How SaaS companies can win users with better onboarding UX


min read

Discover how to get the most out of your user onboarding UX even without any design knowledge or expertise.

By Simon McCade

Everyone in the business of online marketing has the objective of winning new users. It is, however, undoubtedly more critical for SaaS companies than it is for most others, given how tough the playing field is and how high the standards are amongst would-be customers.

Let’s take an in-depth look at how a fully calculated and optimised user onboarding process can go a long way towards not only attracting, but, crucially, keeping new users:

User onboarding explained

The process of onboarding a new customer is typically the first proper experience they will have with you, aside from being exposed to your marketing and advertising materials.

To that end, it occurs early on in the user journey to ultimately define how a user perceives and interacts with a product.

No two onboarding processes are created equal, since every software solution has its own idiosyncrasies.

Scope and complexity can vary greatly between, for instance, a B2B SaaS platform aimed at enterprise-level clients and a B2C web app aimed at retail customers.

That said, it is equally important for every kind of SaaS company to prove the value they are going to provide at this early stage because, ultimately, its success directly affects retention rates, satisfaction levels and the absolute bottom line of the business.

Common mistakes in user onboarding UX

Despite the fact that onboarding processes are often vital to good user retention rates, it’s amazing how many SaaS products don’t factor them in these days. Even some of those who do are guilty of doing it half-heartedly, so they still lose the trust and loyalty they want from people from the moment of their first engagement.

Rule number one is to show them what benefits they will get and, in turn, how their lives will be improved. Too many companies focus on highlighting features at this stage and it does nothing more than turn people off.

When you consider that 40-60% of users who sign up for a free trial of your software or SaaS application will use it once and never come back, that's a lot of dissatisfied users.

To keep people hooked from the start, focus instead on being careful with the design patterns you use – and make sure not to adopt every pattern under the sun. Have a key message at each step and don’t present users with a barrage of information.

Litmus uses a paywall before users get a chance to trial the product, which can lead to significantly fewer sign-ups.

Sign-up and registration processes are commonly overdone in this sense. Long forms make it very difficult to make a good first impression and lead to user fatigue. On the flipside, a relatively empty dashboard can leave new users feeling a little lost at sea, so they leave to find dry land as swiftly as they can.

One beneficial tactic is to employ a quick product tour that allows them to become familiarised with the UX, but even these are often fumbled and fudged.

The last thing you want is for new users to abandon ship within minutes or even seconds of engaging with your product, so it’s critical to get it right at the outset.

What makes a great user onboarding process?

The first point I always make is for SaaS companies to put the needs of their users ahead of the business. Every. Single. Time.

InVision implements a simple first step so users can get started with ease. The social proof helps build trust and confidence.

Your sales and marketing department(s) might have a different stance if they want to collect data about new users, but the only real way of nurturing an engaged community is to make every individual feel welcome and not harassed from day one.

If you can get your users to that “Aha!” moment sooner, you will be able to communicate the true value of your product and stand a much better chance of keeping customers for life. You might even create brand ambassadors out of them.

Zapier deploys a user onboarding checklist to gently nudge them towards that "Aha!" moment.
Ease-of-use and moments that delight are key to a successful onboarding process.

Concentrate on this and you’ll be well on your way to making people love your product and every interaction with it.

How to design a user onboarding process

It’s useful to divide this into several phases:

1. Understand your users

It’s obvious and you’ve definitely heard it a million times, but that’s because it matters more than anything else. Get to know your users.

Ask the right questions to gain a deep understanding of how your audience talks, thinks and acts – this way, you’ll get a good idea of any preconceptions and expectations they might have about your product.

Get to know your users so you can understand how your product should work.

Ask yourself what the core benefit you’re trying to deliver is and work out how you can help your customers get there in the shortest and simplest way.

What are the benefits that will help users reach the core value you’re trying to deliver?

A thorough understanding of your audience and what they expect should form the foundation of your onboarding flow so you know exactly what kind of initial experience to design.

2. Design and implementation

Next up is your chance to consider every step of your existing onboarding process. Is every action and request actually required? How much time are they collectively and individually taking up? Where do users find themselves at the end of it?

Such a top-down view will highlight any potential obstacles for you to squeeze out of your plans without having to waste any time on actual visual design. Moreover, it’ll give you a clear idea of the “Aha!” moments you need to steer your customers towards if your onboarding process is to be a success.

You can then start the design and implementation by creating user flows and low-fidelity wireframes on the back of this knowledge, which will hopefully make it obvious at which stages you can give your customers the motivation to keep making their way through your product.

Use these wireframe templates to help get you started.

Incentivisation is the key to guiding users through a successful onboarding process.

It should be as easy as pie to complete tasks – minimise choices where you can, avoid overwhelming and overcomplicating matters as much as possible, remove distractions and points of friction to get your users to the end-goal.

Pinto creates a personalised user onboarding experience with a progress bar to show users how far they are through the process.

If the process requires several steps, which some complex products do, of course, break them down into easily achievable steps that are signposted by tooltips to make it more digestible as an experience.

Follow these guidelines and you should have no major issues with guiding your users from the sign-up screen to the activation point, but keep in mind that every onboarding process is different so a certain amount of testing and learning is going to have to be done at this design and implementation stage.

3. Test and optimise

Now, therefore, comes the optimisation phase. Once you’ve built the prototype, you can validate the design by testing it with real people.

It’s at this stage that you’ll get the most valuable feedback of the entire process – witnessing how people actually interact with the product may well uncover something you never even thought about during design. Don’t be put off by this; it’s a normal and incredibly useful part of the UX process.

Top tip: Install FullStory to gain insights on your user onboarding performance.

Take the first point of success in your onboarding into account and, during this user testing, ask yourself how quickly users are getting there and what might be holding them back if they’re slowed down.

Ask real people to use your product during testing to find gaps and potential friction points.

You’ll get a pretty full picture of what’s working and what’s not with this approach, but remember that onboarding is not a static part of your UX – it needs to be adaptable in the same way as user behaviours are in all industries.

Do you need help designing your user onboarding?

Considering the significant impact a user onboarding process can have on the overall experience with and impression of your brand, it’s critical that every SaaS company gives it the prioritisation it deserves.

You must be able to deliver on the promises you make in your sales and marketing channels if user expectations are going to be managed effectively, so, if you feel like you need assistance due to a lack of time or expertise, schedule a call today to see if we can find the right fit.

My dedicated, user onboarding service for SaaS companies can help you help your users reach their first points of success quickly and efficiently.

What’s more is that it facilitates user satisfaction by incorporating the right tips and guidance at the right times so as to avoid drop offs and keeps them hooked from the moment they engage with you.

There are internal benefits to you, too, in that the natural knowledge-sharing in us working together will equip you and your team with the ability to continuously measure and iterate your onboarding over time, so you can rest easy in the comfort that neither you nor your users will be frustrated with how your product is working. The benefits of it will be clear to your users and the business value of it will be clear to you.

Get in touch today to discuss how we can work together to design and change your user onboarding process for the better.

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This article represents the opinion of experienced designer, Simon McCade, who has no association or affiliation with the company or the app in question.

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