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How to use user intent to build product onboarding that scales

Creating a successful onboarding experience that’s unique to each user segment can be complex. But it's necessary to scale your business. 

Luckily, we’ve laid out actionable steps that show how tailor-made onboarding can help your company level up through user intent.

In this article, we will use real-world examples to break down:

We’ll then share concrete examples from successful product-led companies like Dashboard, Canva, Typeform, and Lucidchart, who are doing onboarding right. 

But first, let’s all get on the same page about what user intent is.

User intent answers these specific questions:

  1. What are the unique goals and outcomes that this user desires?
  1. What is the strength and urgency of their need?
  1. What is the user's level of knowledge and understanding about their starting point?

Essentially, what is their version of the success path? 

Remember, user intent is not fixed!

It evolves as users gain knowledge, and their needs and goals shift. It’s the job of product-led companies to change and accelerate user intent.

Why you should segment your users by intent

Personalizing onboarding according to user segments is used at both ends of the spectrum – from companies expanding within their current customer profile to companies adding multiple product lines or profiles. 

At a company like Dashlane, we had a huge addressable market with our ideal customer profile (ICP), but as we saturated it more and more, it became essential to identify customer intent within the ICP and then capitalize on it. 

When you have a large number of new users, even if they are ICPs, there will be more differences among them. So, some people in the ICP turn out to not be so ideal for your current onboarding or messaging.

But if you turn that around by breaking your ICP’s into intent segments, you can identify their unique needs to onboard them uniquely even as you scale acquisition. 

In the case of Stonly, we added new product lines and acquired significant new segments simultaneously.

We had to figure out how to take two paths at once - additional segments for our existing product and all new product audiences - and do it fast!

We achieved this by listening to our users:

  • What drives the user?
  • What does the user want?
  • How do they learn best?
  • What makes them buy?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What are their pain points?

The answers to these questions differ by customer intent – I’m here for this solution, or I’m here for that solution – so understanding them allows you to onboard for different use-cases and really scale the growth of your overall platform. 

How to identify customer intent at each stage

Is there a big difference in customer intent between newer hyper-growth companies and companies at scale? 

Short answer: yes. 

Hyper-growth and adding new products

When you’re innovating fast and thinking about customer intent, you do things a bit differently. 

To start, you need to find out:

  • What do your users want?
  • What works for them?

For example, at Stonly, when we started to think about customer intent, we grouped based on the solution that interests the user. 

We asked: when a user chooses a solution, what are they specifically trying to achieve with it?

Stonly website



We needed to learn these things, not just to onboard the user, but also to:

  • Have the right marketing materials 
  • Make the right sales conversations 
  • Build the right brand to have the right look and feel 
  • Target people who want those outcomes 

This helps build our own understanding of intent, not just for the customer but also for our company.

Companies at Scale

When you're thinking about customer intent at scale, you think about making minor incremental improvements with customers who are segmented per intent.

To make a big move at a company at scale means to take big swings. For example, analyzing the activation rate to determine who hasn’t onboarded. In this case, you’ll want to try something completely different to encourage those users to finish their onboarding.

You can do this by tailoring the onboarding experience for each user.  

How do you do this?

One of the most common examples is when businesses set up an “intent guide” in their onboarding experience. 

They ask, “why are you here?”

And they provide answers such as:

  • I’m here as a marketer
  • I’m here as a salesperson
  • I’m here as a support team

The answer affects everything from that point on; from where the user lands on the dashboard to the features the user should set up first to the emails they receive. 

Here’s an example from Evernote: 

Evernote onboarding

The idea is to understand the intent while still learning about the user. With each step, you’re adding a layer of nuance, so you can respond with that particular solution to the user.  

So how exactly do you collect the data you need to anticipate responses to these nuances?

Collecting intent in meaningful ways

Most marketers can agree that after collecting data on users, there’s always a lot of noise in the data making intent difficult to pinpoint.  

So how do you filter out that noise?

When I moved positions from Calendly to Stonly, I went from having a structured strategy to being free to invent my strategy with no preconceived notions for Stonly. 

Most people want to turn to the data and ask, “what can we infer? What can we automate?”

In the case of Stonly, we changed that to, “What can we ask?”

The best part is people don’t mind telling you what they want. 

You just have to ask. 

So at Stonly, we asked direct questions like:

  • What do you want out of this? 
  • What are they hoping for? 
  • What are their expectations? 
  • What is the perceived value?

Then we placed more specific questions. Questions like:

  • Where are you starting? 
  • What do you mean by self-serve support? (a pointed question dependent on their answer) 

You don’t have to ask for everything everywhere, but combine asking questions from inferences you’ve extrapolated from data. 

The data should come from different places like:

  • User data
  • Usage data
  • Acquisition data

The real magic starts when you put all of this data together at once.

The Knowledge Layer

Part of understanding intent is applying content and providing knowledge to the user at the appropriate moment. 

The Knowledge Layer

A company needs to understand if a user has used ten of the features or just one. 

If it’s just one, are any of your users an expert in that feature? Can you take users deeper into that feature?

A great example is Dashlane. Dashlane had to determine why the user was there: to store 250 passwords, autofill passwords, share passwords, keep credit cards safe, or secure notes. 

Dashlane landing page

They had to start introducing different features throughout the customer journey

At this point, you’re not just asking them about intent; you are pinpointing a segment that you think will find value in features they aren’t using. For example, if a user has been on the platform for six months and they’ve never shared a password, maybe it’s because they haven’t discovered it. 

So put that feature out there, but also make it dismissible. If the answer is “No, thank you,” sometimes you have to be okay with it. 

For instance, the next time the user logs in, you can include a message that says, “I know you don’t want password sharing, but how about checking out this payment method real quick?”. 

As you introduce new features over time, you collect more data based on the user’s responses to accelerate value discovery. 

It’s not just about making a product that accomplishes a need but designing a great user experience to learn what that need is.

When to introduce new features

Timing is everything, but how do you know when it's time to introduce new features? 

Here are two things to follow to help you pinpoint timing. 

  1. Be Gentle! If you keep pestering users, it’s not going to work. Be proud and introduce the possibility without being annoying. 
  1. Collect Signals. Collect early signals in usage, then break them up into variants of activation. It’s about understanding the user’s timing and adoption pace, which boils down to a lot of work and paying attention. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet. 

Again it’s trial and error. Understanding what sticks and resonates with users. 

Four steps to improve the onboarding experience

Here are four things you can do that will help your business level up the onboarding experience.

#1: Take the Calls!

At Stonly, we redesigned our entire website based on hundreds of customer calls and prospect calls. 

I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for product-led products and marketers. Taking calls is vital for designing experiences and segways into the next layer of learning. 

Once you understand a user’s intent, then the next step is….

#2: Understanding how to fulfill the intent

In my experience, launching user experiences that easily fulfill the user intent is the most important piece. 

First, start by collecting the right data. Then you've got to listen to it by applying experiences you think will fulfill that data.

To start, just do it. Then adjust as you go. 

Here’s an example of a flow.

  • A user tells you what they want, and you discern their style is ready for a guide to onboard. 
  • If that doesn’t work, try a sequence. The user may need more hand-holding around the product.
  • If the sequence doesn’t work, talk about it. You may discover it wasn’t the wrong thing but the wrong format. So improve it. 

It’s pivotal when you start adding experiences that fulfill the intent of the user. 

#3: Applying the Data Layer

Using the data layer, you can start segmenting your users based on their usage. Then you will learn what your sticky features are. 

Specifically, the order is:

  • Do the asking 
  • Do the learning 
  • Do the personal interaction 
  • Then launch as many good hypotheses of experiences as you can.

This teaches how to do it right and optimize ‘the it” for your users. This is not a “set it up and forget it” sort of deal; it’s circular

#4: Repeat A LOT

This step is important because you can’t do it once. By repeating it over and over again, patterns begin to emerge. 

Such as:

  • Is the experience resonating?
  • Are your conversion rates going up?
  • What is happening on the other end?

As you start collecting wins and losses, look at the story the data is telling and tailor your onboarding experience based on those stories. 

In the case of Calendly, users were having a lot of success with the product. So we examined what made the users successful and brainstormed how we could replicate it. 

The users fell into two groups:

  1. In the first group, we were able to replicate the experience and found success. 
  1. In the second group, we weren’t able to get them to replicate the successful groups’ actions. They were taking their own actions, and so we had a new class of users to examine. 

Then you’re left with the questions:

  • How do you make this second class of users successful? 
  • And the remainder who you can’t get to succeed... what do you do with those users? 

For the unsuccessful user segment, you either have:

  • An opportunity to either find their unique intent and fulfill it.
  • Or leave them and say, "They'll never be a customer of ours."

Going through these four steps, new user classes start to emerge. Eventually, you’ll know which class to spend your time on and which class you’re spinning your wheels on. 

From there, you can tailor the onboarding process to help fulfill user intent. 

Once you have successfully identified user intent and are confident you have the correct pattern, how do you scale your business?

How to scale with user intent

Once you have a deep understanding of user segments and intents, the next step is to make it accessible. 

Deploy it in all of the touchpoints you possibly can using tools like Segment or Zapier

Zapier website

There’s no reason to ignore intent in any of your touchpoints, and this is true for:

  • In-app experiences
  • Website experiences
  • Emails
  • Sales
  • Customer Service

Many companies gather data about intent, but they don’t deploy it at every touchpoint for a consistent experience. 

Using Dashlane as an example again, as you move through your journey on the platform, they are emailed as a mobile user if they signed up for mobile. Likewise, if a user added desktop and mobile, they were emailed as both

Because that’s a different type of user. 

Remember, you are never done understanding customer intent. There are always new customers and new intentions. 

Successful Onboarding Examples

Here are a few current examples of onboarding that helps meet users’ objectives or intents through their onboarding experience. These companies continue to experience success and growth as a result. 

Dashlane

At Dashlane, one of the most amazing onboarding experience tests was when we applied the knowledge that desktop users were more engaged than mobile users. They tried to turn mobile users into desktop users

We started a whole onboarding experience on mobile that asked users to put down their phones and go to their desktops. 

Guess what? We couldn't convert them. 

Then we designed a hybrid experience, not just for desktop, not even for desktop coming from mobile, but for mobile that’s going to use the desktop as a tool to set up. 

And that was huge! 

There was this whole new class of people that finally we onboarded that we never could before. 

Calendly

The product team redid onboarding at Calendly by providing more detail about setting up an event type. However, users were hesitant to use this feature as it gave outsiders access to their calendars. 

We helped remove the access concern by teaching users about the event types and how they could maintain complete control over their calendar, preventing outsiders from seeing their entire calendar. 

The idea is to find concerns in ordinary experiences and crush those concern-based hesitancies before they gain steam. 

Canva

They’ve done a great job tying the search into their onboarding experience. 

So when you type in “How to make a poster” in Google, the landing page gives you the information you need but is also part of the onboarding experience.

How to make a poster google search result

On the landing page, you can start to meet your objective while completing onboarding simultaneously. 

Canva features page


Typeform

Same for Typeform. If you want employee feedback surveys, they show you how to make a terrific employee survey—bringing you one step closer to your objective.

Typeform website

Anytime that you can use something template-based, you’re winning.

Lucidchart

Whatever chart you need, Lucidchart has one, and they immediately begin helping you set it up with as much or as little hand-holding as required.  

Lucidchart website

Businesses that provide a way to start accomplishing a fundamental objective as the hook, then from there introduce the world of their product, that is powerful. 

These are the companies that scale

Aligning Teams to Lay a Foundation For Growth

In my best growth experiences, sales directly support marketing research. Get your sales team meaningfully involved in the user onboarding experience because they can fuel it with so much customer intent information.

Sales teams can bring hypotheses about what questions to ask to determine customer intent because they do it every day. 

At Stonly, the Head of Growth is part of the sales round robin, and he’s so much better at growth as a result. It’s about building sales, marketing, and product into the long-term model that helps make it all work. This draws us away from our traditional roles and responsibilities and sets everyone up for the long term.

Making product-led growth the responsibility of sales, the responsibility of support, and the responsibility of marketing, provides powerful data and lays the foundation for long-term growth. 

David Rostan
David Rostan
David Rostan is the co-founder and Head of Revenue at Stonly. He has previously led marketing and sales at product-led companies like Calendly and Dashlane.
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