Getting Started with User Onboarding

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

You make many claims and promises about your product in your marketing. Your target user starts believing in a few claims and, with great hopes, signs up for a trial for your SaaS product. They are now a prospect. 

They expect to create amazing results with your product. They expect not to experience any pains that they are having now (with their other software). They expect a new beginning. 

Since they haven’t paid for your product yet, they can’t be called as a client. Only after you make them feel successful in their own terms, they will be willing to pay for your product and become your customer. 

Your task is cut out: Support marketing claims and promises with matching values in your product. While they are in their trial period, you have to make your prospect experience at least a handful of desired values. 

Are you still with me? Good. 

User onboarding helps you to do it well. 

To put in a different way, user onboarding makes it easier for users to trust, try, buy, repeat, and refer your product to others. You take someone who is mildly interested in your product benefits, and through repeated cycles of establishing and providing value, you transform them as a raving fan of your product. 

In one sense, user onboarding is a crucial aspect of your business development. Do it well and make yourself more profitable; do it poorly and sponsor your own end. It’s that important. 

How to Get Started

Designing a user onboarding process need not be intimidating. A few simple tools, common sense and your intuition is all you need to get started

First, talk to a few customers and find their biggest challenges with current solutions (or approaches) for the problem you’re solving. Ask questions like:


  • What are your goals with the product?
  • Explain your workflow.
  • Which features are the most valuable?
  • How do you seek help with the software?
  • What additional product benefits do you seek?
  • Which part of the workflow is confusing a lot?
Make a customer journey map using the answers. A customer journey map ties together customer activities, customer goals, touch points, business goals, KPIs, and other crucial aspects of the user’s behaviour inside your SaaS app. 


Based on your customer journey map, try to understand what the first meaningful value for the customer will be with your product. 

Providing the first meaningful value now becomes your first deliverable in your user onboarding process. The sooner your user realizes this first value, the better it is for your onboarding process. Once the user is on a roll, you can direct them to accomplish something more valuable and so on. 

TTFV is a critical metric in your onboarding process. 

That’s usually enough to get started.

Let’s look at a couple of approaches to designing a complete user onboarding process.

Intercom’s C.A.R.E Onboarding Model

Intercom is a popular customer engagement platform known for its contributions to Growth and Product Design. They have evolved their own onboarding model called C.A.R.E.

Intercom’s C.A.R.E onboarding model separates user onboarding into four phases: Convert, Activate, Retain, and Expand. In this model, user onboarding is a never ending process of proving and providing value to customers.

For each phase, there are specific goals and outreach channels.

For instance, in the Convert phase, the goal is to guide users as they the first step into the product. You’ll use tools like product tours, introductory emails and so on. For better results, you could tailor the content for specific user groups or use cases.

The C.A.R.E. onboarding model is detailed, specific and well-defined. Ironically, it may be hard to remember or implement it in one go.

“Value-Action- Product Education” Framework

We need a method that’s easy to recall, execute and measure. Kayla Brianne describes a Value Action Education framework in her Medium article.

You can execute this framework in two flavours:

  1. Value + Action – easy to execute, gets quick wins
  2. Value + Action + Product Education – hard to execute, gets big wins

1) Value + Action

When you guide the user to take an action to get a value they seek (with your product), you have caused Value Action. It could be as simple as inviting colleagues to collaborate on the product. This simple action, makes way for better use of the product’s features.

To make your product sticky, make people exert effort to extract value from your product. When people put more effort (physical ability, mental effort, time, money, routine) into the product, the more they value it. Nir Eyal, in his book Hooked, calls this phenomenon “the escalation of commitment”.



Gmail introduces Themes in its onboarding flow.


The above screenshot is from Gmail’s onboarding flow. People spend an insane amount of time in their inboxes. They want to to make the UI unique, something that they like. So Gmail introduces Themes in their onboarding flow. While they do that, they also guide the user on how to actually change the theme. (see the yellow highlight on top right). This is value action in, err… action!


Now, let’s look at the richer counterpart:


2) Value + Action + Product Education


If by way of Value + Action you can also educate about using your product, that’s way smarter. But, because products generally have a lot of features than can be explained in a short onboarding flow, it’s also much harder to achieve.


Think: are there interaction patterns common to most features of your product? Tell about them.

Let’s consider the note-taking app Evernote’s onboarding screen.

After the user logs into their account, they’re greeted with a welcome ‘note’ inside Evernote! There’s also an onboarding checklist on the sidebar. Once you complete the items in the checklist, you’d have automatically mastered the core operations of the app. That’s all you need to know to use the product sufficiently well.



One Sneaky Way to Improve Your Onboarding Process


Creating a super-smooth onboarding process is not entirely intuitive. It comes with a lot of practice, careful study of best practices and more importantly, by constant tweaking of your existing process. Naturally, it is a time-consuming exercise.


There’s one way to cut short all this effort and time.


Send a plain text email from your founder/co-founder a little after they sign up. The caveat is that it should look as if sent manually by a real person. It should stand out from the rest of the mails in your onboarding sequence.


Do this and you’ll have an evergreen list of high-quality ideas to improve your onboarding process.


Here’s a sample:




I’m Mike, a co-founder of FlexWalk. Sorry for sending another email, but I really like contacting our users personally to get to know them better. I have one quick question:


Was everything clear during the sign up so far? Can we help with anything?


If you have a minute to answer, that would be fantastic.


Thanks, Mike Co-founder, FlexWalk PS: Your reply to this email will be processed by our helpdesk platform. I’ll do my best to reply to your email personally, but someone else on the team may also reply quickly.




We learned what user onboarding is and how to get started by defining a customer journey map. We also looked at two frameworks for designing your user onboarding. User onboarding is an ongoing process of customer engagement, education and conversion. For successful onboarding you deploy a variety of tools like: product tours, engagement emails, webinars, videos, help docs, and upselling messages.