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5 steps to successful user onboarding for product managers

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User onboarding is a system that helps your customers start receiving value from your product. This includes any activities, materials, and processes that you can employ as a product manager. Your customer will never get to experience your fantastic product without the right system to get them there.

  1. Why is user onboarding overlooked?
  2. Step 1. Assign the onboarding champion
  3. Step 2. Set up your minimum viable user onboarding
  4. Step 3. Measure customer success (or lack of thereof)
  5. Step 4. Collect qualitative insights
  6. Step 5. Introduce recurring practices
  7. Closing word

User onboarding has extreme leverage in your product’s success.

Get it right, and you’re smoothly activating the majority of your users. Good onboarding can also help you build a long-lasting relationship between your product and your customers.

Get it wrong, and you’re irritating your customers instead of helping them on board. You get poor activation rates, and your brand produces a negative impression.

Successful User Onboarding

Why is user onboarding overlooked?

Unfortunately, onboarding is too often overlooked for a few reasons:

  • It’s unclear who owns the onboarding process: sales & marketing, customer success, or product?
  • It’s an invisible experience, unless you’re actually testing it. Compare it to your website homepage, which is there for everyone to see.
  • User activation is not a classic “North Star KPI” for a software business. Too often, company leadership cares about website metrics and MRR growth, forgetting that the activation rate impacts MRR directly.

We think that product managers can — and should — take care of this overlooked area. What’s best, user onboarding improvements can be implemented immediately, and don’t require a huge budget.

Step 1. Assign the onboarding champion

It’s impossible to track the results if no one is looking. As mentioned above, it’s often unclear who owns the user onboarding.

We suggest that the product manager should own the user onboarding and be in control of it.

However, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be the only one to work on user onboarding. Try and delegate the routine tasks: technical writers can help you create the onboarding documentation, customer success team can take over the onboarding calls, etc.

Step 2. Set up your minimum viable user onboarding

Gall’s law says that you can only build a complex system by building a simple one first. That’s exactly the case with user onboarding. There’s no such thing as “the perfect onboarding,” but every improvement will move you towards better activation.

If you’re dealing with a relatively new product, start with the essentials:

  1. Remove obvious problems in the signup flow (make sure everything works as intended).
  2. Provide a way for users to contact support, e.g. an email address or chat widget.
  3. Put up the docs (the simplest version possible).
  4. Implement simple behavior tracking, and connect it to an email automation tool (this can be an in-house solution, or a tool like Userlist).
  5. Set up a simple onboarding campaign.

Make sure you avoid the rabbit holes along the way. You can easily get buried in any of the steps above. Don’t try to build the best docs in the world, or develop a perfect tracking plan that includes fifty different properties and events. Your goal is to have a simple working system in place, and you can figure out the next steps as you learn.

You can take a look at this user onboarding guide to learn more about behavior tracking and email automation.

Step 3. Measure customer success (or lack of thereof)

Success comes after testing, testing, and more testing. That goes for software and business development alike, and it applies with user onboarding too.

Especially in the early stages of a business where new systems are being put in place, we start with assumptions and learn as we go.

Here are some metrics to watch:

  • Activation rate (conversion rate from trial to paid), especially if measured for specific cohorts of customers
  • Open and click rates on your onboarding emails.
  • Segment sizes, which can show what part of your customer base is using specific features, etc.
  • User’s progress when they converted. You may find “the adoption metric”, e.g. a common pattern between all successful users.

Please remember that correlation does not mean causation. For example, you may discover that all successful users have visited the settings page. Does that mean that driving users there will bring you activation? Not necessarily.

Step 4. Collect qualitative insights

In addition to quantitative data, you can also collect qualitative insights using some of these sources:

  • Customer interviews
  • Onboarding calls
  • Surveys, especially those with open-ended questions
  • Feedback prompts in your emails (“hit reply and let us know”)
  • Feedback boards, such as Feature Upvote

This research is very similar to classic customer development, but you will focus on their first steps and activation problems. The insights you collect should be the foundation for your onboarding campaigns, calls, etc.

Here’s what Liz Painter, an email strategist at Comma Comma, recommends in her interview:

“Talk to your customers and get a framework of the most important things that they want to achieve over the course of the trial. For your existing customers, what did they do over the course of the trial? Talk to them at the end of the trial and say, ‘What did you do on day one, day two?’”

Ashutosh Priyadarshi, the founder of Sunsama, swears by their onboarding calls. But those are only done after the user has been using the app for a while. Having these calls at the end of the trial — as opposed to the start — naturally leads to more exciting discoveries:

“Almost every call becomes really interesting and juicy because you’ve given people time with this tool, and everybody’s lives are different.”

Step 5. Introduce recurring practices

The improvements are not worth a penny, unless they’re transformed into regular activities and organizational changes.

Here are some effective recurring practices to schedule:

  • “Onboard yourself” monthly or quarterly. As mentioned above, onboarding is an experience, not an asset. The only way to review your signup flow is to experience it first-hand. Such review should be conducted monthly or quarterly, as the product evolves and you need to make sure the onboarding isn’t outdated.
  • Review your email campaigns. Automated email campaigns are “the back end” of your user onboarding. But it’s hard to test all emails during the signup flow, because they’re behavior-based and also spread out in time. Instead, log into your email tool, and read through the email copy.
  • Review your documentation. We all are better at adding new things to the docs, compared to reviewing the bulk of existing articles. However, it’s important to review your documentation while “wearing a hat” of a new customer.

The biggest problem is that all of the above — the onboarding flow, email campaigns, and docs — often get stale and abandoned. That’s why it’s so important to schedule those reviews in your product calendar.

Closing word

User onboarding is a never-ending battle, but you shouldn’t be intimidated. We invite you to take ownership of this important aspect, and make gradual improvements. The results will make you happy over time, and help you improve both product adoption and customer satisfaction.

Jane Portman is the co-founder of Userlist, an email automation tool for SaaS companies. They’ve been helping founders with user onboarding and engagement since 2017. A seasoned podcaster, Jane also runs two shows, UI Breakfast Podcast and Better Done Than Perfect .