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User Onboarding for Product Success

We've mentioned onboarding in passing in several talks with experts so far. And that's not by chance. Onboarding has both short-term and long-term impacts on the way your users find value in your product and stick around to realize that value.

So it's high time we talk about onboarding – what it is, how to plan it, and how to use an onboarding approach that fits your users. And our latest guest has a lot of experience with that field.

Aazar Shad is a growth marketer currently serving as Head of Growth for and formerly a part of Userpilot. His career started in sales where he needed to onboard his new deals over a period of 3 months at the start of their contracts. This is where he first understood the importance of onboarding.

Onboarding. What is it good for?

There are a lot of misconceptions about onboarding. One of the main ones is that it's just the visual way of showing new users where different functions are located. Aazar is quick to clear up any confusion: "Onboarding is less about UX and more about understanding the customer pain points, where they come from, who they are, what are their jobs to be done, what are they trying to achieve in the first few moments... and then UX supports it."

Another key point is that onboarding doesn't affect only the activation of users but the long-term retention. This is also a point Andrew Michael made in our chat and Aazar supports it. Onboarding dictates "once you open the door, will you leave faster or will you stay in" – essentially, it's about how long you can keep somebody in your product. It's about retention.

The arguments for focusing on onboarding are great. But sometimes it's more important to focus on other stuff. "Onboarding is important and you should focus on it but it's also important to make the right bets and you can't fix a hundred things at the same time." You need to be clear about the potential impact onboarding can have. Compare that to other initiatives you might be working on to decide if it's the right time to work on it.

The strategic role of onboarding

Planning out your onboarding is a strategic process that requires you to think not about acquisition and activation but about the revenue and retention part of your funnel. And it all starts with value and friction points.

The minimum path to value

Your end goal is to find "the minimum path to value". This happens when two elements are taken care of:

  • first, understanding what value users are experiencing from your product (which can be different from what you're selling, as Super Mario has taught us);
  • second, decrease the number of steps and lower the effort it takes to arrive at that value.

A great example of this: TikTok. You don't even need to sign up to get the value, it takes just 2 taps on your mobile to find the awesome content people share.

Getting things done and encouraging users

The first function of your onboarding is to get people to where they want to go. The second one is to cheer them along the way. An important element of the onboarding is to get people excited about the task. "You need to keep encouraging them, keep telling them what to do next, and keep telling them what milestone they've achieved to actually get to the point where they are," Aazar says.

A great example of a small onboarding element that does a great job is Asana's "celebration creatures". The animals sometimes pop up when you complete a task. It's the project management software's way to keep you excited about productivity:

Optimizing user flows and planning onboarding elements

Once you've answered the general questions around your onboarding's role in the user journey, you should take a deep dive into the current user flow. It will help you find what people are struggling with. And this will help you plan onboarding with the right elements.

Identifying friction points

Aazar recommends you start off by talking to customers who've made the leap of faith and paid for your product already. Ask them about the friction points they encountered and try to fix these.

You can find so many friction points just by signing up for your product, too. Growth managers and product people should sign up for their products almost every week. It helps to uncover new friction points (or, frankly speaking, ones you are aware of and decided to fix "later").

Another option is to just watch how users behave. Get user recordings set up to understand how people move between pages and where they're struggling.

Analyze the available data

Once you've done some observational work and conducted a few user chats, it's time for a deep dive into the quantitative and qualitative data you have at your disposal:

  • take a look at the data in your Google Analytics or equivalent platform (behavior analytics tools like Mixpanel and Amplitude will provide more value). Look for the biggest drop-off points in your funnel.
  • look at a cohort of successful customers and a cohort of unsuccessful customers and see what's different in their behavior.
  • add a popup question at the stage where the biggest drop-off points in your funnel are. Ask your users what's preventing them from completing the next action straight away. This feedback will be trickling in slowly but you can expect some great insights from it.

Once you have that information available, you can plan an onboarding flow that revolves around the key steps users need to take to get to the activation point. That's where they experience the value of your product for the first time.

Aazar mentioned Box as a great example in that sense. They use gamification in their onboarding to take people through all of the steps and reward users with additional free trial days for every onboarding action. This approach resulted in a 32% lift in activation rates for the product.

Proactive and reactive onboarding

The planning stage will give you a clear idea of what you need to tell users at each stage but not how to do it. And this is where different onboarding modes come in.

Aazar introduced the distinction between proactive and reactive onboarding.

In proactive onboarding "you as a software company decide what features are really valuable to a lot of different users and show them [at the start]." For example, this means highlighting key features. There are a lot of ways to do this: through a popup, highlighter, interactive walkthrough, or a checklist. Some companies even go as far as blocking the next user actions unless you complete each step in the proactive onboarding.

Reactive onboarding is "for people who want to figure things out themselves". Rather than taking the user on a journey through your platform, you need to provide them with self-service content. Reactive onboarding is done through documentation, help sections, videos, guides, tooltips. It's especially useful for tech-savvy audiences who are comfortable with exploring on their own.

The general rule of thumb is that you will stay with reactive onboarding (which is where all companies start if they don't have a set onboarding flow) and move to a more proactive approach if your audience is less tech-savvy, or if you're getting a lot of support tickets for the same issues. An easy litmus test you can do is to put Hotjar and see if users are struggling in the first few moments. "If they figure it out, it means that you need reactive onboarding," Aazar says.

What does successful onboarding look like?

We could never end this conversation without talking about the metrics. So what do you need to keep an eye on to understand if onboarding works? Aazar shared that the key indicator is the time between user signup and their first activation point. Keeping track of that and analyzing if that time period keeps reducing a signal for successful onboarding.

So go ahead and try to reduce that for your own product! Some of the tools and resources that can help you with that are in the Resources section of the video interview recording. Get access to them by signing up to the Hypergrowth Talks Library for free!

About the Author

Hello, I am Heinz!

Startup Founder, CMO and Growth Marketing Leader with more than 15 years experience.

During the last years I have been building, leading and re-structuring growth teams up to 25 team-members and budgets from practically 0 to 10+ million USD.

Having worked in and with early stage startups as well as fast-paced scale-ups, this gave me experience across all growth stages.

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