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What is User Onboarding? (the REAL definition with examples)

In this article, I'll explain what user onboarding exactly is and how you should change the way you look at it, for improving your chances of success in having successful and loyal users.
Product Tour
Written by
Serra Alban
Published on
February 22, 2023

The biggest mistake when onboarding users should be the lack of understanding of user onboarding as a concept. In this article, I will explain what user onboarding exactly is and how you should change the way you look at it, for improving your chances of success in having successful and loyal users.

Biggest mistake when onboarding users should be the lack of understanding of user onboarding as a concept.

These are a little bit too basic.

A bit better, but still not perfect.

In this article, I'll explain what user onboarding exactly is and how you should change the way you look at it, for improving your chances of success in having successful and loyal users.

What is User Onboarding?

User onboarding is a continuous process in which you help the new or existing users constantly find value within your products or services. This crucial process heavily influences your customers' first impression of your business and is positively correlated with your early retention rates.

It starts with the first encounter of a user with your business and product, continues through the sign-up and purchasing processes, and then follows through the different aha moments in your product as the user gets more and more invested in your product.

What Meriam-Webster, Wikipedia, Appcues, and all the other definitions of the process get wrong about user onboarding can be divided into two parts:

1- The Start of User Onboarding

For most businesses, user onboarding starts from the moment they first log in to their platform.

For a minority of businesses that are acting smarter, user onboarding starts at the beginning of the signup process.

And for a handful of businesses that actually get user onboarding right, the user onboarding process starts at first contact, the very first moment your potential user is introduced to your value.

In the correct definition, alongside the signup process and in-product training, the user onboarding experience includes your ad content, landing pages, blog articles, Youtube videos, email outreach, and social media content since these heavily contribute to getting new users on board with your product.

Your marketing content should contribute to pushing your users to value and actively help sales and customer success teams.

Zapier, the no-code automation platform, pulls this off successfully in their blog content. In one of their articles about "online whiteboard tools", hey promote the value of their tool and help their potential users jump a bunch of steps in their user onboarding experience by offering direct links to integration templates:

2- The End of User Onboarding

And the other part most gets wrong about the user onboarding is the end of the process.

It doesn't end once your product tour is over.

Neither when they reach their first aha moment.

It doesn't end. It simply shouldn't.

The purpose of good user onboarding is to get users to a level where they're highly aware of your value and how it contributes to their life. However, it is highly unlikely for a user to stay at this level, their interactions with your product will slowly decrease and their fondness of your business will fade away.

The perfect user onboarding process includes multiple flows and milestones, and aims to keep user engagement high at all times. Behavioral in-app messages that are triggered for certain events are great for this.

Also, weekly, monthly, yearly usage recap emails can be a great way to improve engagement and keep users on board, like Youtube does:

When designing user onboarding flows, you should ensure the users are constantly engaged in different scenarios.

What are User Onboarding Flows?

User onboarding flows are experiences that aim to guide users around specific values and tasks within your product. Contrary to the common practice of having one user onboarding flow that educates the user about the whole product or service, a good user onboarding flow has a certain task and is a part of your whole user onboarding experience.

The initial onboarding flow should focus on getting the user to the first aha moment, the flow that follows that should get them to use a more advanced use case, and there should be brand new onboarding flows for all your new features.

The more you separate your onboarding flows, the more precise changes and improvements you can make based on actionable insights.

What is the Goal of User Onboarding?

The goal of user onboarding is to help users understand the value of your product through experiencing the aha moment and keep this understanding and engagement high throughout the user journey.

Users who understand and engage with your product will be more likely to stick with your product, which will improve conversion rates and significantly drop the churn rate.

You might think otherwise, but companies generally do terrible at onboarding users and retaining them. Over 90% of customers think businesses can create better user onboarding experiences and the average SaaS company has more than a 5% churn rate.

With a good customer onboarding process, your goal should be to provide your customers with the best user and product experience possible.

And to achieve this goal, your product team, customer success team, sales team, and marketing team should work in harmony to create a good user onboarding experience.

But what passes as "good"?

What makes a User Onboarding good?

A good user onboarding will boost your conversion rates and product adoption rates while having a good completion rate. So, it needs to be as user-friendly and engagement-boosting as possible.

In order to achieve these, a good customer onboarding:

1- Is consistent and complete

An effective onboarding experience is consistent throughout the whole customer journey.

This means that you have to ensure that from the first touch with your potential customers with the marketing team all the way to their latest ticket answered by the support team, every engagement should be aware of each other and keep a similar level of value.

You can't offer great marketing, then terrible sales process, then great customer success sessions, and then awful customer support experience. It all should be consistent. The data and insights from marketing, product analytics, sales processes, and customer service should be unified under a single platform or workflow to ensure a connected process.

2- Is short and simple

If your onboarding fails to help a first-time user reach the aha moment of your product in just a few steps, you probably have the wrong aha moment or your customer onboarding is designed poorly.

Users, even when signing up for the most complex product with numerous different features have a specific task on their mind that they'd like to check off of their to-do list. Your initial onboarding flow should aim to help these users complete this task and reach their aha moments; the product education comes later.

3- Utilizes various onboarding UX patterns

User onboarding is not a product tour, or a tooltip, or a checklist/template, or an onboarding email with related guidelines. It's all of them.

The variety of your onboarding material is crucial because each onboarding UX pattern boosts different aspects of customer experiences. Your onboarding should consist of many different elements working in harmony in the same flow.

4- Highlights key features and milestones

Most businesses fail in onboarding new users simply because they show too much. Remember, the goal of user onboarding is to help users understand the value of your product, not how your product works.

So, a good user onboarding should only highlight the key features that the specific user is interested in; the rest can come later in the next user onboarding flow.

5- Isn't annoying

The worst thing you can do in your user experience is to annoy individual users, and a bad user onboarding does exactly that.

There are numerous ways you can just annoy your users during onboarding:

  • Your messaging can be too complex,
  • your content can be all text and no visuals,
  • it might take ages to get through an onboarding task,
  • or the user might not be provided the option to disable the flow.

In any case, try to make your user onboarding as user-friendly as possible.

A Great User Onboarding is a Must-Have, not a Nice-to-Have

Users' initial experience with a product or a service can determine whether or not they want to invest their time and resources in using it.

No matter your industry, audience, or product; in order to grow your business and boost every business metric you need to bring your A-game to user onboarding.

Want more user onboarding resources?

Take a look at these user onboarding examples, check out hundreds of different onboarding pattern inspirations, or compare user onboarding platforms.

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