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User Onboarding Best Practices

User onboarding is the process to get new users adopting to your product, app, or software.

It’s important to follow user onboarding best practices because when it’s done right, you’ll retain the users for your product, app, or software.


User Onboarding Definition

What is User Onboarding?

User onboarding focuses on taking your actual users through the product, teaching them how your product works, and showing them the product’s value they will find on a daily basis.

User Onboarding for Products

User onboarding is required for both business and users. When starting to use your product, a user may ask:

  • How do I use this product?
  • What’s the first step immediately after registering this app?
  • How do I complete a specific action on this software?

In user onboarding, it should provide the basic guides and solutions to answer the above questions, for specific products.

In other use cases, user onboarding may be used to:

  • Map user journeys.
  • Reduce friction i.e. Improve user experience.
  • Communicate to users the value proposition of the product.
  • Be a guide or an interactive guide.

User Growth and User Retention

Growing your userbase for your product or software is often seen as the top priority.

The objective for growth is to improve growth rate of users, and increase revenue of your product.

New users for a product (i.e. website based) can be acquired through free traffic sources and paid traffic sources.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is considered as one of the free traffic strategies for website based products. With over 50% searches are coming through mobile devices, mobile SEO has become far more important than before.

User Retention happens after users have signed up for your product, but often it isn’t optimized.

For users who have signed up, they believe they can get value out of your product. User onboarding is your time to deliver your promise.

You should lead them through some pre-designed step-by-step guide. This will provide positive user experience.

User onboarding that is optimized for retention should get users to adopt to your product and become repeat (or returned) users.

The first step to user retention is for your users to log back in to use your product every month, every week or every day.

The next step may be when the user renew your product by making a payment. That’s revenue for your product.

Why is User Onboarding Important?

The user onboarding process is important.

You’ve designed a specific landing page, marketed this page, and got a new user visited the page. The user likes your landing page’s offer and believes she’ll get the solution from your product.

A new user decides to sign up for your product, and subsequently logs into your website for the first time.

The most common first impression is that this user doesn’t know what should do next. The user may continue but struggle, or quit and never return.

Most product struggles or even totally fails to take users to the next step, or deliver a good first time experience.

The product actually needs to provide a proper onboarding strategy.

User Onboarding Experience

The strategy is to start the user onboarding experience centered around jobs-to-be-done for new users. This would’ve taken care of the users who have just signed up with your product.

Jobs to be done may be how to add a new item, where to change account settings, how to reply a post, etc.

For example, the project management tool Basecamp’s onboarding experience starts with asking users the jobs they need done. Users are then taken to specific templates for the jobs. You provide different templates to different jobs such as messaging/communication among 5 project members, file sharing between 2 people, etc.

The User Onboarding Process in Steps

Here are the user onboarding process in 6 steps.

1. Determine the User’s End Goal and Use the Right Onboarding Strategy.

2. Identify and Show the Actual Onboarding Steps.

3. Create New Feature Onboarding for All Users.

4. Incentivize Users to Complete the Onboarding Steps.

5. Remind Users to Complete the Onboarding Steps.

6. Make Progressive Improvement to the Product.

1. Determine the User's End Goal and Use the Right Onboarding Strategy.

Tell your users the benefits (they will get) when using your product, and/or some of the key features.

Now start with a specific end goal.

For example, after signing in and starting to use a social network account (e.g. Facebook), the user’s end goal is to connect with 7 new friends.

The rest can follow which is “account profile focused” onboarding strategy. Walk the user through the creating the new social network profile. Give the users different ways to get 7 new friends.

2. Identify and Show the Actual Onboarding Steps.

The entire onboarding may be a long process. Start with breaking down into multiple steps. For example, a new user has joined your online niche forum, the onboarding process may contain these steps:

Step 1: Upload a profile image.

Step 2: Write a short description about yourself.

Step 3: Create a signature.

Step 4: Write a new introduction post and publish it to the new member forum board.

If your product’s adoption has 5 steps, then tell your users about the five steps before they start, or when they’re at step 1.

By breaking into multiple steps, you make it easy for your users to complete the onboarding process.

3. Create New Feature Onboarding for All Users.

When you’ve a digital product, very often you release new features progressively. The new feature may be a bug fix, or an enhanced version of an existing feature in which many of your users asked you to develop. In the latter case of new feature release, it’ll improve your product.

You don’t want to simply roll out the new feature without telling your users – Actually both the old users and new users.

Without notifying your old users especially for new feature update, sometimes it may cause bad user experience and uncertainty. Consider

The users don’t know how to perform some value rich tasks they’ve got used to and done many times previously. This causes frustration.

The users see a new feature update that they believe is going to be helpful to them. But they’ve no idea how it works or where to start. This causes adoption problems for your old users.

4. Incentivize Users to Complete the Onboarding Steps.

One way is to actually send some of the users a gift that you have chosen. For example, you may give out a t-shirt that has your brand or website domain name printed on it.

Sometimes an incentive doesn’t have to be a physical gift. One example is that you may be giving out a 3-month subscription for an online digital magazine for free.

Another alternative is give your users something digital but you already have. It means when you give it out, you don’t suffer a financial loss. For example, you may have previously developed another product but complementary to this new product, and when you give out this old product’s time limited free subscription it doesn’t cost you anything.

5. Remind Users to Complete the Onboarding Steps.

There are always some registered users who haven’t completed all the steps of the onboarding process.

Some users after signing up may not even have started the onboarding process at all.

You have their email addresses when they signed up. Send messages to remind them.

6. Make Progressive Improvement to the Product.

No one product is completely built after the first release. This means you should monitor how your users are adopting, and identify the changes that are required.

Your product may be unique, and your users are unique when using your product. This means you’re collecting unique data from your users’ behavior.

With the user data collected, it helps you plan the next new feature launch, or any old feature update in a progressive way.

User Onboarding Patterns


The first time a user signs up and logs onto a product (e.g. an email marketing tool), a tour shows up and walks the user through 5 instructional steps. In the steps, it showcases screenshots of the tool that represent the main themes or features.

Setup Wizard

When installing a software onto your desktop computer, the software usually shows a setup wizard to guide you. The setup wizard doesn’t need you to provide all the information but only the crucial information. So it lets you skip some of the options while when you’re going through the setup wizard one screen at a time.

User Journey Mapping

You often need a clear image of your product’s users i.e. the personas. Before setting up the user onboarding process, craft the user personas that cover the users’ goals, experiences, requirements. For each persona, a unique message should be created and delivered. With each persona, the path (i.e. journey) to completing a purchase from the entry point (i.e. landing page) may be unique. Creating multiple unique landing pages is important for both increasing traffic and conversions.

Product Step-by-step Guide

A project management tool starts with asking the user the job she needs done. The user is then taken to specific templates for the job. Different templates are provided to different jobs that the user has chosen, such as messaging/communication among 5 project members, file sharing between 2 people, etc.

Interactive Guide

When a user is completing the insurance policy terms, interactive guides show up at the key areas. The interactive guides are small “next or back buttons” with short tips in small text. The interactive guides don’t actually block the user’s ability to view the web page she’s on.

User Onboarding Metrics

Monitoring the onboarding behavior of your users will help you understand how they’ve done. You can use the measured data to improve your product’s user onboarding process. Tracking the following metrics:

Login Activity / Frequency

One of the valuable metric to measure is how often your users are logging in to use your product.

Users who frequently sign into your product is committed to learn more about how to better use your product, and should get the most value out of your product.

Users who don’t often sign in, or never signs in again after registration are likely to churn. They may not know enough to efficiently use your product. In the case, you’ll have to provide help to get them on track.

Feature Adoption

In your product, it often may have more than 10 features available for your users. Not all the features can easily be adopted by your users – Some features may be more difficult to use or harder to understand than others.

The feature adoption metric measures how many features your users have engaged with.

Feature Usage

Feature usage tracks how many times your users have used a specific feature.

When a feature shows high usage from most of your users, it reflects the particular feature may be one of the main functions in the product.

Onboarding Abandonment

Churn rate indicates abandonment i.e. How many users have stopped using your product before they have a chance to go far with your product.

High churn during onboarding may mean that your users are confused by your product, one of the features, or the entire user onboarding process.

User Onboarding Cost

The user onboarding cost metric measures the time and resources required to train and support your products’ users in the onboarding process.

Segment-based User Onboarding

Role-based Onboarding

Setup multiple different onboarding paths for each user role.

An example is within one company, managers may need admin rights to add new users or remove existing users, and they’ll have to grant access permissions to some staffs for using some specific features of the product. The manager role may have to access the high level and detailed data reports.

The information and access rights that are available to the manager role aren’t relevant to standard users. The standard user role works at the operational level of the business, and they should be provided with in-depth training on the product’s functions.

Tiered-based Onboarding

Distinguish your product’s users with tiers i.e. enterprises, mid-size companies, startups, etc, and give each tier a specific onboarding experience.

An example is the enterprise users should get a dedicated customer relationship manager who sets up and oversees the users’ business growth and strategies.

For the startup tier users, they would go through the automated or self service onboarding process.

Use Emails to Onboard Users

In many business-to-business (B2B) or SaaS cases, email marketing, or in particular listing building, can be important to user onboarding.

Email listing building is the first step used for getting new customer referrals. The second part is to engage with the referrals (from email list building).

Email marketing should be well designed to fully support the user onboarding process. The first email message is usually a welcome email and is the first step within the entire conversion funnel. The message should be clear and friction-less.

In the email, it should include a clar call-to-action (CTA) which focuses on getting the user to complete one specific task. The one task is usually a direct link to a specific landing page.

How to build an email list? Refer to:

Not all users will interact with the first email. Further emails (i.e. the second, third, etc) may usually be required within the conversion process before users start to engage (or react).

User Onboarding vs. Customer Onboarding

Not to be confused with customer onboarding, user onboarding is the tactical part.

Both user onboarding and customer onboarding eventually lead to the exact goal which is converting new users to paid (or buying) customers.

The small difference between user onboarding and customer onboarding is that customer onboarding sees the bigger picture from a higher level. Customer onboarding helps decision makers (or stakeholders) to achieve high level business objectives.

Customer Onboarding can solve this issue: New customers often don’t understand your product, and don’t see the value in your product.

Most onboarding experiences are fragile and must be converted into a bulletproof onboarding experience. How?

Use this New Customer Onboarding Checklist.

Step 1: Set up Marketing Automation in the first place. Create an automated welcome email that triggers when a new customer signs up.

Step 2: Create a site message greeting the customer for the first successful login.

Step 3: Show the new customer a step-by-step product onboarding guide (with call-to-actions).

Step 4: Send a follow-up email reminding your new customer to login to the product, if he/she hasn’t done so after one day of registration.

Step 5: Build the content for all the empty states in your product.

Step 6: A celebration should happen when the customer makes it to a milestone in your product. This celebration should be sent/emailed to the customer as notification.

Step 7: The customer should have entered your automation after signing up. In the automation, regular emails will be sent to this customer until he/she changes his/her subscription settings.

Step 8: Develop a knowledge base with answers to common frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Gordon Choi's Blog / Website / Resources

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I’ve been sharing my experience on local SEO & digital marketing for Hong Kong SMEs / small business websites.

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