The Complete Guide to User Onboarding: Getting New Users Up to Speed

Gaurav Rawat
January 15, 2024
8 mins


What Is User Onboarding?

User onboarding is the process of getting new users familiar with your product or service. It's how you guide them to that "aha!" moment where everything clicks. Why does it matter? Because first impressions are everything. 

When a user first opens your app, an onboarding process walks them through the key features and functionality. This helps new users understand how the app works so they can start using it right away. Effective onboarding should highlight the app's core value proposition and key benefits to the user.

Many apps invest in onboarding to improve user experience, adoption rates, and retention, boost conversions, and prevent churn. If users don't understand your product right off the bat, they probably won't stick around to find out. That's why a thoughtful onboarding experience is key- it leads to success for both your users and your business. What's not to love about that?

What Is In-app User Onboarding?

User onboarding is critical for app success. Traditional onboarding usually takes place on your website or through emails.  In-app onboarding, on the other hand, happens within your mobile app experience.

In-app onboarding is a more streamlined approach that keeps users engaged as they explore your app for the first time. It uses interactive walkthroughs and tooltips to demonstrate key features and workflows for onboarding users. This helps new users understand the value of your app quickly so they stay and continue using it.

What Is Not Considered User Onboarding

Effective user onboarding is not simply giving new users a product tour. It's an iterative process aimed at consistently improving the process of onboarding users well after the initial sign-up.  

Onboarding should match each user's unique journey. The key is understanding your users and guiding them to the aha! moment. That guidance looks different for a new user vs. a power user.  

For new users, focus on one key benefit at a time. Explain how to achieve quick wins to build confidence and momentum. For experienced users, point out new features that save time or inspire creativity.  

Survey users to determine knowledge gaps and how much support they want. Release new features and updates incrementally based on user feedback. Continue checking in on users even after they've adopted your product. The goal is to guide users to become increasingly self-sufficient, but still provide help when they need it. 

Why Is User Onboarding Important?

Effective onboarding is key to user retention and engagement.  80% of users say they’ve deleted an app because they didn’t know how to use it. And that’s where a good user onboarding experience comes into play. 

The main goals of an effectively onboarding users are:

  1. Educate new users: Walk through the key features and functionality. The more new users understand, the more likely they are to become engaged and loyal customers.
  2. Make a good first impression: The onboarding experience is the first real interaction new users have with your company. Use walkthroughs to build trust and rapport.
  3. Decrease time to value: Don't just throw new users in the deep end and expect them to figure it out. Provide a clear path using checklists to get started and find quick wins. This also helps in decreasing time-to-value for every user. 
  4. Encourage user engagement: Once new users are onboarded, send follow up messages to check in, see if they have any questions, and to suggest next steps. User onboarding helps in more repeat usage, thus driving feature/ product adoption. Make it easy for new users to provide feedback and share their experience. Engaged users tend to become loyal customers over the long run.

Following these goals will result in an onboarding process that delights new users, helps them achieve success quickly, and turns them into engaged customers. 

User Onboarding Steps With A Flawless Process 

Onboarding new users in the right way is key to adoption and retention.

The success of any app is proportionate to how well you map all points of the user journey. 

If people don’t understand how to navigate through the app, aren’t incentivized, and can’t figure out the value prop:

- Your users will churn 

- Your retention rates will drop

- Your users will face bad friction during onboarding 

An app is a vehicle to monetize your product. 

Here are some steps to follow in order nail your in-app user onboarding:

1.  Define Your User Onboarding Goals

What do you want new users to achieve in their first experience with your product? Do you want them to complete a profile, make a first purchase, invite friends, or something else? 

Once you know your goals, figure out what needs to happen for users to achieve them. Map out the steps, actions, and information needed. This helps determine what to include while onboarding users and the optimal path to get users to those goals.

To keep new users engaged, focus on the basics and highlight key features and benefits. Don't overwhelm them with too many options or try to showcase every capability right away. Consider using tooltips, spotlights or subtle animation to draw attention to important elements without distraction.

Well-defined goals also help measure the success of your onboarding. Look at key metrics like completion rates for onboarding steps, time to first key action, and retention after 30 days. Make adjustments based on how new users progress and where they drop off.

2.  Map Out The User Journey

1. Identify key actions and milestones

What are the 3-5 most important things a new user needs to do to get value from your product? Maybe it’s adding a payment method, connecting a third-party account, uploading a profile photo. Prioritize what’s essential for them to experience that “aha!” moment.

2. Create a path to success

Lay out the steps required to achieve each key action in a logical flow. Use visuals like a flowchart to see the big picture.

  • Make sure the path is easy to follow. Keep instructions clear and concise using checklists.
  • Include “quick win” steps that provide immediate value. This could be learning one useful feature or setting up an important profile detail. Quick wins motivate users to continue.
3. Determine timing and triggers

Decide how and when to prompt users to complete the next step. Effective triggers include:

  • In-app messaging or pop-up tooltips when a user first logs in. Explain what they can do to get started and the benefits.
  • Checklists that show progress and recommend what to do next. 

3. Design A Streamlined Onboarding Flow

A streamlined onboarding flow is key to user adoption success. Keep these steps in mind when designing your onboarding experience:

Limit distractions

Remove any unnecessary steps or clutter that could divert the user's attention. Focus on highlighting the key features and benefits that will drive usage and stickiness. Keep instructional text brief and easy to understand.

Provide context

Give the user insight into why certain information is needed or how specific features will benefit them. Context helps build understanding and encourages progress through the onboarding flow. Briefly explain the value of completing each step.

Keep it short

Aim for an customer onboarding experience that can be completed in 3 minutes or less. Users have short attention spans, so concise and targeted is best. Save deeper dives into advanced functionality for later.

Include interactive elements

Adding interactive components, like tooltips, modals, and checklists, makes the experience more engaging. They also reinforce learning and comprehension. But don't overdo it, as too much interaction can seem gimmicky.

Issue rewards and encouragement

Provide positive reinforcement and motivation to complete the onboarding. You might display progress bars, issue badges upon completion of key steps, or send a congratulatory in-app message once the user has finished. 

Ask for feedback

Include optional survey questions at the end of onboarding to gather input on the user's experience. Feedback helps determine where there's room for improvement and what's working well. It also shows users you value their opinions.

Continuously optimize

Use analytics and user feedback to gain insights into how people are interacting with your onboarding. Look for any drop-off points or areas of struggle and make adjustments to improve conversion and retention. Regular optimization and A/B testing help ensure a great first experience.

User Onboarding Examples

Real-world examples of excellent user onboarding experiences can provide inspiration and ideas for your own onboarding process. Here are a few standouts:11) 

1) Duolingo

The popular language learning app Duolingo does an excellent job of onboarding new users. After signing up, it walks you through setting a daily goal and selecting the language you want to learn. It introduces lessons and concepts gradually to avoid overwhelming you. The short, engaging lessons make learning fun and help you build momentum.

2) Calm

The meditation and sleep app Calm also has thoughtful customer onboarding. It starts by having you select how you want to use the app—for sleep, meditation, or relaxation. Then it recommends a program based on your goal and encourages you to start with just 5 or 10 minutes a day. The simple, uncluttered interface is welcoming and easy to navigate as a beginner.

3) Dropbox

Dropbox nails their customer onboarding experience by making it personal and efficient. As soon as you sign up for a new account, Dropbox greets you by name and asks you a few quick questions to customize your experience. They want to know how you plan to use Dropbox - for personal use, business, school or something else. Based on your answers, they provide tailored recommendations and tips to help you get started.

The clean, minimal interface is easy to navigate for new users. Dropbox employs subtle animations and notifications to show you when files have been added, uploaded or shared. They also include unobtrusive tips and suggestions along the bottom to help you discover new features at your own pace.

4) Headspace

Like Calm, the meditation app Headspace eases users into the experience. The onboarding process helps you establish the right mindset and introduces core concepts around mindfulness and meditation. The lighthearted, encouraging tone from the instructors helps new users feel at ease, especially those who may feel unsure about meditation. Short animated videos explain techniques in a simple, engaging way.

5) Trello

The project management tool Trello makes onboarding interactive and unintimidating. Instead of presenting a dense user manual, it starts with a friendly walkthrough that shows how to create your first board. New features and capabilities are introduced gradually through a series of guided tours. Trello’s bright, modular interface is also naturally intuitive to use.

Following the lead of these companies, focus your onboarding on educating new users, setting the right expectations, and providing a helpful introduction to your product or service. Keep the experience positive, simple and make the first interactions as rewarding as possible. Meet users where they are and give them an easy path to becoming confident and proficient.

User Onboarding Principles 

Some key principles for effective user onboarding include:

Keep it brief

Don't overwhelm new users with too much information upfront. Focus on the basics and keep onboarding brief, around 3 to 5 minutes. You can always provide more advanced tutorials and documentation for users to explore later on their own time.

Explain benefits

Help new users understand the key benefits of your product right away. Why should they invest their time in learning it? What problems does it solve? How will it make their life or work easier? Addressing these questions will motivate new users to push through the learning curve.

Show, don't just tell

Use visuals like images, gifs, and video in addition to text. Interactive product tours and tooltips are also helpful for demonstrating how to use your software in a step-by-step manner. Visual and interactive elements are much more engaging than text alone.

Start with fundamentals

Focus on the core functionality that will allow new users to get started. You can introduce more advanced features and customization options over time through follow-up messages and digestible content. Don't overwhelm new users with too many choices early on.

Progressive disclosure

Only show users the information they need at each step. Don't overwhelm them with too many options or details upfront. Give them a clear path forward.

Design onboarding processes based on user segments

Segmenting allows you to customize content and messaging. You can segment by user goals or behaviors. Users focused on collaboration may appreciate tips for sharing and teamwork features. Those more task-oriented may want shortcuts and automation suggestions.

Consider creating multiple paths through your onboarding to match the needs of your diverse customer base.

Re-engage and follow up

Send follow-up in-app messages with useful tips and resources for new users. Poll them to get feedback on their experience and see if they have any other questions. Re-engaging new users, even after the initial onboarding process, builds loyalty and encourages active product usage and adoption.

With the right customer onboarding experience, you'll turn curious first-time users into engaged and loyal customers. Applying these principles will help get your new users up to speed and ensure they have a successful first experience with your product.

12 Key Metrics To Measure Onboarding Success

To determine if your user onboarding process is effective, you need to measure key metrics. Here are 12 of the most important ones to track:

1. Onboarding revenue

The revenue generated from new users in their first week, month, etc. This shows how quickly they start actively using and paying for our product. It also gives insights into whether our onboarding is properly introducing users to value and driving engagement

2. Daily/monthly active users 

The number of new users who engage with our product each day/month. If this number is high, it means that your onboarding is compelling and motivates users to keep coming back. You want users interacting with your product on an ongoing basis. 

3. User support requests

The number of support tickets from new users. A lower rate indicates your onboarding is intuitive and helpful. The goal is to provide information upfront so users don't feel lost or have to contact support. 

4. DAUs, WAUs, MAUs

The number of new users who use the product daily, weekly and monthly. Higher numbers mean your onboarding effectively engages new users. So, how you define an "active" user is totally up to you. It could be something like finishing a certain task or using a specific feature. 

When it comes to onboarding, a good way to A/B test is to look at how different onboarding methods affect your number of active users. Better onboarding might motivate users to interact with your product more often.

5. User retention 

The percentage of new users who continue using our product over time, such as 3 months or 6 months after signup.  To figure it out, take a look at your user cohorts. These are groups of people who joined on the same day, like everyone who signed up last August 8th. For that cohort, count how many are still active after 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, and longer. Then divide the number still there by the original number who joined. 

That retention rate will clue you in on what's helping folks stick around. Take a close look at the users who are staying long-term - what do they have in common? What parts of the onboarding did they respond well to? Double down on those things that seem to be working, so you can continue improving that rate over time.

6. Churn rate 

Churn rate and user retention are essentially different sides of the same coin. The percentage of users who cancel their accounts within a period of time is the churn rate. A high churn rate could indicate ineffective onboarding that fails to adequately engage new users.

7. Time-to-value 

How long it takes new users to receive value from our product. A shorter time-to-value means our onboarding efficiently guides users to key benefits.  Based on what the ‘value’ point for your product is, you can track the TTV. To improve your TTV, get rid of any unnecessary extras in the process of getting people started - explain the core value upfront and clearly in as few steps as possible.

8. Time to onboard

How long it takes new users to finish onboarding. Shorter is better, aiming for under 5 minutes. Measure the time from signup to the last onboarding step.

Tracking these key metrics will help you gain valuable insights into your user onboarding and make improvements to optimize the new user experience. Measure, analyze, optimize - repeat!

9. Conversion rate

The percentage of users who complete the onboarding process. A high conversion rate means your onboarding is compelling and frictionless.

10. Drop-off points

The drop-off point is where users exit the onboarding flow. Look for any steps with a high abandonment rate and optimize them. See what you can change or do better. This will help you achieve a lower churn rate as well. 

11. Feature adoption

See which features new users adopt and how often they use them. Important features should be emphasized in onboarding. Track this for at least the first month after signup. Based on how well people respond to using the feature, tweak your onboarding strategies and deploy new kinds of ways like spotlights, etc to drive adoption. 

12. Engagement metrics

These include metrics like session length, pages per session, and return frequency. Engaged users who spend more time interacting with your product or service are more likely to convert to long-term customers.

User Onboarding Tools For Best Experience

Nudge: Nudge allows you to create personalized user onboarding flows with targeted content for different user segments. It has a visual editor and integrates with many analytics tools. It makes it easy to create interactive walkthroughs, tooltips, and onboarding flows without needing to code.

Intercom: Intercom is a popular customer messaging platform that also provides onboarding capabilities. You can create customized onboarding messages, interactive walkthroughs, and product tours. 

Lookback: Lookback is a usability testing tool to watch real people go through your customer onboarding. See where they get confused or frustrated so you can make improvements.

Pendo: Pendo is a product experience platform with onboarding capabilities. It offers advanced analytics to optimize your onboarding. However, it does have some limitations in journey building, and offering UI modules like spotlights, PiP, etc., and is limited to business-to- business in terms of capabilities.

Role Of Customer Support In User Onboarding

Customer support plays an important role in onboarding new users and ensuring they have a positive experience that keeps them engaged.

Chat Support

Your chat support is the first point of contact for many new users if they have questions or run into issues. It's critical that you can provide quick and helpful responses. You should:

  • Monitor support tickets and social media for questions from new users
  • Respond promptly with friendly and empathetic answers
  • Check that the issue was resolved to the user's satisfaction
  • Look for any recurring issues that could indicate a need to improve the onboarding experience
Feedback and Surveys

Actively collecting feedback from new users is key to optimizing your customer onboarding. Consider sending short surveys at key points, such as:

  • Immediately after sign-up to gage their first impression
  • 3 to 5 days after onboarding to see if they have any questions or feel stuck
  • 2 to 4 weeks after onboarding to determine how they're engaging with your product and if their needs are being met

Look for any trends in the feedback that point to parts of the onboarding that could be improved to better support new users. Make ongoing tweaks and adjustments to continuously enhance their experience.

User Onboarding Best Practices

Keep it simple: Don't overwhelm new users with too much information. Focus on the key features and benefits. You can add more details over time as they get familiar with the app.

Make it interactive: Use tooltips, popups and onboarding flows to actively guide users through the experience. This helps them learn by doing. 

Personalize the experience: If possible, customize the onboarding based on user attributes or behaviors. This makes the experience more relevant and impactful.  

Thoughtful constraints: Don't give users complete free reign. Add constraints and limits to guide users to the optimal experience. For example, limit the number of selections a user can make to prevent choice overload

Be available: Have an easy way for new users to get help if they get stuck. You want to avoid frustration and ensure they have a smooth first experience with your app.  

Guide users to an early win to keep them motivated: Once a user completes a key task, celebrate their win! Send an encouraging in-app message highlighting their accomplishment. This positive reinforcement will make them want to return and do more.

User Onboarding To Improve Your UX

So there you have it. Now you're equipped with a solid understanding of user onboarding and some strategies to get your new users up to speed. The key is to think about the entire experience from their perspective and guide them to that aha moment when the value of your product clicks. Nudge helps you craft a thoughtful welcome, highlight key features, set clear expectations, and engage new users with a rewarding first-run experience. 

When done right, you'll turn new signups into loyal, long-term users. Onboarding is an opportunity to make a great first impression, so make the most of it!

Book a demo with us to see how. 

Gaurav Rawat
January 15, 2024