A Quick Guide to Successful User Onboarding for SaaS Products

A Quick Guide to Successful User Onboarding for SaaS Products

You got people to sign up for your free SaaS trial—great! Trouble is, a significant percentage of users sign up for the trial, log in once, and never come back. You might as well have burned the money it took to acquire them.

The reality is, you’ll never retain all of your customers, and some of those reasons you can’t control:

  • Not the right fit for their needs (features or price-wise);
  • Customer goes bankrupt;
  • CMO wants to switch technology;
  • Customer wants features that were never intended to be part of your platform.

However, there are plenty of reasons customers churn that are completely in your control:

  • Customer doesn’t understand how to use the product;
  • They have a false impression of what the product actually does;
  • Customer isn’t brought into the product quickly or frequently enough;
  • They don’t understand the value.

Part of the problem could be that you just dropped them into your SaaS app and hoped they’d figure it out for themselves. Or you did do some user onboarding, but failed to deliver the “wow” experience that your marketing sold them on.

Much of this can be solved by creating a solid customer onboarding flow and a compelling first-run experience.

What is customer onboarding?

Customer onboarding is a process that starts from the initial step of signing up for your service and continues with a welcome email and a first-run experience. It can span over several months (depending on the product) to keep the customer continue using your SaaS app and receiving value from it.

You’ve seen it before—it’s that guided tour the SaaS app brings you through the first time you actually use the product. Here’s an example from Basecamp (check out the full breakdown here).

With so many things screaming for your users’ attention online, the onboarding experience often sets the tone for future interactions with your SaaS product. It can be critical to whether or not the user will ever return.

Stripe’s Patrick McKenzie said the following in an article for Intercom:

Patrick Mckenzie

“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…

If you think I’m wrong, I bow to your data. If you have no data on this subject, start tracking it: everyone who I’ve ever told to do that comes back shocked and dismayed.

Finding the clogs in your first-run onboarding process

In Patrick’s article, he talks about funnel analytics and tracking the steps a user must take to complete the first set of tasks within your SaaS app successfully.

If you’re not familiar with how to capture this data, check out our SaaS funnel audit guide, as well as this guide by Mixpanel on tracking and setting up the right events inside your product.

Work with your development team to get these implemented properly.

If you don’t have a development team or you want more flexibility in your testing, you can use Appcues to create and optimize an onboarding flow. Heap can help you create event-based funnels by defining the actions you want your users to take.

The main two questions you’re asking with funnel analysis are: 

  • What is the primary action (or actions) we want our user to take within the app?
  • What steps does the user need to take in order to reach the goal of that action?

The drop-offs in between steps are where the opportunities lie.

Determine your friction points with user testing

If you’re looking at your funnel analytics and noticing significant drop-offs during the vital parts of your own onboarding experience, conduct a usability test. It will help you analyze the way users walk through the signup flow and first use of the product.

Tools like UserTesting and TryMyUI will allow you to gather this kind of feedback from qualified users.

Matthew Niederberger of Actual Insights gives you an idea of what kind of feedback you could get from a user testing experience by walking through an older version of Airbnb.

Once you have both the quantitative and qualitative feedback, you can create tests to “unclog” your onboarding process.

For example, when Patrick McKenzie (mentioned earlier) noticed that only 82% of visitors were taking one of the most crucial steps in his onboarding process, he made the progress indicator clearer.

Patrick McKenzie's example of adding a progress indicator.

As a result, 90% of visitors ended up moving through to the next step—a 12% improvement!

Out of curiosity, what would a 12% improvement in your conversions from trial to subscriptions look like for your bottom line?

Identifying your red flag metrics

Looking at what’s going on in the immediate signup flow is a good start to improving the onboarding process. But if you really want to improve things, you’ll need to look at things through a longer lens.

When a person doesn’t end up converting from trial to paid, what did their activity look like during the trial period?

Groove had this exact question when they noticed that their churn was hovering around 4.5%. Using KISSmetrics at the time, they discovered a huge chasm between how their churning and non-churning customers used their product.

It turned out that the users who were churning were barely logging in and spent very little time in the app.

They also knew the average time it would take a user to complete certain tasks within the app. So when those tasks ended up taking longer to complete, users wouldn’t always ask for help, and it was often their last session. To keep things simple, Groove started testing series of behavior based emails to encourage the user to log back in and help the user get unstuck.

Going beyond the trial period, Groove also tries to learn from those who didn’t sign up to see if there were any key features they’re missing, or weren’t made apparent during the trial.

Groove's email to users who didn't end up signing up.

Alex informed me they’ve been conducting some tests to their onboarding process, which I’m guessing incorporates a lot of feedback they’ve collected into the app and builds it into the app itself.

I don’t know what previous iterations of their onboarding process looked like, but I am seriously impressed by how they use a “sandbox mode” to let you experience the app before connecting your personal accounts.

Groove Support   All New   Open

There’s a damn good reason they’ve been able to grow their monthly revenue from $30K to nearly $90K within nine months back then. Some years later, they crossed $5 million in yearly revenue. These guys are masters of creating feedback loops to get into their customer’s head and conducting tests based on what they find.

Read these articles—you’ll understand why.

Identify the actions for your user to reach the “aha” moment

The flip side to red flag metrics is identifying the “aha” moment where your core customer falls in love with your SaaS app, and the actions they need to take in order to get there.

Again, this requires that you take a longer view of your retention metrics, but once you understand it, you can work it into your onboarding process to try and get users to take those “core” actions sooner.

Sean Ellis, founder and former CEO of Qualaroo, shared in his presentation at CTA Conf this example where Twitter discovered that “once a user follows 30 people, they’re more or less active forever.”

unbounce.com cta conf Sean_Ellis_CTAConf2014.pdf

Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that when Twitter onboards new users, the process is primarily focused on suggesting users based on your interests and getting you to import your contacts. This way, they can get you to follow 30 people as quickly as possible.

Follow 38 people

Check out this guide on aha moments from Appcues if you want to learn more and get started.


If you just assume that once people sign up, they’ll start using your software, you’re wrong. You have to work for it as hard (or even harder) than you did to get the sign up.

Take the time to understand of both a quantitative and qualitative levels where they’re getting stuck, what makes them leave, and what makes them successful. Then do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

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Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Great article as usual, Tommy!

    It’s so crucial to define the success of user onboarding around the user not only activating features, but becoming successful themselves.

    I often use a metaphor of grilling — there’s a HUGE difference between easing the path to setting up a charcoal grill and easing the path to getting someone to cook outdoors more often. The latter job is much harder, but way more mutually beneficial.

    In the same way, don’t think of onboarding as getting people acquainted with your product’s interface; think of it as getting people accomplishing the things they set out to do when they were initially signing up.

    And for an example of the ROI from even a modest amount of attention toward onboarding improvement, check out the $300,000 return Nick Francis found in his work with upping Help Scout’s trial-to-paid conversion rate here: http://podcast.leadpages.net/helpscout/

    1. Portrait of Tommy Walker

      What a great metaphor & share Samuel! Thank you so much :-)

  2. Love the walk-through. It is such a critical function that most web apps (and really just apps in general) miss.

    Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time and money having my in-app walk-through created. Only to find out afterwards, that I need to change some things in order to push them into the app and get them coming back!

    Always be refining I guess. :)

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A Quick Guide to Successful User Onboarding for SaaS Products