User onboarding

Most SaaS apps lose 95% of new users within 90 days. That's insane.

They tend to lose those users during onboarding—when a first impression is made.

Therefore, a growth marketer focuses on welcoming users into a product in a way that motivates them into being lifelong customers.

This is achieved through delightful onboarding experiences and having a valuable product.

What this page covers

"Onboarding" describes the user's experience between signing up and becoming an engaged user.

This phase consists of two elements:

  • Their first experience — This entails everything the user experiences immediately upon signing up or buying for the first time. If you lose them here, odds are you'll lose them forever.
  • Follow-on engagement — This includes the messaging (emails, push notifications), sales, customer support, and content that keeps them engaged with your company after they sign up.

On this page, we cover the first phase: the user's first experience. You'll learn:

  • How to structure an enticing onboarding
  • How to move users along the growth funnel
  • How referrals and virality enhance the onboarding process

Onboarding strategy

To create an onboarding experience that encourages users to fall in love with your product, consider four steps:

  1. First, identify your product's value to users.
  2. Map out the user's journey toward experiencing that value.
  3. Identify the obstacles along the way.
  4. Address those obstacles using your onboarding experience.

Obstacle identification

Some obstacles will be known to you. They are the product journey steps that:

  • Require a lot of work.
  • Are boring.

Other obstacles are hidden. To identify them, observe users using your product:

  • For SaaS apps, you can record users' in-app activity using Hotjar.
  • For physical goods, invite people into your office to watch them use it.

Watching user behavior reveals inefficient and broken paths users take through your product. These aren't obvious until you see how people interact in the wild.

Here's an example: In your SaaS app, a user creates then immediately deletes a new project. They do this ten times a day.


What are they trying to accomplish? Is there a feature they wanted to momentarily access that required a project to exist? If so, what if we extract that feature into a standalone button so they don't waste time making unnecessary projects?

Getting more from user observations

Addressing obstacles is just one benefit of observing users. The other is identifying which paths through your product create the most engaged, highest-paying users.

Rely on your analytics software to track every event that these hero users trigger. Then optimize your onboarding experience to usher users toward these paths.

Example: Twitter

Twitter studied their users' onboarding behavior and discovered that if a new user doesn’t follow at least a handful of other Twitter users immediately upon signing up, they’re much less likely to return in the near future.

As a result, Twitter redesigned their onboarding flow to force users to choose five people to follow. They showed celebrities you're likely familiar with based on the topics (e.g. sports) you indicated you're interested in at the start of onboarding.

Addressing obstacles

Once we've identified obstacles (tedium, friction, dead-ends), we address them using four principles:

  • Educate users
  • Entice users
  • Reduce friction
  • Make onboarding productive

1) Onboarding should be educational

When a user signs up, the in-product experience should immediately answer:

What is this product's value and how do I achieve it?

If the answer isn't self-evident, emphasize it using an assistive experience:

  • Productive walkthrough — Walk users through one key feature at a time. For example, if you’re building a website design tool, have them choose a starting template to tweak as they walk through your product's features.
  • Video — If your product's value can be enticingly visualized, or if you have a complex product requiring a detailed explanation, consider coercing users into watching a video. A zero-fluff, one minute video can replace 15 minutes of documentation reading. Keep this video short, get to the point immediately, skip the sales talk (they've already decided to try you), and use captions so audio isn't required.
  • Full course — If your product is really complex, consider developing a video course like Webflow's. (First, however, try to simplify your product.)
  • Sample data and tooltips— If using your SaaS tool doesn't require hand-holding, you can dump users directly into your dashboard. However, provide pre-filled values and sample content to play with wherever they are expected to enter their own. This way, you don't force them into doing meaningless work to learn how your product behaves. Further, pair this sample data with callouts pointing out product features and the value they provide. Be sparse with callouts. If you show a lot, they all get ignored.

If your product is dead simple and doesn't require user education, skip these experiences. Don't waste time telling people obvious things. That adds friction and boredom.

2) Onboarding should be enticing

Onboarding should never just be educational. It should also be enticing.

While educating users, entice them with your product's value so they're willing to put up with the boring parts of onboarding. Tease them with how amazing life will be once they are done.

To do this, start by identifying the magical moments in your product where users receive maximum value. Perhaps it's when they receive their first payment, find a date, or destroy an enemy's base. Your job is to visualize those exciting outcomes during the onboarding experience.

For example, look at how the scammy "dating" site, Ashley Madison, does it. They visualize your end goal (“finding women”) through blurred background photos while asking you to painstakingly enter your profile details.

They're teasing you with their magical moment while putting you through a slog.

This principle extends to your entire customer journey: Don't ask someone to do something until you've excited them about the value they’ll get from it.

For example:

  • Want someone to read your boring tooltips during a walkthrough? Only show tooltips after they engage with the corresponding feature. That's when they'll care to learn more.
  • Want someone to download your Chrome extension? Wait until they've become hooked by your web app first. Then prompt them to adopt your whole ecosystem.
  • Want someone to read your lengthy ebook? Wait until they've read one of your short, fantastic blog posts.

Prove to people you can deliver then prompt them to take action.

If you have nothing to visualize, write it out

If you have nothing enticing to visualize during onboarding, bullet point the value customers will receive.

For example, if you’re a service that helps people quit smoking, share how many people have quit smoking with your help:

“About 15% of people who finish this onboarding experience go on to finish our course. Once you've finished it, you'll have a whopping 85% chance of quitting smoking for life. This is your easy shot—don't squander it.”

3) Onboarding should be low friction

Once our onboarding experiences are educational and enticing, we work to reduce their friction.

Start by listing every action users take before purchasing. For a website design tool, users might follow this path:

  1. Enter their email and password.
  2. Create a sample site.
  3. Experiment with the design tool.
  4. Invite team members.
  5. Finish building their site.
  6. Enter their credit card.
  7. Publish the site.

For every step, apply these principles to reduce friction:

  • Reduce total workload — Only ask for what you need. Pre-fill form inputs with your best guesses as to what the user would enter, then prompt them to correct wrong guesses. Take the burden of work off them. Better yet, defer asking for input until you require it. Do you really need their full name to create their account, or can you request that once they’re engaged? Once a user is engaged, you can get away asking for a lot.
  • Reduce perceived complexity — You reduce the perceived complexity of tasks by visualizing what they entail. Break a complex task into easy steps and visualize each with, say, a GIF. This addresses how we like to learn: visual, incremental, and structured.
  • Reduce choice anxiety — Any form that requires users to put effort into their choice (e.g. a dating profile bio) should be accompanied with suggestions for filling it out, e.g. “Describe your unique interests and explain your passion for them.” Further, explain the benefit of filling out each non-obvious field. For example, if you have a Share button for inviting coworkers, point out that "If you invite coworkers, you can instantly share your work without having to send back-and-forth emails." Ahh, so that's why I shouldn't ignore this!

During onboarding, it must always be clear what the next step is. And that step must appear easy. This is how you build momentum to propel users toward the end of your product journey.

4) Onboarding should be productive

The lengthier your onboarding, the more important it is that it doesn't leave users empty-handed at the end.

For example, a project management app can leave users with an outlined project that they've shared with all their relevant team members.

Or, if you’re an email app, the onboarding walkthrough can guide the user through cleaning up their inbox. That way, users will accomplish something they care about while learning to use your app. This leaves them with a small dopamine hit.

Remember, a great onboarding experience delights users. Nothing is more motivating than experiencing a product's ultimate value within minutes.

Example: Webflow

At Webflow, we developed the following onboarding experience. First, we learned who the user was so we could customize their experience:


  • Once they completed registration, we placed them immediately into the web design tool so they could get their hands dirty experiencing the power of the app. We didn’t want to buffer this experience with a long, boring video.
  • But, after 30s, we knew they’d get overwhelmed by the complexity of the app, so we forced open a menu to automatically show our video course. Each video walked you through the steps necessary to becoming a power user.
  • The very first video was just a 60s timelapse of a site being built in Webflow. This showed the power and simplicity of the app. We were visualizing the end goal: you saw a site go from being a blank canvas to a beautiful, full-featured page in just a few minutes.


  • Your onboarding should answer: "How do I get value out of the product?" And it should visualize the outcome in a way that excites them into being a lifelong customer.
  • Find both your obvious and your hidden obstacles. Address each. Assume users are skeptical, lazy, and easily confused. Aggressively reduce friction and cognitive overhead.
  • Focus on being educational, enticing, and productive.

Our Growth Program, gives you much deeper insight on further optimizing your onboarding experience and product journey.


We'll conclude this page with a brief discussion on virality.

The triggers for virality often surface during the onboarding experience:

  • From the referrer's perspective, you're prompted to invite friends and colleagues while signing up for an app.
  • From the referee's perspective, onboarding is the first thing you experience when clicking an invite link and signing up.

Three types of virality

There are three viral modalities:

  • Inherent virality occurs as a function of the product’s use. This is also called product-led growth. For example, to pay someone with PayPal, the payment recipient needs to first join PayPal. And who's not going to signup to get paid? No wonder PayPal's user base exploded.
  • Word-of-mouth happens when users are overjoyed and they proactively recommend your product to friends and followers.
  • Artificial virality is an incentivized reward program, such as receiving cash or rewards for successfully referring others.

Let's explore each.

Inherent virality

Inherent virality, which is an outcome of the product's use, is possible when:

  • Users use your app to transact or collaborate with others — Examples include PayPal, Dropbox, Zoom, and Slack. To use these products effectively, you have to invite others to use them with you.
  • Users use your app to create content intended to be shared with others — Examples include Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Cameo.

The power of inherent virality is that you don't have to artificially incentivize users to refer—they're going to do it on their own.

You just have to empower them and get out of their way.

If your product doesn't fall into one of the two categories above, inherent virality is not going to happen. You'll be relying on these other types.


The second fastest virality is word-of-mouth (WOM). It's a measure of how good your product experience is.

Many successful companies rely exclusively on WOM and never spend a dime on advertising. Instead, they built something people can't stop talking about because the product elegantly solves a huge pain point—or it delights them endlessly.

WOM is the outcome of a product that:

  • Removes significant nuisances, obstacles, or pain from someone's life.
  • Gives people dopamine hits of delight and entertainment.

Your potential for word-of-mouth success is also a function of how big you and your market are: how many customers do you currently have and how many more potential customers are out there?

If you only service 10 customers per month, you are unlikely to see runaway word-of-mouth. There's not enough kindling for the fire. Instead, you'll need to introduce artificial virality: coerce users into referring others.

Regardless of your audience size, every company should earnestly pursue word-of-mouth. An incredible product makes every part of growth easier.

Artificial virality

Artificial virality consists of transactionally incentivizing users. Think "refer a friend and get $50 off."

The art of artificial virility is in knowing:

  • Which incentive users actually value.
  • Which step in the product experience they're most receptive to an offer.

The latter is simple: make the offer when they've experienced a dopamine hit from your product. This is whenever they're most delighted because your product delivered on its promise. During these moments, make it frictionless to refer.

The trickier part is knowing which incentive to offer.

Artificial virality has modestly succeeded for some companies. But it's rarely a slam dunk because most users don't care about earning a bit of cash. Plus, they're jaded by the thousands of offers they've encountered in the past.

Instead of offering cash, we recommend doling out rewards in the form of your product's primary value proposition. Meaning, reward with greater access to the core product. For example, when you invite a colleague to use Dropbox, you're rewarded with additional gigabytes of storage. Storage is Dropbox's tangible and relevant value proposition. It's what people signed up for. So give them more of it.

If you don't have a product that can be doled out in increments (e.g. GB's, Vimeo videos hosted, Tinder matches swiped), then the cash reward must be significant:

  • If you're a physical good, offer the product for free once someone refers 5 other customers.
  • If you're an expensive subscription service, offer the service for free for, say, 3 months. Not just one month.

Optimizing virality

When optimizing virality, focus on three metrics:

  • Reduce the lag time between a user signing up then referring someone.
  • Increase the number of referrals made per user.
  • Increase the percent of new users who received an invite then accepted it.

If you multiply the last two numbers together, you'll calculate your Viral Coefficient. A viral coefficient above 1 is an indicator of viral potential. If you pair this value with a short lag time, you can experience explosive growth.

Next up: Running Ads

How to set up Meta and Google Ads.