New user onboarding is one of the most crucial – and most frustrating – elements of any product launch. Successful onboarding requires clear understanding of user journeys, from a visitor’s first moment on your site to their first interaction with your product.

You only get one chance at a first impression, and successful products make thousands of first impressions to gain traction and grow. An effective user onboarding process will get new users accustomed to your product and excited about its value.

What Exactly is New User Onboarding?

Source: Henken Bean – Principles of Onboarding

Onboarding gives new users the tools and insight they need to get started – and continue – with your product. Some websites may not need an onboarding process, but complex platforms and SaaS products often require a bit of hand-holding for users.

This process – the interactions and user flows between first use and sign up – can mean the difference between a winning product and one that disappears quietly. A user’s initial experience with your brand and value proposition can convert them from a tourist into a paying customer.

Educating and motivating users requires a delicate balance of design, UX research and marketing. Product teams must navigate many approaches to user onboarding, and we often struggle to choose the most effective means of fostering new users. Effective onboarding requires a firm understanding of each of the stages of a user journey.

Understand Your Users

Insightful onboarding requires a clear image of your users. Before establishing an onboarding flow, craft your user personas. Consider your users’ needs, goals, motivations and the messages that are most likely to resonate with them. Is cost the most important driver for conversion? Do some users need more education? Will your user be the final decision maker for a purchase?

These insights can help you prioritize messages and establish user flows that best fit a customer journey, as each persona will likely need a different path to a sale. Creating multiple landing pages can help capture new traffic and increase conversions by tailoring your product to their specific needs. These pages also offer valuable testing opportunities to determine which onboarding elements are most effective.

Decision Making

Before committing to your product, a prospective user needs to understand your value proposition – a clear, simple pitch that details what makes your product unique. Best written in 1-2 sentences, users should be able to grasp your core advantages in less than 5 seconds.


Those five seconds are your product’s first and only distinct chance to provide users with a “Eureka!” moment – where a user understands the costs and benefits of your product and decides to dive in deeper. It introduces the tone and personality of your product, whether that’s calm and professional (used for financial or other data-driven applications) or wacky and fun (for social sharing tools or games).

Account Creation

You may have an incredible value proposition balancing brevity, detail and personality, but following it up with a poor signup experience can stop onboarding in its tracks. User friction is almost inevitable, but good design can help grease the wheels and encourage successful signups. Unfortunately, even the simple act of signing up can be too much, too quickly for many users.

Source: Krystal Higgins
Source: Krystal Higgins – New Users Matter Too

Social login or email signup can reduce the user friction of a signup, but many businesses will still want the data that comes with a full signup form. Here, you must carefully balance marketing needs with user flow design. Try to implement inline form validation, shown to decrease form completion time by a whopping 42%. While you’re at it, go ahead and get rid of any unnecessary form fields. Keep it to an absolute minimum for what your  database needs to register a new user: when it doubt, throw it out.

User Shepherding

Ambiguity in onboarding is another source of friction, but teams can temper this by providing new users with clear expectations. Users with a pathway to completion are far more likely to complete the onboarding process.


On the other side of that coin, a good user experience should always give an option to skip guidance. Some users may have already used your product and will not need shepherding. Many users simply hate being told what to do and will much prefer to explore your product on their own. Allowing users to opt out of guidance instills a sense of control over the product, but it can be important to force users to put a little skin in the game.

Task Completion

Even if a user needs guidance, you will occasionally need to introduce features and get out of your users’ way. The simplest way to do this is to have a new user actually do something with your product: write a new post, fill out a bio or even refer another user. Your product depends on users establishing comfort with core features, and nothing builds user confidence like handing them the keys and telling them to floor it. Task completion builds an early sense of value in your product and ensures your user invests in your platform.

Guided Walkthrough

Of course, most products have more than one feature to introduce, and complicated products often require a more involved onboarding process. You need your users to experience that golden moment where they realize they don’t want to live without you, and navigating multiple features can delay that moment. Consider using guided interaction that educates and familiarizes users with the core features of your product while they go through the motions.

You can use this sort of gradual engagement to enable  visitors to start using your product immediately before signing up or becoming a registered user, but it is most effective as a means of finalizing your initial product introductions.

Done right, onboarding can help convert prospects into repeat customers —and champions of your product.

Alex Fedorov, Tilled Fresh Soil

Finish It

An established user is only valuable if they return to use your product. Many people have predicted the death of email over the years, but it is still the most effective way to convert a new user into a paying customer. Email is particularly important for SaaS onboarding, both as a means of engagement and new customer referral.

A robust email plan can become a roadmap for users to grow from a total newbie to a seasoned vet. Guided by your personas, map registered and non-registered user journeys through your product.  Next, come up with a list of the major milestones they need to accomplish to take full advantage of what you have to offer. Your personas will help you craft messaging for each user at a particular milestone, and a marketing automation plan ensures you deliver content precisely when a new user needs it most.

Final Thoughts

Onboarding has a few key stages, but there are countless methods to secure a successful onboarding experience for new users. Keep in mind that an effective process requires endless testing and refinement of every aspect of onboarding (copywriting, design, user flows, etc), to ensure you’re covering all your bases and giving your users what they need most when they need it.

Take some time to dive through these amazing user onboarding sites for more nuggets of wisdom, and share your best practices in the comments.


  • Onboarding Teardowns – UX designer Samuel Hulick breaks down onboarding experiences for lots of well-known, heavily used products and services.
  • New Users Matter Too! – Sr. UX Designer at Google Krystal Higgins discusses patterns and antipatterns for best mobile product onboarding.
  • UX Archive: Onboarding – A detailed visual archive of user onboarding processes in popular tools. You can even search designs by task, such as deleting, purchasing or sharing.
  • Really Good Emails – Another archive, this time of the best of the best email blasts sent out by major companies for different user engagements, such as giveaways, invites, receipts and confirmations.
  • Little Big Details – Here’s a visual library of small, seemingly insignificant design and functionality details that have big impacts on user flows.
  • Good UI – An ongoing collection of suggested best practices for good user interface – constantly updated and tested. Check out their evidence page for real measures of the tips’ success.
  • Shots of Things That Work – Simon Schmid posts .gif and image examples of little nuances in products that just, well… work.
  • Coglode – Because I couldn’t say it better myself: coglode “distills the latest behavioural economics & consumer psychology research down into helpful little brain gems” for easy digestion and implementation into new product onboarding.


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