How to Build a Best-in-Class Onboarding Experience
User onboarding is how you lay out the welcome mat to introduce new users to your product, show them the ropes, and help them succeed from day one.
I’ve built three SaaS products and have advised many more. In my experience, onboarding is one of the most important tools in your arsenal to get people to stick around.
What makes onboarding tricky is that you can slice and dice the process in any number of different ways. Unless you have an incredibly simple product, chances are high that new users won’t know where to begin.
How do I actually improve my onboarding? What are all of the different paths I could take to introduce users to my product? These are questions I hear all the time, and there’s no one right answer.
In this resource guide, you will find user onboarding examples for an array of products, along with the tricks, tips, and tactics that make them work.
Table of Contents
We’ll look at each type of user onboarding flow within these categories:
- Collaboration & Productivity
- Support & Customer Communication
- Developer Tools & APIs
We’re all familiar with and have built up habits around how to use communication tools like email, chat, and video conferencing. User onboarding for communication tools should lean on what’s already familiar to new users, while spending extra time walking them through what’s new and different. Let’s take a look at several examples.
If you’re like me, you’ve been using Gmail as your primary email for so long that you’ve forgotten what it was like to first get started.
What’s great about Gmail’s onboarding flow is that it doesn’t just get new users up and running with their new email inbox. It also sets the stage for getting new users into other Google products as well.
After the signup screen, new users are taken through a simple, six-screen tutorial. This tutorial assumes that most people already know how to use email. Instead, it focuses on teaching new users the benefits of Gmail, walking them through organizational features, chat and video calling, and calendar events.
After you sign up, you get a mini-tutorial of the most basic Gmail capabilities through a series of rich overlay images.
- When you’re done and close the window, you still have an anytime tutorial and set-up guide available on your main screen that helps you complete the core actions shown in the initial onboarding guide.
- A welcome email awaits users in the inbox with further links and instructions for using Calendar, Drive, and other features.
If you have multiple products that connect together, you can learn a lot from Gmail’s onboarding flow.
Front is an email client for teams. As CEO Mathilde Collin explains, Front wants to reinvent the way that people communicate in the office:
“The basic idea is to bring all of your communication channels (email of course, but also social media, in-app chat, etc.) in one place, from which you can triage and assign messages, have internal conversations around them, and tie all this communication to the rest of the tools you use (Salesforce, Github, etc).”
To prove the value of this new way of doing things, you have to teach users why it’s better than how they normally do it—and that begins with onboarding.
Front’s onboarding sequence is engineered to do exactly that. New users can sign up for a 14-day free trial from the homepage. Then, new users are directed to create a “team folder,” where they can easily read, respond, and comment on any team emails. The last step of onboarding is inviting team members to the shared folder.
Once inside the app, a series of pre-generated emails shows new users the ropes:
- A welcome email from CEO Mathilde Collin kicks off onboarding with a personal touch
- Each following email focuses on helping users complete one core action—replying to an email, sharing Front with co-workers, commenting on an email within Front, and enabling integrations
Front doesn’t make the mistake of showing new users how to use email. Instead, Front uses onboarding to show new users all the things they can achieve using Front that they can’t with a traditional email client.
Slack is a chat and team communication app that pivoted from Glitch, an MMORPG video game. Doing user research to build their messaging product, the team at Slack discovered that while people were used to using chat in the workplace, they weren’t really thinking about chat as its own category of software.
As Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield wrote in a company-wide memo:
“If we are selling ‘a reduction in the cost of communication’ or ‘zero effort knowledge management‘ or ‘making better decisions, faster‘ or ‘all your team communication, instantly searchable, available wherever you go‘ or ‘75% less email‘ or some other valuable result of adopting Slack, we will find many more buyers.”
Slack’s deceptively simple onboarding flow layers this benefit-driven copy throughout, all while showing new users how to use Slack.
Let’s look at how they do it:
- After sign up, Slack opens with a dedicated screen with a call-to-action to “explore the app.”
- Slack uses its own slackbot to onboard new users in a friendly and conversational way.
- A series of action-driven tooltips explain in simple language how Slack is organized from channels to direct messages.
- New users are then directed to ask slackbot any further questions they might have. It’s a clever way of integrating an FAQ directly within Slack’s product.
Collaboration and Productivity
While most communication tools follow the same basic guidelines, collaboration and productivity products are a bit more complicated. That’s because everyone has their own workflow. Effective user onboarding for products in this bucket show people how to integrate their workflow with others.
When you’ve built a wide product that can be used for a lot of different things, onboarding can be tricky because there are a lot of different paths users can take. Airtable solves this problem through a large library of templates that new users can play with.
Airtable, a spreadsheet-database hybrid, competes with workflow products like Asana, Trello, and above all Microsoft Excel. You can use it to manage customer relationships, organize user testing research, plan your editorial calendar, and more.
Like Front, the challenge for Airtable isn’t just to show people how to use the app during onboarding, but also to explain why Airtable is better than other solutions.
Let’s look at how they do it:
- After creating a login, new Airtable users run through a short animated video that explains what Airtable is.
- New users are then prompted to choose three different pre-built templates for how to use Airtable. Sample templates include a project tracker, blog editorial calendar, and sneaker collection.
- Users are then directed to open their first Airtable base. Because new users have already selected a template, they can explore how Airtable is actually used without having to start from scratch.
- A short tutorial takes users through Airtable’s product with animated tooltips, walking new users through making records, customizing fields, creating views, and linking columns.
Airtable is a flexible, complex app with a lot of functionality, so there are tooltips at the bottom of the application that new users can easily access and use to dive deeper into the product.
SaaS products help people work better, which means they’re not always fun and games. Harvest, a time-tracking application for teams, is a perfect example of this. Nobody likes tracking their own time, and Harvest’s value prop revolves around making time-tracking as easy and invisible as possible.
They do it by:
- Enabling new users to sign up for a 30-day free trial from the homepage. A video on the homepage shows Harvest in action and helps pre-board users.
- When signing up, a small sidebar provides 5 high-level benefits of using Harvest.
- Once users have signed up with their email, a modal window prompts them to 1) Create a project and 2) invite team members.
- Empty screens during onboarding offer a quick explanation of each feature alongside fun drawings. Each screen is underscored by a single call-to-action: create a new project.
At every point, Harvest’s onboarding drives new users toward one core action: creating a project. Onboarding is geared toward getting people up and running with time-tracking as soon as possible.
The file-sharing service Dropbox is the fastest SaaS company to reach a $1B revenue run rate. The company has done so by making it easy and intuitive to get started with the service.
Seamlessly storing files on the cloud is a big part of Dropbox’s utility, but the larger value of Dropbox is unlocked by how easy it is to share files and collaborate on them.
Let’s look at how they do it:
- Once users sign up for an account, they’re taken directly to a dashboard that shows all the files. A single “Getting started with Dropbox” PDF file is included, which shows how to use Dropbox.
- Instead of forcing users through a mandatory feature walkthrough, a five-slide tutorial occupies the top part of the screen.
- The first slide prompts new users to install Dropbox on their computer
- The following slides drive new users through a series of core actions: add a file to Dropbox, invite collaborators to a shared folder, refer friends to the service, and download the mobile app.
Dropbox’s onboarding flow quickly drives new users from utility to value—without forcing them through a mandatory feature walkthrough.
Similar to Airtable, Trello is a wide product with many use-cases. But unlike Airtable, Trello doesn’t start new users out by showing them pre-made templates. The idea behind Trello’s onboarding is to show new users how Trello works so they can adapt it to their own workflow.
Trello’s onboarding sequence takes the form of a “tutorial board” that shows new users how Trello works in practice.
- The first card in the tutorial board is called “Trello Basics [CLICK TO OPEN].” It explains the three primary forms of Trello: boards, lists, and cards. New users who want to learn more can click on a video for a deeper explanation.
- The next few cards drive users to create their first board, while explaining the different things they can use Trello for.
- First, new users are shown how to drag a card to different lists. Then, they’re prompted to create a new board of their own. Finally, Trello explains “Power-Ups”—a list of Trello integrations that you can add to individual boards.
From the very beginning, Trello was built to do everything, from manage real estate sales to product development. Trello’s onboarding reflects this. Instead of showing new users how to create a board for marketing or sales, Trello onboards new users by giving them the tools they need to adapt the product to their existing workflow.
Asana is a team collaboration application founded by ex-Facebook engineers Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein. Like other productivity apps, Asana’s onboarding is a minimal process that focuses on Asana’s distinguishing feature: organizing checklists and to-dos.
Here’s how onboarding works:
- A minimal signup flow simply asks for your email address.
- Once submitted, a 40-second video gives a high-level overview of how Asana enables team collaboration.
- Then, new users are taken to Asana’s main dashboard, where a series of red tooltips initiates the onboarding flow.
- Users are prompted to create their first project, add a task to it, and assign a due date to the task.
- Onboarding ends by pointing new users to where they can find more help.
Whether it’s including a demo dashboard to get people started quickly, or driving new users to import their own data, user onboarding for marketing tools cuts straight to the utility of the product.
Hello Bar is a web toolbar that helps marketers highlight website content and increase email sign ups. My co-founder Neil Patel and I acquired it in 2012.
When onboarding users for a tool like Hello Bar, one of the most important steps is to make it as easy as possible to install. By doing user research and testing, we were able to increase signups during onboarding by 40.3%, simply by adding one-click WordPress installation.
Since then, we’ve refined onboarding further to demonstrate value faster.
Here’s how it works:
- On the landing page, an empty bar prompts users to type in their website URL and create a login through Google.
- New users are then asked to select a primary goal, whether it’s growing a mailing list or gaining Facebook likes. Depending on the answer they select, they receive a customized onboarding sequence.
- For growing a mailing list, users are asked to write out the copy for their first Hello Bar.
- A WYSYWG editor shows users what the bar will look like on their website, and allows them to customize as needed.
For Hello Bar, our onboarding goal is to get the product up and running as fast as possible on a new user’s website. Making it easy to design and install a Hello Bar has had a big impact on the business.
Crazy Egg is an analytics and heatmapping tool that my co-founder and I started in 2005. Crazy Egg provides a visual way for marketers to see what people are doing on their websites.
Similar to Hello Bar, the challenge with Crazy Egg’s onboarding is getting users invested in the value of the product and incentivizing them to install it on their website. We do this by getting new users to create a snapshot for heatmaps first, before installation.
On Crazy Egg’s landing page, new users are prompted to type in their website URLs and create a “snapshot”—a screenshot of a webpage that tracks desktop, tablet, and mobile visits.
- Once you sign up you’re prompted to create your first website snapshot.
- Users can add advanced options, like custom URL tracking rules.
By the time new users have reached the installation stage of onboarding, they’ve already put in the hard work to set up a snapshot for their website. To see results, all they have to do is finish that final step.
MailChimp, the email marketing and newsletter service, gets new users invested in the product by customizing onboarding to their specific goals and needs.
After signing up for an account, MailChimp walks new users through an onboarding tutorial where they’re asked to provide details about their business and to connect their social media profiles with MailChimp.
- For each step, MailChimp clearly explains why they need this information and how it will help the new user.
- New users then go straight to MailChimp’s dashboard, which is customized based on how new users answered the previous question. Selecting e-commerce, for example, creates an e-commerce performance dashboard. New users are prompted to connect their store via integration with an e-commerce platform like Shopify.
MailChimp’s onboarding aims to drive users through two core actions: creating an email list and launching their first campaign. Both actions are personalized to the answers users give at each stage.
While MailChimp’s onboarding flow has a lot of different steps, it does a good job of walking users through each one and explaining the benefits of completing each step. Onboarding is customized to fit a new user’s goals, so MailChimp can deliver a more targeted value proposition from the get-go.
Amplitude is an analytics platform for websites and mobile applications.
Once you provide your email, you’re given the option to start a project or go through a demo.
- The demo walks new users through a sample dashboard that is pre-populated with all the various data a marketer might want to track—from retention, to user behavior, to live events.
- In-app tooltips walk users through Amplitude’s main features and views, and show how the tool works when it’s filled with data—which not all users will have right away.
Amplitude’s onboarding process shows the full power of the tool in a low-stakes learning environment, making it easy for new users to get a sense of everything Amplitude can do.
Buffer is a service that helps people manage their social media accounts and schedule posts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Buffer’s onboarding flow is unique for marketing tools because it’s relatively short. It walks new users through connecting their social media accounts and scheduling their first post through Buffer.
Users can create an account through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or email.
- They’re then prompted to connect a social media account to Buffer.
- On the next screen, users are asked to share their first post by writing text or attaching a photo or video.
- Users are then prompted to add posting times where Buffer will automatically post items in the queue.
…simple as that!
Sales tools offer a bunch of different functionalities, whether it’s a CRM where all your prospects live, or in-depth analytics about your entire pipeline. The best sales onboarding flows drive users to a core action that quickly shows them the value of the product before getting into everything else.
When Brian Balfour, former VP of HubSpot, took over the growth team at Sidekick, they found decent user growth but high churn. The solution? Better user onboarding.
SideKick is a tool created by the HubSpot team that helps sales people manage, monitor, track, and follow-up on sales emails. Sidekick’s old onboarding flow directed new users to a dashboard where they could see the status of all their emails. The empty dashboard confused a lot of new users, who quickly churned. The Sidekick growth team experimented with adding tooltips and explanation videos, but nothing worked.
What finally moved the needle was a shift in mentality. Instead of taking new users to a SideKick dashboard during onboarding, the team re-tooled user onboarding to drive users to send their first tracked email. As Dan Wolchnok, a product manager at Sidekick says, “Ultimately, this message pointed users to a better place to start engaging with Sidekick, and lead to a significant increase in user retention.”
After new users create an account:
- They’re prompted to add details about their business.
- The next step directs users to install a HubSpot Sales extension into their web browser.
- On the next screen, a call to action prompts new users to send their first email with either Gmail or Microsoft Outlook.
- They’re then prompted to send their first tracked email directly within their inbox. This is made even easier by a “test” address that new users can send the email to—which also contains an automatic response.
SideKick’s onboarding gets new users to track and send their first email right away—and delivers an immediate result, showing the value of the product in action.
Getting someone to download an app or sign up for an account usually involves a lot of friction. One shortcut around this is to build a product that plugs directly into something your users already use.
Streak, a CRM for Gmail, is a good example of this. Streak helps salespeople manage their leads and pipelines directly within their Gmail inboxes, offering view and link tracking, snoozing, email templates, and more.
On the landing page, a large orange call-to-action prompts new users to install Streak’s browser extension.
- Once installed, Streak opens up directly in Gmail, where a modal window with a bright blue “Get Started with Streak” CTA kicks off the onboarding process.
- The tutorial walks new users through Streak directly within Gmail. A series of tools shows them their pipeline, views, and how to add existing Gmail contacts as leads within Streak.
Streak uses familiar design elements from Gmail to show new users the ropes. Onboarding focuses on how Streak enhances Gmail for sales, showing new users the value of the product.
When you have a massive, all-in-one product like Salesforce, it’s really easy to overwhelm new users with all your product’s advanced features. Instead of starting with what you’ve built, start with what your new customer is trying to do.
Salesforce does this with an onboarding flow that’s personalized to a new user’s goals:
- After new users sign up for a free trial, they’re asked to select a goal, whether it’s managing their lead pipeline or closing more deals. Each goal has a different onboarding sequence.
- Selecting the “managing your pipeline” goal triggers a view of Salesforce’s opportunities dashboard, which is where potential deals live.
- New users are first shown all the different ways they can filter views of opportunities. This gives new users a birds-eye view of their sales pipeline.
- Then, Salesforce walks new users through a specific deal, showing them how to use the product on a more granular level.
Salesforce’s onboarding tutorial is strictly regimented. Users have to click “next” on each tooltip before they can proceed to the next step, and can’t explore on their own. With a complicated product like Salesforce, this helps prevent new users from getting distracted by non-essential features.
When you’ve poured tons of time and effort into building a complex feature set, your first impulse is to show it off to new users. Avoid this temptation.
During onboarding, you want to show new users the utility of your product as quickly as possible, centered around exactly what they need it for. Salesforce achieves this by breaking onboarding into bite-sized, digestible chunks.
Support tools offer businesses a way to take care of their customers efficiently at scale. This means that onboarding for help desks and support software needs to be equal parts showing new users how the product works, and getting teams through the necessary steps to actually use it.
Intercom is a platform for customer communication that helps people talk to their customers better via live chat and email. The Intercom platform is built on top of three main products: Live Chat, Engagement, and Customer Support. New users can get started with one or all of Intercom’s products.
Intercom does a good job of pre-boarding users with its homepage, taking a jobs-to-be-done approach to marketing. Each Intercom product is introduced around a specific problem that potential customers might have, whether that’s onboarding new users or supporting existing ones. By the time new users sign up for Intercom, they already have a pretty good idea of what it does.
Intercom’s onboarding focuses on getting users to complete the necessary steps they need to be successful with any part of Intercom’s product.
After signing up, new users are directed to Intercom’s main dashboard, which is populated with an onboarding sequence.
- Tooltips at the top part of the screen provide context for each part of Intercom’s product.
- Meanwhile, the main dashboard highlights three goals: 1) Sign up for Intercom, 2) Install Intercom, and 3) Sign up for a free trial.
- Since new users have already signed up, the first goal is already checked off, creating a feeling of progress. New users are then directed to sync their app’s data with Intercom.
Where most onboarding flows focus on breaking down specific features, Intercom’s onboarding sequence is oriented around action. New users are prompted to start a free trial after they’ve already installed Intercom’s dashboard for customer management.
Help Scout is a ticket-based customer support help desk. It lets you assign, collaborate, and comment on support tickets and also provides automation through tags and rules.
Help Scout uses a demo inbox pre-populated with support tickets to get new users excited about the product during onboarding:
- New users have the option of playing around with a demo inbox pre-populated by support tickets. Tooltips within the demo inbox guide new users through Help Scout’s core features.
- New users are then shown how to link their email to a team inbox.
- A short, five-step tutorial guides new users through their new inbox and basic actions like assigning tickets with tags, @ mentioning teammates, and assigning tickets.
While conventional onboarding wisdom says you should reduce steps whenever possible, sometimes adding new steps can help give users more context. In the case of Help Scout, providing a demo inbox is a great, low-friction way to let new users play around with Help Scout before setting it up on their own.
Like Help Scout, Zendesk provides customer support software to businesses.
Zendesk’s no-frills onboarding directs users to complete four key steps during onboarding, focusing on one action per screen:
- First, users are directed to connect an existing email address to Zendesk, or to create one from scratch.
- Next, users are asked to invite team members to Zendesk.
- After that, new users are directed to set up a self-service “Help Center.”
- Finally, Zendesk walks users through additional features, like live chat and integrations.
Zendesk’s onboarding focuses on setting up new users for success.
Developer Tools & APIs
With developer tools and APIs, getting users inside of your product often means getting them to write or install code. Good user onboarding in this bucket makes the process as simple as possible.
Clearbit provides APIs that help you enrich leads for sales and marketing.
Clearbit’s core product is built on top of an API. While that makes Clearbit extremely flexible, with many different use-cases, it also complicates onboarding. A marketer’s aha moment will be different from a developer’s.
Clearbit solves this problem with persona-based onboarding. As Clearbit Head of Growth Matt Sornson points out, “Instead of creating one experience for all users, you can start building a unique experience for every user.”
Clearbit’s onboarding makes it as easy as possible for new users to integrate Clearbit with their existing stacks.
Let’s look at how they do it in the above example:
- After a minimal sign-up flow, Clearbit asks new users what they might use the product for, and what sales and marketing tools they already use. That helps Clearbit send personalized onboarding emails according to buyer persona.
- New users choose between Clearbit’s Enrichment, Reveal, and Prospector products.
- New users are then prompted to select a platform with data they’d like to enrich. Platform options are tailored to how users answered the previous question.
- Selecting the “Segment” option leads to a seamless, one-click integration with Clearbit.
Clearbit’s value lies in its ability to enrich the leads you already have—but that value is realized in different ways. A marketer might use Clearbit’s APIs to get the names and social profiles of people who have signed up for an email newsletter. A salesperson might use Clearbit to find the email addresses for a specific set of domain names.
Clearbit’s onboarding process is optimized to help each of these personas be successful with the product from the very beginning.
Rollbar is full stack error monitoring tool for developers. It helps developers identify and diagnose buggy code based on factors like environment, operating system, browser, and more.
Like other developer tools, Rollbar’s onboarding focuses on making it as easy as possible to install Rollbar onto a website and get it up and running quickly.
After sign-up, the onboarding flow drives users to create a project. Developers select the language or framework their application is built on top of.
- Based on the response, Rollbar provides customized installation instructions for each language and framework.
- A small bar at the top of the application shows users how far they’ve progressed through onboarding.
- A live chat message links new users to Rollbar’s more advanced functionality.
Zapier is a service that helps people build workflows to connect and automate hundreds of different web applications via API. Zapier’s product is incredibly versatile, and it provides a nearly infinite number of ways you can connect the tools you use together.
With so many different possible combinations, running new users through a pre-determined onboarding tutorial wouldn’t demonstrate the full potential of the product.
Instead, Zapier’s onboarding flow helps new users select pre-built “Zaps” which they can launch with a couple of clicks. That allows Zapier to deliver value to new users faster, getting them interested enough in the product to tinker with more advanced features and custom Zaps later.
After signup, new users are directed to a dashboard where they’re asked to “pick apps to explore workflow ideas.”
- New users can select products they already use, like Gmail, Trello, Google Calendar, and Slack. Applications are sorted by popularity.
- Based on the applications selected, Zapier presents a variety of pre-built “Zaps.” New users can quickly connect their accounts to Zapier, and launch their first Zap.
You’ve Got One Shot
For every category of SaaS, there is a vast number of tools that your customers can choose from. The majority of products today offer free trials, and it’s easier than ever to switch between tools. That’s why the stakes are so high for user onboarding. Good user onboarding is how you convince potential customers that your solution is right for them.
Looking at how other products and companies onboard their users is a great source of ideas for how to put together your onboarding flow. But ultimately, you can’t just rip off what other people are doing. To build a stickier product, you need to figure out the series of actions that will rapidly unlock your app’s core value. That means continually experimenting with and iterating on your user onboarding flow.
Nail down the onboarding process, and you won’t just increase sign-ups and revenue. You’ll also help new users build behaviors that allow them to have a successful experience with your product long-term.