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5 Best Practices for Better SaaS User Onboarding

This is an excerpt of a new book I’ve written with Wes Bush called Product-Led Onboarding™: How to Turn New Users into Lifelong Customers. You can buy it now.  

Previously, I shared how to use the BJ Fogg Behavior Model to improve user onboarding. If users are falling off during the user onboarding, the BJ Fogg Behavior Model provides a framework to boost those numbers:

  1. Is the new behavior as easy to do?
  2. Are users motivated to perform the behavior?
  3. Are there prompts inside and outside the product to help users perform the desired behavior to complete the user onboarding?

Now, I want to give five practical examples from companies on how you can apply this to get more users to become lifelong users.

1. Speak to your users’ desires

Often, onboarding teams approach the content of signup screens and onboarding elements like tooltips and product tours as a low priority—and it shows. Even if it’s well-written, it’s usually focused on product features rather than communicating the benefits of these features.

This is a mistake.

The ultimate motivation is to show users how the product can help improve their lives. Every word in the entire user onboarding experience is an opportunity to speak to users’ needs and desires. And you can use content to amplify the solution to their current pain points, calm their anxieties, and remind them they can overcome their existing habits. 

For example, the third step in the sign up process with Wave reminds new users of the value of their invoicing software. The copy reads, “Send professional invoices. Designed to get you paid 3x faster, with over $24 billion in invoices sent each year.” 

Wave's User Onboarding copy reminds users of their value

Wave’s team knows that new users are still skeptical, so they use social proof to convince them Wave is the right tool. After all, who doesn’t want to get paid three times faster? 

Does the content in your user onboarding speak to the desires and needs of your users? Do you address the concerns, anxieties, and objections in your copy?

2. Show them progress

Like a workout partner pushing you to complete one more rep, encourage more users to complete the signup, setup, and onboarding process by showing them their progress. Use progress indicators to inform users of their status of completion (e.g., the percentage of steps that are left to complete). Chances are, you’ve seen this in action before. 

Canva uses an indicator in their product tour to indicate where a user is in their four-step product tour.

Canva indicator button in the product tour

LinkedIn uses a progress bar to show how to improve your “Profile Strength.”

ProductLed LinkedIn profile strength

Progress indicators appear mostly in signup flows, like in this three-step signup process from FullStory.

FullStory progress bar showing status of onboarding process

Place them wherever is most appropriate – Growthhackers adds it as an onboarding checklist during the account setup.

Growthhackers onboarding checklist during account setup

Progress indicators work so well because humans are wired to set goals, and we inherently feel good when we accomplish them. It turns out that when you finish a complex task, your brain releases massive quantities of endorphins.

There’s also an internal tension that occurs when a checklist or progress bar appears incomplete. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect: when people feel the need to finish incomplete tasks. This is a massive win for user onboarding. Simply framing to-do items or a signup process as incomplete can be a huge win.

Do you tell users how far along they are in completing a set of tasks with progress indicators during the signup, account setup, and user onboarding of your product?

3. Welcome new users

Usually, we’re more likely to say “yes” to requests from people we like and are attracted to, whether they’re our closest friends or strangers. 

But what exactly causes attraction? Persuasion science tells us there are three important factors. We like people who are similar to us, people who pay us compliments, and people who cooperate with us to attain mutual goals.

One way to harness this powerful principle into user onboarding is to welcome new users. Many may believe this introduction is a massive waste of time. But if you create a common bond, build a connection, and relate to a shared mission, it can be an enormous boost of motivation for new users. 

It doesn’t need to be anything fancy either. With a short video from their three founders, Userlist creates a bond with users thanks to the personal message.  

Userlist welcome video from founders during the user onboarding

Many products ignore this critical step. But imagine walking into a dinner party without the host greeting you and giving a tour. Most likely, you’d feel snubbed and hurt!

Welcome messages also set the tone. They give customers a sense of how they’ll be treated during their relationship with the product. Personal videos are great at humanizing the experience while implying someone is personally involved in the users’ success.

4. Provide visual cues to guide them to the next onboarding step

At times, new users need a small clue on what to do next. Little cues or context changes can encourage users to make a certain decision. This can be as simple as an image that points users to the next step. 

Basecamp adds some fun to their onboarding by using a cartoon character to point out where users complete the signup form.

Basecamp uses a graphic to point at where users need to sign up

Visual cues can also be Product Bumpers that guide new users to achieve their desired outcome. 

Here’s what a Product Bumper could look like: 

  • Product tours orient new users and help them find the fastest path to their first moment of value. Tours often walk users through a critical workflow or point out a few key steps that users might otherwise miss.
Product Tour or Product Bumper
  • Tooltips isolate elements such as form fields or buttons to guide a user through the account setup. Once a user completes a step, they are referred to the next one.
Tooltip as a product bumper
  • Hotspots are often used to give a bit of contextual help to encourage new users to activate certain product elements or features. They can have unique pulsing animations to catch a user’s eye. Hotspots are a nice alternative to tooltips because they are less invasive to users; they don't open automatically and can be easily ignored.
Hotspots as a product bumper

These are just a few examples of Product Bumpers. Others include checklists, progress indicators, and welcome messages (more on those later).

When using Product Bumpers, tours are usually a better bet than an unending blast of tooltips. They help users achieve the desired outcome through action instead of memorization. Canva does a good job of this by guiding users through four steps to download their first design.

Canva user onboarding product tour

Be careful of using Product Bumpers as a band-aid for bad user experience. One of my biggest pet peeves with product tours is that it’s often used to point out all the bells and whistles of the app. They tell you what the button or feature does (i.e. “Click here to do X.”) and not explain why they are important to helping users achieve their desired outcome. When they’re added on as an afterthought, product tours can do more damage by disrupting the momentum for users rather than getting them excited to use the product.

Regrettably, they have become deeply associated with user onboarding, to the point where many companies believe adding them will automatically improve it. This is flat-out wrong. Ironically, it’s often a sign someone slapped on the onboarding experience without much thought or strategy.

5. Show a helpful empty state

When users are just starting out, they’ll often see pages within a product without any activity, history, or data because it’s their first time interacting with it. These moments are called empty states

Empty states are often overlooked as a helpful way to guide users to achieving their First Strike. This happens because interfaces are typically designed with data already in place, so the layout looks clean and organized. So when users sign up for the first time, it can be disheartening to see a bunch of zeros and placeholder images on the main page, which is what you see when you sign up for Mailchimp, an email marketing platform.

Mailchimp's empty state

Instead, you want to paint a picture of what it will look like once the user is actively using the product. Emphasize the value of taking action. Go beyond showing users the benefits of your app. Direct them to the desired action as well. 

Take a look at Dropbox Paper’s empty state. It describes how it can help you “brainstorm, review design, manage tasks or run meetings.” There’s a clear, primary call-to-action to direct users to begin using Dropbox Paper.

Dropbox Paper empty state

A word of warning: avoid using “dummy data” to generate fake activity and statistics in the empty areas. While it’s tempting to cover empty states with fake data to bring the dashboard to life, it presents an entirely new problem of overwhelming users. You’re opening up the door to questions such as:

  • “Am I supposed to do something here, or should I just look at it?”
  • “Where did this data come from?”
  • “Where do I put in my data?”
  • “How do I know it’s my stuff that I’m looking at?”

There are times when “dummy data” can work: when it actively instructs instead of merely being seen. Basecamp does an excellent job of doing this to explain how their product works. Each piece actively guides you through using the product.

Basecamp empty state in product onboarding

Conclusion: 5 Best Practices for Better SaaS User Onboarding

In summary, the five tips to improve your user onboarding experience are:

  1. Speak to your users’ desires
  2. Show them progress
  3. Welcome new users
  4. Provide visual cues
  5. Show a helpful empty state

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book EUREKA: Improve Your Product-Led Onboarding™ and Get More Lifelong Customers. Get the first chapter and join the waitlist now.

Ramli John
Ramli John
Ramli John is the Managing Director at ProductLed, where he works with companies to accelerate their growth using PLG strategies. He is the author of the upcoming book EUREKA: How to Onboard New Users and Turn Them Into Lifelong Customers.