What is User Onboarding? (Not What You May Think!)

A clearer definition of user onboarding, with examples, to help you shape up your onboarding experience to empower user activation, adoption, and retention.

What is User Onboarding? (Not What You May Think!)

"User onboarding” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The term gets thrown around a lot in the software world, but has varying definitions—even to people on the same team! Some say it's teaching new users how the product works, others that it's indistinguishable from user experience, while others imagine it to just be a welcome message or a quick product tour.

How are you supposed to have great user onboarding if your team isn't on the same page about what user onboarding is? Let's get clear about what user onboarding is, and clear the air about what it isn't. Plus, we'll dive deeper into the onboarding process formula and how to apply it to different stages of user progression within your product.

  • Our definition? User onboarding is the system of actively guiding users to find new value in your product.

  • A good user onboarding experience should not only teach the user how to operate the tool—it has to make them feel valued, receive a good welcome, and perfectly handle the learning curve.

  • The onboarding process formula, therefore, for great onboarding, is to nudge users to take action via the right content, in the right channel, at the right time. 

  • Guiding users to a new value within your product is an active and continuous process and goes beyond product tours and interface design.  

  • User onboarding is a multi-channel system that shows users how they can expand their use of your product and derive new value each time they do so. 

  • When users are guided to the new value within the product, they evolve—they use the product more and understand how it can help them.

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What is user onboarding? #

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

This onboarding definition works well for two reasons:

  • It acknowledges that onboarding extends throughout the user lifecycle. It begins before a user even signs up and it extends past the point they convert to a premium account.

  • It understands that user onboarding is much more than just showing users how to use your product. In order to make users successful, you need to also show them why they need to use it, and give them the help they need to find value.

In the video below, Chameleon’s CEO and Co-Founder, Pulkit Agrawal, breaks the definition down and explains in further detail what it means, why it matters, and how to apply it.

Pulkit Agrawal clarifies what user onboarding is

Through the onboarding process, you make sure the users will be successful when adopting your SaaS product, especially when they use it for the first time

But keep in mind that the onboarding doesn’t stop when new users are onboarded. Successful user onboarding is a continuous process of actively guiding users to discover new value as they progress with product usage. 

The onboarding experience usually includes the initial experience, the training, and finally, the acclimation. The final goal of the onboarding experience is achieving the “aha!” moment—the exact instant when the user internalizes the value of the product.

To effectively apply these principles, you need a lot more than just an intuitive UI design or a single product tour. You need to understand your customer and nudge them to take the appropriate next steps using onboarding best practices.

Moreover, you need to establish a great user onboarding strategy that takes into account the different cycles of user guidance, maintains user engagement high, and constantly nudges user behavior toward feature adoption no matter what stage they are at.

Now that we know what user onboarding is, let's ask ourselves, is user onboarding important?

Why a good user onboarding process is so important. #

Investing time and effort in getting new users to extract value from our product as soon as possible can bring huge benefits. The sooner they can see your proposal's value, the more you can reduce the churn factor. Having an easy-to-use product is not enough—you need an excellent onboarding process.

Let's not forget that SaaS products' growth makes today's users used to the highest levels of user onboarding, often through providing various onboarding flows. Not just a negative experience, but a mediocre one, will make them abandon the tool and prevent them from becoming active users.

A good B2B SaaS onboarding experience should not only teach the user how to operate the tool—it has to make them feel valued, receive a good welcome, and perfectly handle the learning curve. 

You can do this by curating the onboarding flow so that users can explore freely, and at the same time, learn what you know they need to learn to be proficient with the tool. All of this will positively affect your retention rate, thus reducing the cost of customer acquisition.

The onboarding process formula for success #

The onboarding process formula, therefore, for great onboarding, is to nudge users to take action via:

  • The right content

  • In the right channel

  • At the right time

By nailing the content, timing, and channel of your user onboarding, you'll go much deeper than just good UX and a product tour to retain and delight your user base. 

It will also prevent churn thanks to helping customers see your product’s value as quickly as possible. And since there is a correlation between churn rates and low customer satisfaction, you will get those churn rates to a record low by perfecting the whole user onboarding experience.

What user onboarding is not #

Before we go deeper into the tactics you can use to apply the onboarding formula in practice, let's briefly go through what user onboarding is not.

A product tour is not the same as onboarding #

Product tours or onboarding checklists are really helpful, especially for first-time users. But they're just one of many channels you need to use for effective onboarding.

Let's not forget that effective product tours help new users get familiar with your software quickly and easily. Through a series of modal windows or steps that appear in the user interface, tours allow you to show the basic elements' general layout, the first steps to follow, and the most important actions that a new user must perform to set up the product.

Onboarding can't simply start and end with a product tour, because you can always deepen a user's mastery of your product with increased guidance. It starts with what the user needs, and it will be different for different user journeys.

For example, you can offer a welcome email with a case study you wrote to showcase the benefits while using in-app messages to pre-emptively help when users get stuck.

👉 For a more detailed look at how to create a cohesive, multi-channel engagement for new users, check out our guide to cross-channel onboarding.

Great UX is not the same as user onboarding #

User onboarding and UX design have similar goals: to make your product easy to understand for users. But great UX design can't replace user onboarding and vice versa!

Great UX improves the ability of people to use your product. But they also need motivation. 

As the professor of behavioral science, BJ Fogg, explains in his model of why people behave the way they do—they need motivation, ability, and triggers to act. When applying this to the product, it translates to a strong value proposition, intuitive interface, and timely prompts.

behaviour model for user onboarding

BJ Fogg's behavior model, a framework for behavior change

Therefore, just a simple interface isn't good enough; as almost always users don't want to learn how to use your product. They want to understand how it helps them get their job done. 

In order to prompt users to take actions within your app, there should be well-thought-through user onboarding flows on top of a great UX.

These prompts don't come from the steady-state UX; they come from delivering dynamic UX, such as product tours, tooltips, emails, and more. Ideally, they will be in the right format, appearing at the time when users need them most.

Applying the onboarding formula to 3 stages of user progression #

To increase the odds of your users' success, you need to match what you're telling them to do—whether that’s signing up for an account, exploring your product, or using a new feature —to their abilities and motivations.

With a combination of the right content, timing, and channel, users progress from one stage of the customer lifecycle to the next. But it's never a smooth progression from being a new user to becoming a power user.

Instead, it looks like more of a step function:

  • Value plateaus as usage becomes habitual

  • Users jump to a higher value as they realize the product's capabilities

When users are guided to the new value within the product, they evolve—they use the product more and understand how it can help them.

customer lifecycle in user onboarding

To encourage users to progress in the customer lifecycle, you need to guide them to the new value, through continuous user onboarding. Let’s take a closer look at the progression stages and how onboarding fits each. Understanding these stages will help you better implement user onboarding.

1. Preview User → First-Time User #

Onboarding starts before customer education. It starts with marketing. That's right: before the first product experience!

It's easy to forget that many new visitors to your site know next to nothing about you. When you're trying to get these visitors who are “previewing” your product to actually sign up, you need to focus on content that delivers clear product messaging and positions your company as credible.

  • Timing: First-time visitors, or people who haven't experienced your product first-hand.

  • Content: Value proposition; knowledge leadership (to increase authority and credibility); customer case studies/testimonials — all as specific to the viewer as possible.

  • Channels: Your landing page (incl. explainer videos), ads, blogs/content (incl. content you publish on social media platforms).

Clearly communicating your product's use cases and core value provides the motivation they need to move from knowing about your product to actually using it.

2. First-Time User → Committed User #

In the next level, your goal shifts from getting users to sign up to making sure that you fulfill those promises—and then some.

At this stage, the content is about specific use cases. You need to explain to users how they can shape the product to match their specific workflows. For example, it could be how to integrate your app with Slack, Trello, HubSpot, or any other tool in their stack.

  • Timing: When users have experienced your product, but aren't regular users.

  • Content: Most critical concepts / high-level functionality, specific use cases for your product, setup requirements (e.g. connecting to data sources), highest value actions, the path to the ”aha!” moment, and more.

  • Channels: Tooltips, product tours, and various other forms of in-product experiences (Chameleon helps you build and manage these 😇), lifecycle emails, and other channels.

When users know how to use your app, they'll be able to see it as a tool that actually helps them and they'll develop a habit around it.

3. Committed User → Proponent User #

The next transition turns your regular users into your biggest fans.

Some companies do this really well by establishing a community. The community can take various forms, from getting users to attend your conference to wearing your company T-shirt on BART.

The content and channels are a bit more personal at this stage. Since users already know how to use your app (and are doing it well), you need to deepen your relationship with them. Respond to them when they tag or mention you, create an online relationship with users, and share content that shows personality and isn't strictly product-related.

  • Timing: When users have made a habit of using your app.

  • Content: Anything evangelizing your product, or deepening the connection between the user and your product.

  • Channels: Product community, conferences, social media, branded company swag, or a company Slack channel for customers.

🤓 Keep in mind

Every level of user onboarding expands on how much your users can actually use your product—from promising solutions to showing them how to use your product to creating solutions to finally moving past solutions and forming a relationship between your company and them.

Best user onboarding examples for your inspiration #

It's easier to think about how to start building your own onboarding flows after seeing how other companies do it. That's why we put together an Inspiration Gallery, featuring best examples of in-app campaigns and onboarding flows from top SaaS teams. 

Here are the top three examples that showcase the user progression through the lifecycle.

1. Gusto's feature-defining landing page #

Stage: Preview User → First-Time User

gusto user onboarding

In one of its key marketing pages, Gusto already starts to onboard users by communicating the features and their scope. The copy uses benefits as a way to cement the idea that a feature exists and get the user thinking about how they would use automated forms, the mobile app, and automatic payroll—before they're even inside the product.

2. Voxox's user onboarding Tour #

Stage: First-Time User → Committed User

As part of a new product rollout, Voxox built the onboarding Tour above using Chameleon to boost user activation after seeing sharp drop-offs. With the new UX, Voxox achieved a 50% reduction in churn and a 20% increase in user activation. The tour works well because it's short, focused on communicating the feature's purpose and guides the user to the next key action.

3. Help Scout's social engagement #

Stage: Committed User → Proponent User

You might be thinking, how does social media engagement count as user onboarding? Well, if the goal is to nurture superfans of your product, then it certainly counts.

On Twitter, Help Scout celebrate the success of their customers—who aren't shy about sharing their love for the platform. In this example, Help Scout is deepening their relationship by interacting on social. in another tweet, it's clear they've even sent donuts to congratulate customers in the past! Creating committed advocates is one goal of user onboarding, and self-serve doesn't always suffice—high-touch activities like this help make it happen.

Get inspired with user onboarding examples from top products

How companies like Airbnb and HubSpot retain new users

User onboarding makes or breaks your product experience #

Guiding users to a new value within your product is an active and continuous process. It can't be solved through just interface design or product tours. Plus, keep in mind that it’s not a set-and-forget approach. 

User onboarding is a multi-channel system that shows users how they can expand their use of your product and derive new value each time they do so, but only with the appropriate combination of timing, content, and channels to help that user be successful.

As users move through the customer lifecycle, they progress when they understand how the product fits into their lives. And if they don't understand, they churn. 

In other words, user onboarding can be the difference between users staying and leaving. Keep your users engaged with laser-focused, customized onboarding flows and help them stay for the long haul.

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