10 User Onboarding Best Practices for Retaining Your New and Existing Users

When it comes to user onboarding, a lot of startup teams make it a medium to low priority next to releasing more “pressing” features, but this is huge mistake.

Let me explain why.

If you’ve got a digital product, or are part of a product team, you probably already know that growing your userbase is top priority. Most people will judge the success of your product on two big factors:

  1. Growth rate of users.
  2. Revenue.

But what about that unspoken, un-sexy, yet super important metric you never hear about?

User Retention.

Retention is what happens when, after convincing a user to sign up for your product, you lead them along a path of steps that creates such a positive user experience, it cements the value of your product in their mind.

The result is that this new user becomes a repeat user, frequently logging back in each month (or week or day or hour), and continuing to use (and pay) for your product.

In case it wasn’t already obvious… you RETAIN them as a user.

So how do you take a person from “new user checking out to see if your product is right for them” to “fully engaged repeat user who frequently logs back in and even tells other people about your product?

A few things go into this transformation, but one of the most important steps is to send your users through a properly designed and effective user onboarding sequence.

What is User Onboarding?

When it comes to product design, user onboarding is the process of leading a person through a number of tasks which, once complete, has effectively demonstrated the value of your product to them.

In other words, you teach them how to use your product and they learn how it can actually help them.

When people think about an onboarding process, they often think about a screen, or number of screens, that teaches the user how to use the interface.

Things like how to add a new item, where to change your settings, how to reply to a post, etc.

For example, something like this interface overlay you might see on your first time logging in:

Or, you might think of a few screens that you swipe through when you first open an app, like this…

These examples aren’t wrong, but it is wrong to consider that this is all there is to onboarding a new user.

Onboarding is a process that happens at many different times through the user’s lifecycle.

Yes, introducing a new user to your product directly after they sign up is very important, but going forward, so is drawing that user deeper and deeper into your product, and keeping them engaged.

Things like sending emails which encourage them to take different actions, introducing them to new features as you release them, or to more advanced features as they become more active, and releasing blog articles or guides are all important parts of the ongoing onboarding process as well.

Why is User Onboarding So Important?

We’ll get into the specifics later on, but first let’s take a minute to discuss why a good onboarding process is so important.

In order to understand this, let’s start with why someone signs up for your product to begin with.

Chances are, a new user signs up because you’ve promised them something that they need. Usually, they have a problem they need solving, and you’re promising them the solution (and a wonderful life thereafter).

This part is accomplished because you learned how to properly write and design an effective landing page. If you’ve done this part correctly, you’ve made them a specific promise of value and painted a picture of how much better their life will be after signing up.

This means they’re logging into your app for the first time with the expectation that this value will be delivered, and they’re hungry for it.

It’s your chance at a great first impression, so what do you think the worst thing that could happen at this part is?

The new user logs in, looks around, and doesn’t understand what they should do next.

Even worse, they attempt to do something, fail, and quit.

At this point, your product has failed to deliver the value you promised, and now your new user is frustrated.

Most of the time when this happens, the person logs out and doesn’t return. Why would they? What possible reason would they have?

Think about it. Let’s say you’re super hungry, but you’re also super broke. You’ve only got $1 in your pocket but you need lunch!

Suddenly, you see a sign across the street that says $1 pizza slices! YES! You run across the street, burst through the door, and… it’s empty. There’s no staff.

Nobody there selling $1 pizza slices, no explanation for how to get a $1 pizza slice, no nothing… just an empty promise and a very HANGRY you.

Would you ever go back to that pizza place if they promised you $1 pizza slices again?

Absolutely not.

Now, what if you instead you ran across the street, burst open the door, and a party was going on with $1 pizza slices with every topping you could imagine.

There was staff there to help you line up, to show you exactly how to pick your toppings, and with information on how to take advantage of future $1 pizza deals when they’re available.

Would you be back? Of course you would.

The difference between the two situations is that one promised value and delivered, the other didn’t.

One left you with a good experience, the other a bad one.

This is exactly why an onboarding process for a new user is so important. By taking the user through a series of steps which ends with them getting their “1 dollar pizza slices”, you’ve effectively proven to them that it’s worth returning for.

This is how onboarding leads to retention. It isn’t any more complicated than that.

What is complicated is making sure you’re doing it correctly. There’s a lot of ways onboarding processes can go very wrong.

Things like too much friction, focusing too heavily on the product and not the user’s goals, too lengthy of a process, offering it at the wrong time, the list goes on and on.

The rest of this article will cover what I’ve deemed the 10 most important user onboarding best practices.

Following these should help you design and execute an onboarding process that introduces your new users to the value of your product quickly, and effectively converts them into activated and repeat users.

10 User Onboarding Best Practices for Building a Product That Retains New (and existing) Users.

Warning: This article is LONG. In case you don’t have time to get through it all now, I’ve packaged it up into a handy User Onboarding Checklist you can download for free here. It will help to refer back to while you’re creating your onboarding process.

10 — Choose a Specific End Goal For Your User to Reach

When it comes to making your onboarding process effective, you need to start at the end.

What that means is, before you start planning anything, you need to have a specific goal you want your user to reach after they complete all the steps.

This goal can be different depending on what part of your product your user is engaging with. For example, maybe the end goal is simply to get them to upload a profile picture, or maybe it’s getting them to follow 15 users.

Pinterest, for example, requires you to like 5 topics so they can pre-build your feed.

Pinterest requires you to choose 5 topics of interest.

The important part is that this goal shouldn’t simply be picked at random. It should be chosen after researching the common traits that your current long time, activated users share.

Maybe you notice that all users who upload a profile picture directly after signing up continue to use the app regularly for the next 3 months? That would be the reason you chose the profile picture goal.

For example, Facebook’s goal for new users is to get them “7 friends in the first 10 days”. Twitter on the other hand has discovered that people who followed 30 people they basically became an active user forever.

How do you find these “user success benchmarks?”

As I mentioned above, studying analytics for common patterns that exist with long time users is your best approach.

But for more specific examples on this, check out Andrew Chen’s fantastic article here.

9 — Start With the Right Type of Onboarding

I’ve been throwing around the term “onboarding process” a lot so far, but it’s important to note that there can be more than one type of process.

Shanelle Mullin from ConversionXL lists 5 types of onboarding, in her article here, as follows:

  1. Benefit-Focused: Explains the 2–3 core benefits and how to achieve that benefit via the site / product / app.
  2. Function-Focused: Explains the 2–3 core functions of the site / product / app and how to use them.
  3. Doing-Focused: Walks the user through the first or most common actions.
  4. Account-Focused: Walks the user through the account / profile creation process, including finding and adding friends or interests.
  5. All: For particularly complex sites / products / apps, it may be necessary to combine the four above.

Choosing the right type of onboarding that matches the subject (and device) your user is on has a lot to do with how successful it is.

For what it’s worth, I am a big fan of choosing the “doing focused” approach as I find it causes a user to remember the action they took better. But I find to be successful, you’re going to include all 5 of the types of onboarding above.

8 — Use Different Onboarding Processes For Different Tasks

It sounds crazy, but every important “user success” task in your product should have some form of onboarding process.

If the result of a user performing this task successfully equals a more engaged user, then you want to do everything you can to ensure the user actually does it.

With this in mind, it’s important to remember to break up onboarding into smaller sub-sections whenever possible.

For example, signing up for your product is much different than say creating your first “listing” or filling out your profile.

These might be both very important tasks, but including them both in the same onboarding process would mean a lengthy, 60 minute process that exhausts the user and fails to get them where you want them to be.

Because let’s be honest, as a user, doing onboarding isn’t all that fun.

Try activating a sequence the first time a user clicks on their profile settings, or the first time they go to create a listing or take whatever one of the “main” actions is in your product.

Not only does this make learning each task more simple, but it helps put the user in the right “goal focused” mindset to want to learn how to perform the task properly.

7 — Break The Onboarding Process Down into Smaller Steps

In the same way that a user will get exhausted performing a lengthy onboarding process that teaches them how to perform every task on your product, they’ll also tire or get confused if the steps are too large and complex.

Remember, this user is most likely brand new to your entire product, or at least to a new feature you’ve just released, you can’t make assumptions that they’ll understand how to perform long tasks based on just one short sentence.

It’s important to break onboarding processes down into smaller, simple steps to be 100% certain that they understand exactly how it works.

User onboarding broken down into steps.

On top of doing a better job of teaching a user, small steps also act as a way to keep your user motivated and engaged with the process.

Make sure to congratulate them in a small way after performing each step. This lets people know they’re doing things correctly, and doesn’t leave them asking… so did I do it right?

Don’t forget to include a progress indicator to let people know how much they’ve completed and how many steps are left.

6 — Make Your Onboarding Process Repeatable (and Easily Accessible)

Last Christmas my Dad got a Kindle for Christmas. As resident tech support guy, I was given the wonderful task of setting it up Christmas morning.

The thing is, I don’t own a Kindle, nor have I ever, so I wasn’t really familiar with how to set the thing up.

Lucky for me, when I turned the thing on, it booted straight into a fantastic onboarding process. It explained how to setup the account, how to access the bookstore, where downloaded books lived on the device, how to delete books, etc.

It covered everything I needed to know, and I set the whole thing up no problem.

Once I was ready to hand it over to my Dad, I thought it would be perfect for him to go through the same onboarding process to learn how to use the device.

Surely there would be a way to replay it, right?

Nope.

I searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find any way to re-play it. I even searched online and found other people asking the same question.

But no, there was no way to replay the onboarding process unless I erased the account I had setup and reset the device.

This seemed insane to me, and I’ve spent the last 2 or 3 years helping my Dad out when I can as he tries to fumble his way through his Kindle.

The result? He barely uses it.

Imagine getting a paper instruction book with your Ikea table that burst into flames the first time you read it

WTF I PUT THE LEGS ON BACKWARDS! (every single time I swear)

This is why it’s so important to make sure you offer a way for users to replay your helpful onboarding process.

People forget things. They like to have a reference to go back to. Not only will it help them, but it will push them towards becoming a fully retained user, which really helps you even more.

Make sure there’s a way to replay your onboarding process from somewhere within your product. Don’t forget to end your onboarding process by showing them how they can replay it at anytime.

Calendly lets you replay their Quick Start video at any time.

5 — Don’t Forget About Onboarding New Features For New and Existing Users

If you’re building a digital product, you’re probably focusing on releasing new features (but hopefully not too often or without a good reason).

If it’s a feature that’s being built because of proof of demand from your users (which is the way it should be) than there’s a good chance many people are waiting patiently for it to be released. Some without even knowing it.

This is where I see a fairly common mistake. Team’s roll out a new feature, and then sit back, put their feet up, and wait for people to find it on their own.

It’s probably happened to you. You’re using a product and you log in one day to suddenly find a new item in the menu, or a new way to perform a common task.

Without warning, it just… changed.

This creates a poor experience for the user, because one of two things is happening:

  1. They suddenly don’t know how to perform those value rich tasks they’ve done over and over again, and this makes them frustrated.
  2. They suddenly see a new feature that sounds like it could be super helpful, but they have no idea how it works, try, get frustrated and give up.

When releasing new features, it’s important to include a way to alert the users it’s been released, and walk them through how it works the first time they use it.

On top of that, it’s also important to include the new feature in the initial onboarding process (if it makes sense to be there).

4 — Monitor, Test and Revise Your Onboarding Processes

I’ve seen posts on onboarding in the past with titles like…

“25 Onboarding Processes You Can Easily Copy!“

But this doesn’t make any sense.

Your product is unique, your users are unique, and because of this, your onboarding needs to be unique to your product and your users.

In the same way you can’t copy someone else’s onboarding, you also can’t rely on their data to inform decisions about how to design yours.

For example, if you have an onboarding process, and a competitor releases a blog post that says using video in their onboarding upped their retention rates, should you run out and add video to yours?

No. At least, not without making sure you can monitor and test the impact it has.

Your onboarding process is your own, and it’s only worth having it if it’s being effective in reaching its goal of retaining your users.

That’s why it’s vital to be able to monitor your users behaviour, make changes to the process, and see how they impact the retention rates.

Onboarding isn’t set it and forget it. It’s a really important part of your product’s success that should be getting constant attention, and constant improvements.

Keep track of what’s working, what isn’t, and adjust accordingly.

3 — Onboarding Should Be About More Than Just Teaching New Users How to Use Your Interface

I have two conflicting arguments when it comes to this point, so I’ll explain both.

First, I’m a big subscriber to the idea that something is better than nothing.

If you currently send all your new users into your interface with no onboarding whatsoever, than anything you put in the middle of that is better than nothing.

Even a quick tutorial/walkthrough video that pops up with the option to skip, that walks the user through the basics of how to perform the most important tasks. As long as it’s quick and easy and doesn’t cause the user too much frustration to get through.

A welcome/onboarding email is a great place to start. Check out Groove’s onboarding email below.

With that said, I wouldn’t exactly call this an onboarding process as much as I would a support document. While still enormously valuable, try to think of these things as part of a larger process.

The end goal of onboarding is not to teach a user how to use your interface, it’s to introduce the user to the benefits of your product. If you do that effectively, you will bring your users to a “lightbulb” moment where they say… “Oh I get it now! This is GREAT!”

Once that little “click” happens in your user’s mind, it’s much easier to expect them to return on their own (but there are other ways to make sure users come back which you should be doing as well).

Getting a user to this point can be done in a variety of different ways. Don’t restrict yourself to thinking that onboarding must be done from within your product.

Onboarding users doesn’t stop after their initial login. It should continue as your user becomes more invested in your product.

Your users will go through stages the more they use your product.

For example, let’s say you run a product that allows people to create and sell online courses. When a user first signs up, they will need to be taken through the process of creating a course… obviously.

But after a few months later after they have created their first, second, and third course, they’re going to have different goals than a new user.

Now, a feature like being able to bundle courses up and sell them as a discount might be something they could really use to take advantage of.

Do you think they’ll remember how it works if you explained this to them when they were a new user?

Probably not, because it was too advanced for them, and therefore not applicable.

In this example, you could schedule an email to be sent automatically after a user publishes their third course. The email could explain the “bundles” concept, and provide them with information on how to implement it.

This is a far cry from a new user learning to set up their account, but it’s still an important part of onboarding users to your product.

The idea is to never stop demonstrating the value of your product to your users, because once they stop receiving value, they’ll stop returning.

2 — Put Your User’s Goals First, Not Your Product’s Goals

In my experience with helping people design effective startup landing pages, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to focus entirely on their product.

Instead of explaining the benefits of signing up, they’ll just describe different features of what they’ve build.

Things like how fast their servers are, or what resolution they’ll store your images at.

But the fact is this… Users don’t give a damn about your product. All they want is something that helps them solve a problem, and allows them to do it in a way that isn’t a huge pain in the ass.

That’s why effective landing page copywriting focuses on the users problem, and describes the benefits of using the product to solve those problems.

When it comes to onboarding, this is an important to keep this lesson in mind.

When designing your onboarding process, put yourself in your user’s shoes.

Ask yourself things like… why would a user want to create a listing? What is the reason they will need to turn on and off email notifications? What is their goal here?

Framing your process around your users’s goals will help you avoid the dreaded mistake of explaining how things work just for the sake of it.

Sure, it’s great that you’ve got a way you can adjust the quality of uploaded images, but does this feature tie into your user’s high level goals?

Probably not. This would be something best explained in a help document.

Limit onboarding only to the features that provide immense value to your users. Remember, proof of value is the path to getting users coming back.

1 — Remind Your Users When They Haven’t Finished The Onboarding Process

By this point in the article, I hope you’ve realized just how important an onboarding process is.

The key to a successful startup is not just attracting new users, but retaining the ones you do attract.

Because getting a user to these “success points”, like Facebook’s “7 friends in the first 10 days”, is so key to turning them into a repeat user, I feel it’s important that your main onboarding process shouldn’t just vanish if a user decides to skip it and head straight into your interface.

Users who haven’t completed initial onboarding should be shown a visual reminder of their progress. It should contain how much they’ve completed, and how much they have left.

It should also break down the tasks they still need to perform.

For example, after a bout of poor user experiences, I recently switched email providers from Aweber to Convertkit.

After signing up and checking out their interface, I noticed a little percentage icon in the navigation bar. This caught my interest, and upon checking it out, I realized they had a list of tasks for me to complete in order to reach 100%.

Not only that, but they provided a little video to guide my through completing each step in case I got stuck along the way.

I thought this was a fantastic way to approach getting your users to the point where they become “repeat users”.

Not only was it was it easy to return to anytime I wanted, the percentage meter gave me a feeling of wanting to complete it and tie up that incomplete process.

Was I going to spend the rest of the time using ConvertKit with a 88% staring me in the face? NOT A CHANCE!

If building something like this isn’t quite feasible at the moment, even sending a simple email containing all the steps a few days after a user signs up is a great, lean way to approach this.

BONUS TIP: Give Your User a Surprise Gift For Completing The Process

Creating a positive user experience can come in many different forms.

Having a user friendly design is a big part of it, as is providing great support, but sometimes delighting the user with something surprisingly funny or kind can also help create a positive experience in their minds.

When I completed the ConvertKit process, I was shocked to find that a button appeared offering me a free gift.

When I clicked it, I was sent to an order form for a fee ConvertKit t-shirt!

The best part was, it was completely unexpected. They didn’t bribe me with a free t-shirt by telling me I had to complete these 10 steps or anything. It was just a really cool reward for doing something that was beneficial to me anyways.

It made me feel like I mattered to them. This really helped position ConvertKit in my mind as a company that really cares about making their users happy.

But beyond that, it’s also great marketing. Not only am I wearing a ConvertKit shirt around, I’m here talking to you about it right now. See how that works?

Conclusion

In a world where so much focus in spent on getting more and more users each month, it’s important to remember that new users don’t mean a thing if you can’t get them to come back.

Just like you wouldn’t keep filling up a bucket full of holes without stopping to plug them, you shouldn’t keep growing your userbase if all your users have only ever logged in once.

The path to retaining users is to continually demonstrate the value of your product to them. While this is especially important for new users, it’s equally as important to continue demonstrating value to older users, to make sure they continue coming back as well.

If you’ve made it through this whole article then congratulations, but if you’ve just skipped to the bottom, then I’ve got something for you as well.

I’ve recapped all the important points in this article and turned them into a User Onboarding Checklist which you can download for free here.

Use this to refer back to while you create your onboarding process and make sure you’re taking into consideration all the best practices for retaining new (and existing) users.

This article was originally published here on my blog, UsabilityHour.