Skip to main content

Onboarding users

Do you give enough attention to your onboarding process? Onboarding the right way might be one of the most important things to turn potential users in active users. That’s why Hannes, our head sailor, decided to share some best practices with you. Check this video and learn about when to implement an onboarding process, which features to implement, and some tricks to end up with a better onboarding.

The Transcript

Good day to you all.

My name is Hannes. I'm a designer and a Product Manager from Bruges, Belgium.

Welcome to software design for humans.

Today we'll talk about onboarding users into your software. I will dive into four important topics. The first one is when should you be thinking about onboarding users when you're doing your design process. And how do we decide on what features you should onboard your users into and in what order that should be done? And we'll end with some visual tricks that we can use to get people on the right track.

Ready? Let's dive into it.

1. When to onboard

When is onboarding important?

So, when is onboarding important?

When you're in the startup phase of your product or part of a startup team, you really want to go for the features that bring value to the users, you want a product that you can demo, that you can sell.

So you'll do the client onboarding manually.

And that way you learn what the needs are., you can test the usability a bit and you figure out where they get stuck when they're learning about your product.

At some point, the MVP is kind of finished. And you’ll know that when you see that the surface growth rate is topping off. And your sales people are doing more support than they are doing sales. That's the right time to spend some energy and some design of course on your onboarding.

The best way of seeing that moment coming is measuring tracking what your users are doing.

There are many ways of doing that. You could use Mixpanel or Amplitude or Hotjar or even Google Analytics.

You want to learn what they are doing and not what they're complaining about, because they will always have new ideas for new features, but it doesn't mean that you should build them because they will always ask for things that Microsoft already created.

2. First things to do

So the first thing we'll do is set up goals. As always, you need a destination for your user journey.

Else there's little point in creating a treasure map.

Okay, I admit, sometimes being list is also fun.

So what we're looking for is the definition of the point where the users are ready to take off their training wheels, the moment they feel psychologically safe enough to explore your software product themselves.

Let me run through some examples.

First of all, Flexmail, an email marketing tool.

The point there is when users send their first email campaign.

For Govern, a board management tool, we want users to attend a board meeting. And in Sweepbright we want users to sell their first house. At least, in the software.

You see these goals are the core concepts, the core value of the product and it takes some steps to reach that point.

But when you reach it, it's time to celebrate. You have to give some stuff for free, make them user of the month or at least show them a funny emoji.

Make sure you track their movement, so you know when to throw that party. On a side note being onboarded is an illusion.

Even if people have reached the goal you set up, they may have missed some important concepts. And besides that, you probably have many more features to explain than the ones you set up upfront.

3. Break it up into steps

Okay, when we know that goal, we can start breaking up things into steps. Try to start at the absolute beginning, all the way to the App Store or even the marketing campaign. When you have the end, the goal we defined, and the very beginning, your job is to cut it into small steps and try to figure out how you could help people to the next step. Don't forget to track where people are, so you know when they're stuck.

Let's run through an example of Flexmail. What we want to do here is our end goal is the fact that people send a campaign and they start at the very beginning of the marketing website.

So our website. And then we have about seven or eight steps to go through. The first thing they have to do is to create an account with a password. And then they'll get an email and they'll have to confirm that email address. That's really important in this context because this email address is also used to send those campaigns. When we have that, the first thing they'll have to do is to import their current contacts. So in email marketing is important to have a good list of contacts and have some metadata with it. So importing this, sometimes from Excel, sometimes from another email marketing tool is really important. It is not always that easy to match both databases on each other, but it's a really important step to take. Then they have to create an email. That means they have to create some text to put on it and they have to design something or to pick one of the existing designs. And so some text, some layout, some right boxes and an image, and then they can send their first campaign.

Right, as you can imagine this is not completely fulfilled in one session, you may need to figure out what addresses are right, you may have to ask somebody else to write text or somebody else to design an email and you have to check with GDPR if everything is compliant if you've put it into a new tool. This means that people will leave this flow and do some other stuff that may be more interesting than trying out your software. And you‘ll need to pull them back into your flow. Just like travellers, people just like to wander around, they’re not always keen on following the exact steps that you have in mind when designing this. This also means that you will need to create some notifications, some emails and push notifications to get them back into the flow.

You have to tell them what they were doing the last time that they came to visit and make sure they keep working from there. Again make sure to track what they do, how long they have skipped, what parts they have skipped and what they should do before they came back.

4. Visualize their progress

Right. It's important to visualise the progress of the onboarding

Now we can really start playing with UI and have nice status trackers and to-do lists and arrows and stuff like that. It's important for users to understand what you expect from them and what efforts this will take for them. This will lower the threshold for taking that next step, which is pretty important because you want these people to start using your ingeniously designed SAAS platform as soon as possible.

Remember, most people play nice, but some of them just ignore all your effort.

So make sure people can skip or ignore your onboarding processes. And make sure that they can jump in later if they want to.


Okay, let's check some design patterns we can use.

1. Empty Screens

First and foremost empty screens. These are the screens that are seen the first time people use the app. It is the perfect place to describe the feature and how to start.

Be sure to avoid adding quick links or action buttons already in a description. You want to educate users, you want people to also use the app without you even being there the first time. So hinting is good. Adding the action there is not a good idea.

2. Prefills

Second idea: Try to prefill some concepts already in an app.

I think the first entry or a template is an interesting way to explain how a feature works without a lot of extra development work. For example, in the CRM of Sweepbright, we’ve added Mr Sweep and Mrs Bright, two fictional people with very different preferences when it comes to real estate. In this way, we show the user what the possibilities are for these preferences.

3. Wizards

A third concept is wizards. Wizards are comparable to checkout in e-commerce. You can do only one thing and it's step by step. importing data from previous software is an excellent reason for using wizards because it's a complex process, it has different steps and requires the user's attention.

4. Status bars

Okay, let's talk status bars. Showing how far people are in the onboarding process is pretty motivational and reassuring. You are doing well and you are doing well. This is perfect for completing a profile or reaching a predefined goal.

5. To-do lists

Then, to-do lists. What you do here is list all actions users should do in order to reach the end of the onboarding. It works very well because you give insights into the effort they have to take and the user is still in control of the timing and in the order of the steps to take.

6. E-mails

And email notifications. As mentioned, an onboarding process is often not done in one go. Other tasks come up and we need to research or you need to fetch certain info. Emails are a good way to pull the users back into the onboarding flow.

The content of that email should be personal. ‘Hey, how did you like it so far? Have you been busy’ and display how far they are in the process. ‘Still figuring out the import? Watch this tutorial.’

7. Good copy

And now, good copy.

Investing in short copy is always a good idea. Words are an important aspect of the usability of an interface. Being consistent in terms helps and one sentence of explanation can help get rid of any doubts.

8. Help function

Very important: the help function. If a small explanation is not enough a step by step approach may do the trick. Writing a tutorial, a text or a video is maybe only used by a few people, but it's life saving for them. Make sure your help section is open on the web and optimised for Google because your users will probably Google something when they're stuck.

9. Support team

The support team. If all fails, there is always the customer support desk. Be friendly, be kind, be empathic, be reachable.

And log when you help people so you know where most questions come from. And what their weak spots are.

No-go patterns

And then just for you, ‘No-go patterns’

There are a few patterns that break the flow and are just annoying, more than productive.

1. Animated slideshow

For instance, the animated slideshow. Nothing wrong with great gifts or beautifully crafted illustrations but people just skip the slideshow at the beginning of your app.

They are coming to test it out, they want to experience the value, not read about it.

2. Pointing popups

And then you have the pointing popups. You know the ones that block your interface to look at very small elements of the screen and where you have to click ‘I don't want to see this next time. This takes away the user's freedom to explore and just brings annoyance instead of help.

3. An explainer movie

And finally, the explainer movie. You have seen them before: animated figures that tell nothing in a very sweet native English voice.

They're not up to date, because they have to keep up with the changes in your tool and they keep people from exploring your SAAS.

You know, this is kind of key on onboarding processes. You make sure people are confident in using your software, feel safe or are willing to try out features until they can use it. This also means that speed and being bug-free is essential to this onboarding process.

We've created an onboarding canvas, a tool that helps you to design the onboarding of your software. Download it for free on our website

Last tips

Some last tips before you have to try it yourself.

Test your onboarding before you build it, prototype it, try it out on some possible clients. These are the easiest to find. And see where they get stuck. Steal from the best. User onboard reviewed more than 70 applications we’ll post a link in the description. Don't worry, We won't tell.

And oh, did I mention that you should measure it all. You make assumptions. you prototype, you test and you build, do the best you can, but people are not always as predictable as you hope. So measuring is really important.

Be flexible, question yourself. Be prepared to be wrong.

That's how you design a great onboarding.

Get our free template here

Are you stuck with an onboarding project?

Well, maybe we can help you out.
Plan an introductory 15 minute call with Hannes now.