User Onboarding
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This is page four of a handbook on Growth Hacking. Begin here.

User onboarding is critical

This page teaches you to welcome customers into your product in a way that excites them to become engaged users.

Excitement is accomplished through low-friction, delightful onboarding experiences.

You could have the world's best landing page, but if your onboarding experience is poor, people fall off before actually buying.

Specifically, onboarding is the user's experience between when they:

This experience consists of two distinct phases:

I cover the first phase. Then I conclude with a discussion on virality and referrals.

In total, you'll learn:

A brief warning

Most SaaS apps lose 95% of their new users after 90 days. That is insane.

During onboarding, most users are extremely skeptical of your product. Consider how many services they sign up for each month. And how many services waste their time with marketing tricks and poor products.

Onboarding is by far the most half-arsed aspect of nearly every SaaS product I've used. I just get spammed with tooltips then dumped into a boring dashboard. 

Onboarding is overlooked because there’s often no individual on a tech or marketing team who's responsible for it. Either marketers acquire users or product managers develop features. No one sits between to onboard those users.

Onboarding is a distinct phase in your product. It's a feature unto itself. It warrants team resources dedicated to its design, development, and management.

Onboarding strategy

To create an onboarding experience:

  1. First, identify your product's value to the user.
  2. Then, map out the user's journey toward that value.
  3. Identify the obstacles that exist along the way.
  4. Address them.

Addressing obstacles breaks into four onboarding objectives:

Before we learn to implement these, let's learn how we're going to identify them.

Onboarding obstacle identification

To optimize your onboarding over time, you should record your users in action. You can literally record people's screens as they use your app with a tool like Full Story

Watching recordings allows you to understand — in context — the best and worst interaction patterns users fall prey to when using your app.

Here's an example of a bad pattern: A user regularly creates then immediately deletes projects. Hmm. What are they really trying to accomplish? Was there an intermediate feature they just wanted to momentarily access? 

If so, how about extract that feature to stand alone so they don't waste their time?

Looking for the bad is step one. Step two is having Full Story track purchase events so you can compare the average onboarding experience of those who eventually purchase against those who don't. Then optimize your onboarding flow to naturally funnel more people into the behavior of those who purchase.

Example: Twitter

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

So, Twitter redesigned their onboarding to force users to follow a minimum of five people. They ensure this process is low-friction: They show you celebrities you're likely familiar with from topics (e.g. sports, movies) you indicated you cared about.

Recordings versus analytics

The reason I recommend using recordings instead of looking too deeply into your analytics data is because analytics lacs the context of the user's full experience.

Further, analytics require a pre-configuration of app events a priori. This often leads to false conclusions and diminishes the possibility of discovering the unexpected.

So, begin your onboarding optimization process by watching a significant sample of user recordings. Then, refer to analytics to prove the hunches you get from watching.

Onboarding objectives

Make your onboarding enticing and frictionless. Optionally, make it educational and productive.

I. Onboarding should (sometimes) be educational

Once someone signs up, the in-product experience must answer:

How do I get value out of this product? 

If the answer isn't self-evident, elucidate it with one of these four experiences: 

Remember, these experiences are not for showing off your product. They're for answering this question:

How do I get value out of the product?

Every word that's not helping answer that question should be removed. 

Now, if your product is dead simple and does not require education, simply skip the educational experience. Pat yourself on the back for having a self-evident product.

II. Onboarding should be enticing

Onboarding should never be educational or enticing. It should be both.

When you educate new users, entice them with value props so they're willing to put up with the education. 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 the user gets maximum value. Next, find a way to visualize these outcomes during the onboarding experience.

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

The visualized potential for dates keeps you going.

How will you visualize your users' goals during onboarding?

Write out your pitch if you have nothing to visualize

If you don't have anything enticing to visualize, short-form or bullet the value they're about to get from the product. 

For example, if you’re a subscription service that helps people quit smoking, tell users how many others successfully quit smoking: 

“About 15% of those who finish signing up then complete the course. Don’t be one of the quitters, because if you complete this program, you have a whopping 85% chance of quitting smoking for life. This is your opportunity.”

III. Onboarding should be low friction

During onboarding, it must be clear what the next step is:

Okay, now I get how to use the product. But, what do I do first?

Every step must appear low-friction: it must be easy, quick, and obvious. That's how you build momentum toward the end of your funnel — when a user pays.

Start by listing every action users take on their path toward a purchase. For a website design tool, users might follow this path:

  1. Enter their email and password.
  2. Create a sample site.
  3. Fool around with the design tool.
  4. Invite their team members.
  5. Fully build their site.
  6. Enter their credit card. 
  7. Publish their project.

With your list in hand, reduce friction by applying these principles at each step:


Forms are where anxieties tend to surface. So here are two more form tips:

IV. Onboarding should be productive if it's lengthy

If your onboarding contains an integrated walkthrough or prolonged setup process, don’t leave users empty-handed. 

For example, if you’re an email app, have the walkthrough guide the user through cleaning up their inbox. This way, they accomplish something while learning how to use your app. That leaves them with a small dopamine hit. It delights them.

Just make sure it's something they actually care to do. Another example: If you’re a project management app, have the walkthrough leave the user with the scaffolding required to share their new project with team members.

Nothing is more validating than getting product value within the first few minutes.

Onboarding examples+


When I was VP of Marketing for Webflow, we developed the following onboarding.

First, we made sure we understood who we were onboarding so we could best customize their experience:


  • Once a user signed up, we threw them right in the designer so they could get their hands dirty experiencing the power of the app. We didn’t want to intercept this experience with a long, boring video or tutorial.
  • But, after 30s, we knew they’d get overwhelmed by the complexity of the interface, so we forced open a menu to automatically reveal our video course. Each video walked you through the steps necessary to becoming a power user. 
  • The very first video is just a 60s timelapse of a site being built in Webflow. This shows the power and simplicity of the app. This was our visualization of the end goal. The video is enticing to watch because you see a site go from blank canvas to beautiful, full-featured page through a few simple steps. 

In other words, I gave them an immediate tease of the product's value. Then I capitalized on their interest by introducing education.

Go through all the onboarding examples that interest you on You can kick it off with this Duolingo onboarding. It's one of the best I’ve seen.

Here's the point


I'm concluding with a brief, high-level discussion of virality because the triggers for virality often surface during the onboarding experience. 

From the referrer's perspective, consider how you're prompted to invite friends when you're signing up for a social app. 

From the referee's perspective, consider how the onboarding experience is the first thing you're hit with. You didn't come to the product because you necessarily had a need for it, so you're even more out of touch as to why you should use it.

In other words, don't let a referred user land on a signup page that immediately instructs them to claim their referral reward if they haven't yet been pitched on what your product is and why they should actually care about it.

Types of virality

There are three types of virality mechanisms you can leverage. Most marketers fail to distinguish them, and in the process waste time attempting those that simply aren't possible for their product:

Try taking advantage of all of them — to whatever extent your product allows.

Inherent virality

Inherent virality is the best virality for explosive growth. It happens when either:

Your product either falls into one of those two categories or it doesn't. If it doesn't, inherent virality is not going to happen for you.

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


The second best virality is word-of-mouth. It's a measure of how good your product experience is. And it's proof that product experience is growth marketing.

Many successful companies have never spent a dime on advertising. Instead, they successfully built something people couldn't stop talking about or sharing.

Word-of-mouth's potential for your business is a function of how large your market is. If you only service 10 customers per month, you are unlikely to see runaway word-of-mouth. The law of large numbers isn't on your side, so you'll need to introduce artificial virality: coerce your few customers into referring at a very high rate.

Artificial virality

Here's when a user is most receptive to referring: when they've experienced a dopamine hit from your product. This happens when they get value from the product.

During these moments, make it frictionless to invite others — and consider providing an incentivize.

The most common incentive is the dual-ended reward: Both the referrer and the referee get rewarded. Usually this takes the form of credits or a discount.

Artificial virality has modestly succeeded for some companies. It's rarely a slam dunk. Because most of your users simply don't care about earning a little bit of cash. 

They didn't sign up for your app to make a few bucks. And they're jaded by the flood of offers they see on the Internet.

So, instead of offering cash, I recommend doling out value aligned with your product's primary value proposition. Meaning, provide greater access to the product.

For example, for referring someone to Dropbox, you're rewarded with more GB of storage. Storage is a more tangible, more immediate, and more relevant resource than getting $25 in credits to redeem.

After all, you signed up for Dropbox because you need to store files. Leverage the user's need instead of waving a couple hours' of minimum wage in someone's face.

If you don't have a product that can be doled out in chunks (e.g. GB's, videos hosted, potential dates swiped), a cash bonus needs to be significant to motivate people: 

Measuring virality

When measuring and optimizing viral performance, focus on three metrics:

If you multiply the last two numbers together, you get your Viral Coefficient. A viral coefficient above 1 is an indicator of viral potential. If you couple this with a short lag time between signup and referral, you will experience explosive growth.

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