Designing An Onboarding Experience Built For Customer Success

Gianna Spitaliere

I love exploring, writing about, and building knowledge on different ways to make businesses and customers more successful all around. I have been with ServiceTarget for less than a year, but have been thrilled to expand my writing into customer self-service.

9 Minute Read

“A good first impression can work wonders,” J. K. Rowling.


The first interaction a user has with your online product or service can determine whether they will stay engaged with it beyond the trial period, upgrade to a paid plan, or renew at the end of their subscription term.


When the user starts out with a new product or service, they may not be aware of how it works, the different features it offers, and how to be successful in achieving the outcomes they want. Customer onboarding is the process of improving a customer's success with a product or service and describes the entire process that users go through when they begin their journey as a customer. Customer onboarding is the combination of initial sign-up, guided setup, product walkthrough, and communication that introduces users to your product and educates them on how to be successful with it. 


Thoughtful user onboarding is becoming especially relevant today as software applications are becoming more complex, require initial setup and customization, and generally offer a multitude of different features and configurations. So, it is time to move beyond the traditional, often complex, and frustrating product documentation toward more intuitive, educational, convenient, and efficient content that is available when and where users need it most. But, most companies find themselves scratching their heads on how to pull this off.


What makes customer onboarding tricky is that it requires planning, collaboration, knowledge and efforts from across the organization. It is not just the product development team, as you may think. Product owners, product marketing and training, and customer success teams can play a crucial role in the overall success. Customer onboarding can also be difficult because, on the company side, you understand everything about your product or service in-depth since you work with it every day. So, shifting your mindset to the brand new user, without all of this knowledge yet, can be difficult, but may be the most important aspect. To truly deliver a successful onboarding experience you must fully understand what your audience needs, when, and where. 


The Payoffs

While creating successful customer onboarding may be challenging, once accomplished, it can reap many benefits for not just your customers but your entire company. 


Types of Customer Onboarding 

Now that we’ve covered what onboarding is and what benefits it can bring, let’s talk about the different types of customer onboarding you can consider. Depending on what product or service you provide and what your audience’s individual needs are, you may find using some or all of these strategies to be most beneficial.


Introductory sign-up flow

The sign-up process for the trial of your product or service is the first impression you will make on the new user. This is where they will form an immediate opinion on the quality and value your product will deliver to them. During a free trial phase, this is also where they will decide whether or not to upgrade. Sort of like a blind date, you want this impression to not only go smoothly but leave the customer wanting to return for the second date!


The introductory sign-up flow strategy of onboarding is often a guided series of questions that set the user’s account up and get them going. Often these questions will target who the user is, information on their background, what product they will be utilizing, what they plan to use it for most, what they hope to accomplish from your product or service, and other rounding information like interests, problems, and needs. This strategy allows the user to answer simple questions that will generate a personalized and tailored experience just for them. Rather than plopping them right into your web or mobile application, you can use this sign-up flow to generate a convenient launching point for users to start learning with. Starting a new product or service from scratch can be overwhelming and confusing so it is best to give the customer somewhere to start. 


Duolingo offers the perfect example of an introductory sign-up flow. Before even creating an account, you are guided through a series of questions that ask you about what language you would like to learn, why you want to learn it, your goals, and a final quick quiz to test your current knowledge on the language. They use this information to set up your dashboard and create your personal learning plan. 


Duolingo self-service onboarding
Duolingo self-service onboarding
Duolingo self-service onboarding
Duolingo self-service onboarding


Product walk-through

The product walk-through is probably the most common onboarding process as it covers some of the most important areas for the customer to understand. This is the step-by-step information that will display on each page a user may need more information from. For example, if your service is a photo editing tool, the product walk-through would include a few steps explaining to the user exactly how they should upload their photo, configure their settings, apply the different editing capabilities you offer, and then export. Briefly covering each feature and function you offer here is a great way to make sure your customers aren’t missing out on any of the value your product or service offers. 


Now, product walk-throughs aren’t just offered at the first-time sign in. It can be a great idea to offer users the option to go back into the walk-through at any point in case they missed something, forgot, or just want a refresher. And, this can be used when releasing new features to existing customers. When launching something new within your current product or service, you don’t want users to miss out on this new update, so you can add a walk-through explaining it’s capabilities for the next time users sign into the application. 


Humanity, a company offering an employee scheduling software, is an excellent example of an effective product walk-through. Their application guides you through each necessary step to get you started, ensuring you fully understand the foundations of their software. They also include tips, visuals, and helpful examples to make the process that much easier. 


Humanity self-service onboarding
Credit: ReallyGoodUX
Humanity self-service onboarding
Credit: ReallyGoodUX


Humanity self-service onboarding
Credit: ReallyGoodUX

Progressive checklist

The progressive checklist is not a one-and-done onboarding strategy, but one that is best used when implemented along with something like a walk-through (or whatever you choose). The progressive checklist shows the user where they are in their onboarding and setup process and how much is left to go. It could be a literal list of items or a progressive bar. And it doesn’t have to just contain beginning steps but can include items that the user may want to complete throughout their entire experience with your product or service.


This is useful in helping users ensure they don’t forget any necessary steps and are gaining all of the educational material they should. Also providing a visual representation of where the user is in the process can help them see that there is a tangible end in sight where they will feel fully acclimated to their purchase. 


The progressive checklist can also be a great place to allow users to enter goals. These would be specific and attainable metrics they hope to reach with your product. For example, if you provide a social media organizational tool, users may enter goals like gaining brand awareness, increasing followers and likes to X amount, or becoming a verified account. These goal incentives encourage users to continue returning to your product to succeed. 


A few great examples of progress bars successfully integrated into their applications include LinkedIn and Asana

Linkedin  self-service onboarding


Best Onboarding Practices to Get You Started

  1. Discover the ah-ha moment. This is the moment of activation where the user fully experiences and understands the core value of what your product or service provides. If your service is the photo editing tool (as we talked about earlier), your ah-ha activation moment might be when the user can begin placing different filters on top of their photo. This is where they can tangibly see what your service is providing and how it will benefit them. Activating users is critical to moving them from the sign-up phase to the returning and thriving phase. Once you discover what your product’s unique ah-ha activation moment is, you can build onboarding experiences that target users to get there in a simple and efficient way.


self service onboarding best practice
Credit: Codegiant


  1. Don’t do too many things. Yes, we just discussed all the different kinds of onboarding you can utilize and how helpful each can be, but that does not mean you should do everything. In fact, doing everything will most likely turn your users away. Presenting users with tons of tasks-to-be-done right after purchasing is overwhelming. If they have to go through a strenuous sign-up process, read through loads of information page-by-page, watch tutorials and videos, and keep up with more items on a list, they may just give up. And for good reason. If it takes that much onboarding to explain the product, it may be a bit too complex and you might consider shifting focus toward making it easier on the user as a whole, rather than explaining the complications in-depth. The best practice here is to pick one or two onboarding strategies and stick with them. 
  2. Show examples and use visuals throughout. Sometimes words cannot fully encapsulate what you need to explain. And of course, visuals are more engaging, entertaining, and often easy-to-understand for users. You want your first impression on the user to be an engaging one, not a dragging process of boring readings. So, using examples during onboarding can help show users, rather than tell, what their end result will look like and how to get there. Including things like images, videos, or cartoon graphics can help make the whole experience fun and educational. In fact, when both video and text are available on the same page, 72% of people would rather use video to learn about a product or service.


self service onboarding best practice
Credit: Intercom


  1. Keep it brief. While it can be tempting to go into detail about everything you provide, users are most likely eager to just dig their hands in and get going. Because of this, you don’t want to take up too much of their time with extensive sign-up processes and lengthy walk-throughs. There is a thin line between explaining enough information and too much to where users get bored. So it is a best practice to explain just enough to get users started in understanding the value so you can let them continue on learning. Keep text clear, concise, and engaging. 
  2. Link out for further information. As we just discussed, you want to keep the copy brief and simple. But in some cases, it may take much more to explain more complex and detailed processes. So, it can be a great idea to utilize linking within the onboarding process to further information from help-center guides, knowledge base articles, external content, or any other relevant resources. 


self service onboarding best practice
Credit: Webflow


  1. Make sure to include inviting other users as an onboarding step. This is mostly relevant for collaborative services, not personal products, like a web-design tool. Oftentimes it is not a single user adopting your service, but an entire team who will be utilizing what you provide. Therefore, guiding users toward the inviting other users step within the initial onboarding is important in making sure they can get their whole team set-up and moving forward. 
  2. Let users set goals that can be tracked with progression bars or lists. Yes, we covered this as one of the types of onboarding strategies, but we believe it is critical and should be used as a best practice. Regardless of what onboarding strategy you choose, what service you provide, and who your audience is, providing a visual representation of where users are in their journey toward succeeding with your product or service can be a great idea and a powerful incentive. 
  3. Make contacting during the onboarding process convenient. While we are encouraging self-service here, it is still important to bring contact options to the user’s fingertips. This is important for any realm of self-service, but especially the onboarding process. This stage is where users are most uncomfortable with the product or service and where the most questions or issues arise. Sometimes they may have a question that is not covered during the onboarding process or maybe they just haven’t discovered their answer yet. Either way, offering convenient contact options helps users feel comfortable in succeeding. 


Final Thoughts

Succeeding in onboarding can reap many benefits for your company like customer retention and recommendation, increased feature adoption, and better insights into improving your product or service. But providing this level of onboarding can be tricky to accomplish as it requires a company-wide effort and includes a variety of tricky factors. The best thing to keep in mind is the user experience and how you can overall make it more enjoyable and convenient. Continue learning about building a winning self-service design with tips for designing your search tool and integrating self-help throughout your site.

Gianna Spitaliere

I love exploring, writing about, and building knowledge on different ways to make businesses and customers more successful all around. I have been with ServiceTarget for less than a year, but have been thrilled to expand my writing into customer self-service.

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