What exactly is user onboarding?

user onboarding

Photo by Rendy Novantino

User onboarding is the delicate process of guiding a first time user through setting up a product. During this tentative stage, users need to see and recognize the value of the product. This first impression with your future customers needs to be concise and clear. A lot of companies miss the mark with this process with an overwhelming 8 in 10 users saying they’ve deleted an app because they didn’t know how to use it.

So what are the elements of a successful user onboarding experience? It varies from product to product depending on the goals of your business and your user’s behavior, but there are a few tactics you can use to help set your future customers up for success.

1. Welcome emails

I want to be crystal clear about this – welcome emails and verification emails aren’t the same thing. Don’t try to save time by combining them. Verification emails are about security. Welcome emails are about showing tone and nudging users towards content or an action that will help them see the value in your product. Welcome emails produce some of the highest open rates of any email. This being one of the first emails that your customers encounter, it’s important that it be, well, welcoming and give users direction to help them along their onboarding.

Let’s look at Lyft for a great example

welcome emails

Source: Hubspot

Lyft is short and sweet with their messaging. The email is very image driven (get it, it’s a car joke because of lyf-never mind). The hero image above and the product image below sandwiches nicely around the singular call to action.  *Chef’s kiss* 

This is a very lean example, but it does the job well, that job being setting up a relationship with your customers.

2. Quick win/mini celebrations

Remember the feeling of your kindergarten teacher giving you a gold star every time you did something well? You can give a little bit of that feeling to your users. It is one of the easiest, “low hanging fruit” opportunities in your user onboarding.

Source: Invision

Mailchimp could’ve just told the user that the campaign was sent out and how many people it was sent to, but it turned it into an opportunity for a quick win.

Placing wins and celebrations in your app isn’t just about feeling. It’s about recognizing that a user journey milestone has been achieved, letting your customers know that they are on the right path. Giving them a mini celebration is something that should live way beyond the user onboarding process.

mini celebration

Source: Duolingo

Duolingo just might be the champion of celebrating user accomplishment. This is the screen I got after (barely) completing a Spanish lesson. They are consistent about the level of celebrating, whether you are 5 minutes in or on day 90.

3. Empty states

Empty states in a SaaS product is when a user arrives at a “blank state” in the product,  when there is nothing to display. A blank canvas if you will.

Empty states are a tricky thing in user onboarding and throughout the rest of the user journey in the product. In a space where you want your users to take action, a blank canvas can be a bit intimidating. Sometimes the hardest thing is taking the first step.

Source: Inner Trends

CampaignMonitor’s empty states work for multiple reasons

  • The first seven words of their copy, “get started by creating your first campaign” support the singular CTA, “Create your first campaign”
  • CampaignMonitor’s three visuals prepare users for the next step by setting up the proper expectations

Everything about this example is working together to propel the user to take action. 

empty states

Source: pixelfridge

Regardless of your product or service, empty states have one cardinal rule: Always have an action for your users. In the example above, instead of a dead end, Skyscanner gets you thinking about your next holiday. Dead ends are never fun. They kill momentum and interest fast. This space is also a great opportunity for your brand voice to speak, at any point in the user experience,  not just user onboarding. 

4. Personalizations

Similar to the welcome email, this is a great way to make users feel appreciated. It encourages the feeling of ownership in the product.

Look at AllTrails onboarding.

The message is personalized in two ways.

  • It says good afternoon because that’s the time of day I was on the site. 
  • And then, obviously, my name. 

Personalization is a fun opportunity to make users feel like they are entering an experience that was waiting for them.

5. Hotspots

User onboarding is a collection of vulnerable moments. Forms, questions, emails, your finely tuned micro copy and more have led up to one of the most decisive moments: Users actually getting into the product. 

So, what’s a way to actually help highlight some first steps? A product walkthrough method like hotspots is a great way to show users the initial features of your product in order to succeed.

Take Grammarly for example.


Source: wyzowl

Grammarly, uses a demo document that explains “the basics” and shows the features of the assistant and hamburger menu on the far upper left. For such a text rich environment that can be a bit overwhelming, this delivers just the right amount of information we need. 

The small pulsing dots are designed to draw just the right amount of attention from the user.

In a way, it’s a tour guide of the product, touching on the necessary assets that will, most likely, set up users for success.

6. Checklists

Checklists are great in real life and in user onboarding. They let us know exactly what needs to be done before moving onto the task.


Source: Avochato

Avochato is a SMS company that has a great example of a checklist. It’s also the steps that users need to harness the utility of the product.  Another way to think of it is a list of the AHA moments, all laid out for the user. 

Avochato also gives users a quick win with each little task completed.

7. Conclusion

User onboarding executed well is an engaging process that quickly and confidently propels users into your product. All of these tactics mentioned are a great way to nudge users. It’s important to note that these tactics were also designed to fight distraction. Being swift and encouraging with your onboarding is a race against limited attention span.

82% of Enterprise organizations rate their onboarding approach as a key driver of value

These methods are not a “quick fix” for less-than-stellar onboarding; designing an effective user onboarding experience takes much more. It requires the right process, research and data analysis, rigorous testing, design expertise and a holistic onboarding strategy.


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