Thinking about onboarding design from a growth lens

Communicating core value to increase activation and retention

As designers, we realize our products through various lenses: usability, engineering feasibility, business requirements, timelines, inclusivity, etc. Juggling these perspectives can be a lot to bear, but the critical lens is dependent on your situation and priorities.

I work at a VC backed startup, and for us, priority #1 is growth. When I design new features, I think about increasing activation, retention, and revenue.

In this article, I’ll discuss my method to apply a growth lens to onboarding design.

Why Onboarding?

Getting onboarding right is a low hanging fruit [highest output/lowest effort] to improving activation and retention for your product. The more engaged users are during their first impression of our app, the more likely they will be to sign up and use it.

To engage users, we will need to:

  1. Understand our user’s primary goal.
  2. Educate them on the product’s core value as quickly as possible in a way that will trigger usefulness in their minds.

Understanding your user’s primary goal

Depending on your situation, you’ll have varying degrees of information about your users and their goals.

  • If you have data: Run a cohort analysis to find out which users are using your product most avidly, what features they are using the most, and which features provide the greatest retention rate. You can then survey the highest-use cohort to understand, in words, their primary benefit.
  • If you don’t have data: Talk to sales or customer service. They generally know the customer best.
  • If you don’t have access to sales, customer service, or data: Work off your assumptions and validate later. Start by assuming universal traits about your users, then segment them into smaller groups and prioritize jobs to be done for each group.

Regardless of your research method, the main point is to capture your user’s primary goal to communicate value quickly and clearly during the onboarding experience.

A user story does a good job of capturing your user’s primary goal succinctly.

As a [user], I want [to do something] so that [I can realize a reward].

Identifying your product’s core value

Once you’ve written out the primary goal and understood the who, what, and why in the form of a user story, you’ll need to identify the point in time when your user realizes that your product can help them achieve this goal.

You could call this the Aha moment — the moment a user realizes your product’s core value.

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User Story and Aha moment for Our Home, a free task management app that allows families to stay organized with less effort.

Good onboarding is simply about communicating the Aha moment to trigger usefulness in your user’s mind. If a user senses your product will help them achieve their primary goal, they are more likely to sign up and use your product.

Communicating your product’s core value in the onboarding experience

Onboarding can have many purposes, including permissions, sign up, and social sharing, but most critical to increasing conversion and early retention is nailing the introductory content.

In (ideally) three screens or less, your job is to communicate:

  1. What the app is for
  2. How it works
  3. How it will benefit your target user
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Introductory content design for Our Home app

We can use our primary goal, product features and Aha moment to illustrate these points in our introductory content.

  1. What the app is for [user’s primary goal]
  2. How it works [main feature(s) addressing this goal]
  3. How it will benefit your target user [Aha moment]

Measurement and Iteration

So far, you’ve established your user’s primary goal and come up with a way to communicate how your product will help your users achieve that goal. Now it’s time to track and improve your designs to optimize activation and retention.

The critical question you want to answer is: “Did I get the Aha moment right?”

To validate your assumption, you can experiment with messaging to see which version returns optimal results. A/B test how you communicate the Aha moment. Designs with higher user activation after onboarding are evidence of a better language market fit, and therefore should be used.


Given that designers juggle so many lenses, a word I often use to describe good design is considered. I hope this method will empower designers to leverage growth tactics and make more considered design decisions, starting with the lowest hanging fruit — onboarding.

Written by

Senior Product Designer @ Sawyer |

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