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Nathan Tufts-brown

User Onboarding: How to Master Long-Term Growth and Retention

mobile app screen user onboarding

User onboarding is a deeply misunderstood part of the product experience. It is far more than signing up, reviewing a few screens, and getting started. It is critical to setting up your user and business for long-term success from the first click. 

Think of good user onboarding as a stone bridge of multiple elements that lean on each other to create a solid, supportive path for first-time users to reach their goals and find value in the product experience. 

When user onboarding is designed without proper goals, user research, and organisational alignment, a few dangerous business symptoms start to crop up. 

  • A large amount of users sign up once and never come back (or never even finish the onboarding, to begin with) 
  • Users don’t see value in a freemium product, so they don’t upgrade 
  • A large number of users cancel after the first invoice 

These symptoms can create an unhealthy business or, worse, a fatal result if not swiftly dealt with. 

What makes a great user onboarding experience?

“User onboarding is the process that takes people from perceiving, experiencing, and adopting the product’s value in their lives.”

Wes Bush, author of Product-led Onboarding

Each product’s user onboarding experience should reflect its unique value proposition. Achieving this means having a deep understanding of how your users perceive the problem-solving power of a product. A larger behind-the-scenes process supports the first few moments.

Understanding how to mobilise your users

One of the biggest misconceptions about user onboarding is that it’s a one-size-fits-all experience. Most products will have more than one type of user with a specific need for the product. Capitalise on this. A great user onboarding experience is designed with user segmentation in mind. With the right amount of screens, content, and interactions, you lower the learning curve and provide a customised experience for your different types of users. 

Canva embodies this principle with their user onboarding, asking, “What will you be using Canva for?” 

They clarify the importance of this step with “We’ll use this to recommend design and templates, especially for you.” This copy provides immediate value to the user and sets up the appropriate supportive resources for customer service and email campaigns later in the user and customer journey.

Figuring out the right amount of steps

Designing the right amount of steps in the user onboarding experience is a tricky task. More often than not, most user onboarding experiences suffer from too many screens emphasising capturing marketing information rather than setting up users for immediate success. The key questions that need to be asked before removing or adding steps are: Does it help users progress and perceive the product’s value? 

To help understand what steps are needed, understand your users’ current behavior and habits. With this data, you can create as many screens and interactions as necessary to get users to Aha moments, specific points in the onboarding process where the user is more likely to continue using the product.

A great example comes from the early days of Facebook: “7 friends in 10 days.”  This Aha moment was critical for users to make it worthwhile to communicate, start posting, and find value in the Facebook experience.

Make sure expectations are aligned with capabilities

Understand the context of how users are starting their user onboarding journey. Is it from the app store, your landing page, an ad, or word of mouth? Marketing that aligns with the core steps of your user onboarding process sets up users for more immediate success. 

In review, good user onboarding has:

  • Content and marketing that aligns with first-time user’s needs
  • Has the right amount of steps that lead to increased value recognition
  • Capitalises on user segmentation

The impact on business and organisation

Good user onboarding saves companies money. How? 

CAC (Customer Acquisition Costs) are usually part of marketing conversations, but that’s only part of the picture. CAC will rise exponentially if your funnel doesn’t know how to mobilise first-time users and guide them. A great marketing campaign will burn money if your onboarding experience doesn’t deliver. The consequence? 

High churn.
A healthy churn rate for a SaaS company is in the 3-8% range. Not all churn can be traced back to bad user onboarding, and not all churn is bad, BUT a good amount can be prevented by delivering high-value user onboarding.

Gathering the right user onboarding team

User onboarding is a team effort and requires a game plan to ensure first-time users are adequately guided to first-time customers and beyond. 

Customer success: a powerful stakeholder in developing a successful user onboarding experience, they are on the front lines of customer concerns. They also help guide some customers who may need help with the product. 

Product: Their role is to identify and create a plan to guide users to the critical moments that show value in the user onboarding experience. 

Marketing: They create content for first-time users, work to regain the trust of abandoned users, and help push users into becoming customers.

Sales: Their role will vary depending on the nature of the product’s price point and the company’s structure – more on this in the types of user onboarding later on. 

Leadership plays a role in a user onboarding team, which can vary depending on the nature of the business and organisational structure. They can provide a valuable business perspective about user onboarding changes and their relationship to revenue-generating actions. 

The person/department that typically leads these user onboarding optimisation initiatives is Product, but ultimately, the mantle of responsibility needs to be taken by someone who can unify the insights, coordinate the departments, and mobilise the right people. This is the user onboarding champion.  

One of the best ways to unify departments with user onboarding is by quantifying the definition of user success. The team at Slack crystallised its success with one sentence: 

“Regardless of any other factor, after 2,000 messages, 93% of those customers are still using Slack today.”

Steward Butterfield, Co-founder of Slack

This definition of user success is similar to Facebook’s Aha moment, but it focuses on long-term conversions. They found the minimum number of actions that gave them the highest chance of success, making that the benchmark for customer loyalty. 

In review, good user onboarding impacts businesses and organisations by 

  • Reducing costs and lowering churn 
  • Improving interdepartmental collaboration 
  • Quantifying user success

Different types of user onboarding

The nature of the business model (B2C or B2B), industry, product complexity, price, and the customer’s lifetime value will shape the very nature of your user onboarding experience. 

Product-led user onboarding 

AKA, no human hand-holding. UX, UI, and nudges from email and app notifications determine user onboarding success with this model. This model works with a larger user base that doesn’t have a corporate or large clientele. There’s little need to provide a sales force with this approach. 

One of the best examples of product-led B2C user onboarding is Duolingo. What makes their user onboarding so fantastic is that they ask just the right amount of questions and throw you into your first lesson as part of the onboarding process. 

Sales-led user onboarding

Due to the complexity of the product and the higher value clientele, having a white glove experience is essential to help onboard users every step of the way. leverages virtual demonstrations to help guide users through the mechanics of the product. This human element can answer any immediate technical questions and help shed light on adopting the product for positive business impact. 

Sales-assisted user onboarding

A hybrid of the previous two with a varied user base with different needs and spending limits. Everything from self-serve solo users to enterprise-level clientele. 

Hubspot is the perfect representation of this style of onboarding. They have a freemium funnel with some hybrid sales acquisition so they can capture a larger part of the market-everyone from a one-person start-up to a 10000+ company. 

And now the (multi) million dollar question you may be asking. Can an organisation successfully change its user onboarding experience to grow its product?

YES. It isn’t easy, but it is entirely possible. 

Take Lumen5. Their process was more aligned with a sales-centered approach. They chose to refine their self-serve interface to grow their user acquisition funnel. The question that kept pushing the iteration process was: What’s the value to the customer?

“…our whole goal is to drive the creation process to that point where they create something that’s an end product that they are proud enough to share.” 

Brittnay Coulter, Onboarding and Adoption Specialist

By identifying a product goal, creating something that users were proud enough to share, they developed an interface to help users achieve that milestone. 
Every onboarding process mentioned here was refined through changing market needs, deep user research, a growing team, and multiple product iterations. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will your unique and value-driven user onboarding experience.

When user onboarding ends

The simple answer is that user onboarding ends when the user fully utilises the product’s value. This process isn’t done in one stride but throughout three key steps. 

The initial onboarding stage

The time on this will differ due to the nature of the product, the complexity of the problem space, and the heart of the business supplying the user onboarding. For a B2C product, this could be a matter of seconds; for a B2B product, it could be a matter of hours, if not days. The goal here is to familiarise users with the product’s core mechanics. 

The trial period

Note: This stage mostly applies to a SaaS model.  

If users have gotten past the initial onboarding stage, there is still the trial phase. The trial period typically ranges from 14-30 days, depending on revenue goals. This time range can vary widely depending on an opt-in or opt-out model. At this point, the core mechanics should be mastered, and the goal is to encourage habits. An email campaign that aligns with key user moments and milestones is a great way to bolster this. 

The post-trial experience

Typically, this hovers around the 90-day mark, where users begin their customer journey. With a sales-led approach for higher-priced clientele, some additional human element may check in during this time to ensure users get what they need out of the product. 

A complete user onboarding experience that creates a solid foundation for user success, customer retention, and product growth can take as much as 130 days. 

Inevitably, every growing product will have a mini user onboarding experience: a new feature. This moment will trigger the need to train users with a new UX and UI. 

In review, user onboarding is over 

  • When users have completed a series of phases 
  • After a long time, sometimes up to 4 plus months


As you may know, the product market is becoming increasingly crowded. To say that users have few options is an understatement. By following the guidelines outlined here and avoiding the pitfalls of weak user onboarding, healthier and more competitive product experiences are born.

It’s not just for immediate product success; it also lays the foundation for product growth. Designing and building a robust user onboarding experience requires deeply understanding your user’s frustrations, goals, and behavior and working as a team. The organisation that accomplishes this does a better job of retaining its customers and can capture users from the competition that don’t follow these guidelines.