Best Practices and Trends for User Onboarding in 2021

Editor’s note: the following was written by a guest blogger at Chameleon. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please review the Product Blog contribution guidelines and contact [email protected]

Imagine seeing an advertisement for a new gym in your neighborhood. Prices are great and you’ve been looking for something close to home for months. A winning combo. You head on down to sign up and the reception team gets you to fill out the necessary forms and hand you your access card – you’re in! But these exercise machines look intimidating. Where are the instructors? And where are the changing rooms?! 

You go back to the front desk to get help. “Oh, you want an induction? No, we don’t offer that here”. You start to sweat, and not because of the workout… How are you going to get fit when you don’t have the foggiest idea of how this place works? You sit on your membership for a few weeks, months even, before working about the courage to quit the gym.

Now let’s compare this gym scenario to SaaS products. When you’re hunting for the next big tool to help us improve your workflows—you do the same thing. You look for a product that fits your needs and takes the friction out of making a decision (like that close to home gym could have). Maybe the perfect tool integrates with your CRM or offers customized branding – it allows us to get up and running quickly.

So you start a free trial. On paper, the tool looks perfect, then you get into the product and you’re left feeling like a newbie at the gym—completely lost. Sure, the powerful features are there, but how do you navigate the platform? Cue hours spent on help docs and long threads with customer support. 

Then there are the new machines, or in this case, new features. You get an email to say they’ve been announced, but you don’t understand how to use them. Your motivation to continue is at an all-time low—and there’s a bunch of other tools on the market that do similar things. 

“I wanna quit the tool”.

The problem with traditional user onboarding

It’s a big one, 90% of customers think that companies could do a better job when it comes to user onboarding. And as SaaS tools grow in functionalities and competition gets fiercer, we need to move away from a disconnected approach to user onboarding. 

The go-to channel for user onboarding has traditionally been email. You sign up for a product and you’re dropped into an onboarding sequence that goes something like this:

  1. Welcome to the platform! We’re so happy to have you 🙂 
  2. Have you tried feature X? It will supercharge your growth!
  3. Check out how company Y grew 500% with us 🚀

And so on until the sequence is over and you pay for your plan of choice—or leave. Now, email is always going to be a key channel for onboarding, but it shouldn’t be your main channel of communication. When you’re sending these emails, your users aren’t always in your product. Furthermore, the average SaaS email open rate stands at 21% with a 2.5% CTR.

If you receive an email on your phone prompting you to try a certain feature when you’re in a cafe, you’re not going to drop your piping hot latte, run out the door, and dash home to open up your laptop. It’s all about sending the right onboarding messages at the right time.

We need to move away from the traditional way of user onboarding and transition toward an omnichannel engagement approach, a cohesive strategy that includes messaging at different touchpoints—both in-app and out of product too. To do this, we need to understand what trends are shaping this strategy and how we can implement them for success.

Users are impatient. They want to get into your platform and reap the benefits ASAP. They have tonnes of motivation to get started, so how can you use this to encourage deeper learning and engagement within your product?

1. Show, don’t tell

“A picture paints a thousand words”. Well, if that’s true, video paints ten-thousand words. Users are much more likely to engage with your onboarding if you provide them with striking video content across all channels.

Incorporate video into your in-app onboarding

The average onboarding product tour has a completion rate of 60%, but when video is added to these tours, that skyrockets to 92%. Users are relieved when they’re met with a video that walks them through their first steps and sets them up for success. 

Keep it short, punchy, and set expectations of how long it will take, like what Mixpanel does with their in-app new feature announcements. They use Loom to show social proof and video length. Now, who doesn’t want to know what those heart eye emojis are all about?

Make your emails shine

By using the word ‘video’ in an onboarding email, you can boost your open rates by 6%. Experiment with videos in emails by ditching the “Welcome to X Product” and try something like, “This video will get you up and running in 4 minutes”. Like what HelpScout does with their onboarding emails. They show the value and tell you how long you need to get your first mailbox up and running. 

Use on-demand video onboarding

The Zoom fatigue is real, but webinar onboarding is still going strong with a 42% attendance rate. It’s an effective half-way point between concierge onboarding and completely self-serve as there’s a chance to ask questions and communicate with members of the customer success team while learning best practices.

Follow’s lead and host regular onboarding sessions that new customers can join (bonus points for multiple days and time zones!). Here, you can listen to their concerns and coach users through friction points. Plus, think of all the support tickets you’ll be reducing and product feedback you can collect.

2. Let users onboard at their own pace

It’s not a race to payment, users will take hundreds of different paths before they feel confident adopting and paying for your product. But how can you personalize this journey at scale? It’s impossible to create thousands of different tours and touchpoints—not to mention if you’re working in a small, lean team. 

Instead of forcing users to take your onboarding tour when you want them to, always give them the option to come back to flows and revisit information at their own pace. Don’t be afraid to add a dismiss button to onboarding experiences, as long as you keep that knowledge in an accessible place for future reference.

Use checklists for key tasks

In-app checklists are an excellent way to nudge users in the right direction. Once users click into your checklist modal, they’ve actively made a move toward taking a learning action—in fact, 76% of users who click into one will go on to take a product tour from this widget. 

Follow Zendesk’s example to educate users at scale by encouraging them to get started using the information you’ve already gathered in your signup flow. Every team member that signs up for your tool will have different needs and knowledge levels, so show them the right information to get them set up for success on your platform. 

Encourage self-discovery with hotspots

Users can shy away from product tours when the value or time needed isn’t communicated to them (more on that in the next trend… ). Alternatively, we can use a hotspot, a pulsating or static icon attached to an on-page element, as a valuable way of communicating key product functionalities. 

77% of users who see a hotspot will click on it to find out more. These work effectively as a user’s attention is piqued, the hotspots are non-intrusive, and their motivation to learn what’s under the dot is high.

Heap uses hotspots in their onboarding to assist users with new terminology and advanced features. “Event visualizer” may sound like a lot to take in, but with the help of a tooltip, they launch a short three-step onboarding tour that informs users about how events are used in Heap. Kudos to Heap for the use of hotspots and checklists!

3. Keep your messaging short

There’s a big difference between keeping your messaging and your onboarding short. Your onboarding should be in-depth and distributed throughout your channels, don’t cut back there. But how you deliver your messaging should be quick and deliver value. 

You might also be interested in: How to Boost the Activation Rate For Your SaaS Product

Three is the magic number

The longer an onboarding tour is, the less I read, and the quicker I click through it—or out of it. And I’m not alone. After five steps of a tour, the average completion rate dips to below 50%. But when you. Now, compare that to a three-step tour they have a 66% completion rate. 

“But my product is complex! Users need to learn all they can”. They do, but you can experiment by breaking larger tools into smaller, more digestible chunks of information. A three-step Tour is 38% more likely to be completed than a six-step Tour—think about what that could do for your adoption rates… 

WordPress does a great job of bringing something complex, building a website, down to a three-step onboarding tour. Straight away, you learn what you can do with the tool “edit your homepage, add the pages you need, and change your site’s look and feel”, and you’re inspired to start creating. Of course, this isn’t the only tour you’re going to see, but they make use of all that website-making motivation and push users forward to learn-by-doing.

Onboarding screengrab

Prioritize micro-messaging 

Onboarding isn’t a one-way conversation, your users will certainly have feedback for you too. But 46% of companies aren’t asking for user feedback leaving them in the blue about how users are really getting on. Similar to product tours, brevity is crucial here. Users are willing to give you feedback on how they’re finding your tool, the average in-app survey response rate is 60%—but they want to give it in a click, not a coffee break.

Show new users a microsurvey to ask how they’re getting on so far. Make it quick and use emojis to get a sense of how they’re feeling. Not going so well? Ask for further feedback that you can follow up on—some users will need a human touch or some face time to get going successfully.

Creating an onboarding gym your users will return to

Let’s revisit that terrible gym from earlier and flip it to the other extreme. Imagine you walked through the doors and you were bombarded by three personal trainers inviting you to spin class, CrossFit, and yoga, all starting now! 

Meanwhile, the induction coach whisks you to the weights room and starts explaining every single movement you can do with each kettlebell. Then the receptionist comes over with a two-page form to give feedback on your experiences with their gym. 

I’d leave, would you? It’s all about finding the balance in your onboarding. Give your users an engaging first experience, let them try features at their own pace, and be there to listen to feedback. Those three points are more than just trends for 2021, they’re onboarding best practices for the long-haul.

Meet the Author

Kristy Chameleon

Kirsty is the Head of Marketing at Chameleon and works remotely from the sunny shores of Barcelona. She is passionate about user experience and creating actionable content that stands out from the SERP.

Find Chameleon on Twitter, Medium, and LinkedIn.

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