

🎯 Audience: Returning users

Happy users return to your product to get another taste. Whether they’re on a free or paid plan, whether the product leverages a Product-led Growth strategy or not, nothing stays static for long.

Faster than Darwin’s evolution theory, your market, your users, your product, your company, and yourself evolve.

As a result of market changes, your strategy will change.

As a result of user feedback, your product will change.

As a result of experiments, discovery sessions, and usability tests you run, your learnings will supply fuel for a wide variety of changes.

Product Onboarding at the beginning of the journey isn’t enough to win the marathon, and that’s where Success Onboarding comes in.

Once users have been activated, understand the product value, and start engaging, that’s when you can move on to the next step and double-click into user success.

“How can I help my users become as successful as possible, every step of the way?” is what personally keeps me up at night, and the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework is my sleeping pills.

For the same reason, JTDB informs what we might want to include in Success Onboarding journeys.

Whether it’s a new feature we released that helps users achieve a job, or a new blog post we published around how to achieve success faster, or a new template that helps users get things done - these are all perfect candidates for Success Onboarding journeys because they inherently promote and support user success.

Think beyond the features your build and release.

Ask yourself, “How can I help my users achieve their jobs successfully?”

Therefore, Success Onboarding tactics don’t have to engage users internally on the product itself. Emails can work just as well.

User onboarding type #3: Re-Onboarding #

🥅 Goal: Re-initiate engagement

🎯 Audience: Users who have not been engaged for a long time

One of the hard truths in Product-Led Growth is that 40-60% of users who sign up never return.

Aside from those that are successfully retained, some do return after a long period of time. 

Even if you managed to successfully activate them at the time, they surely forgot everything they’ve learned, and have been essentially deactivated by now.

Moreover, your product has probably significantly changed since they signed up.

The purpose of Re-Onboarding is to re-activate users and help them get back on their feet. It’s like rekindling an old flame; you have to remind them why they loved your product in the first place. 

These users might not need the same level of onboarding that new users require, but re-activating them is a task we should not overlook.

A technique I like using is to start off by welcoming them back to the product, which recognizes I know them and care about them personally, and then I suggest they take a “refresher” onboarding journey.

It’s crucial to use data to identify these users and help them get reacquainted with the product. 

Using product analytics tools (e.g. Heap, Mixpanel, PostHog, etc.) will help companies track user engagement that can be used to trigger dedicated Re-Onboarding journeys.

Experiment, track, iterate: rinse & repeat #

Anything and everything we do is an experiment with pending results.

As always, it’s critical to define, measure and track relevant metrics as you would for any experiment.

Effective user onboarding is a cornerstone for the success of PLG companies. It's not just about getting your foot in the door but also about continuously adding value and helping users achieve success. By breaking down the onboarding process into Product Onboarding, Success Onboarding, and Re-Onboarding, product managers and product-marketing managers can ensure all users are served and helped in the best way possible.

✍️ About the author

With over 15 years of experience in Product Management and over 5 years leading Product-led Growth motions at companies like WalkMe and Powtoon, Yoel Eilat drives a no-fluff approach to help companies perfect their PLG go-to-market and develop effective strategies that drive sustainable long-term growth.

Yoel publishes PLG, Growth, and PM insights regularly on LinkedIn and Substack.

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