ux/ui essentials

SaaS Onboarding Best Practices and Common Mistakes | UX Upgrade: Article Digest

10 min read
Dara Bilousova
Dara Bilousova
2 Jun 2022
SaaS Onboarding Best Practices and Common Mistakes Cieden
Table of content


The 4th article of our feature series “UX Upgrade” continues an exciting journey on high-speed design-mobile across the stars and constellations of UX/UI design patterns. In each issue, we learn and apply best practices established by the UX community to master our practical skills – and have a good time along the way!

The last three times we have focused on analysis and improvement of real-world designs from the Web, and I believe this was quite interesting. But now let's get even more inventive and try a new format – because what is design if not permanent search and experimentation? UX/UI design is a relatively young realm that is not yet cemented by a myriad of standards. Therefore numerous UX specialists from all over the planet feel free to explore, revisit, challenge, and rearrange its fundamentals and concepts.

So we are going to pick one of the UX-related articles and explore it critically and insightfully. Hopefully, this will not only enrich your knowledge base on the subject but also break the spell of accepting the deductions of design blindly. Specifically, this analysis builds on the guide “Designing the User Onboarding Experience” by John Ozuysal. Expanding on his ideas and examples will give you a broader vision of the subject. By the time the guide was released, John had been the Head of Growth at UserGuiding focused on streamlining the SaaS customer onboarding experience of various digital products, so he knows what he is talking about. 

This article will hence bring a double value to every business owner knowing firsthand how much it hurts when end-users drop a product quickly after short-lived interaction with it. But keep in mind though, that Ozuysal’s guide is just an opinion from the perspective of business analysis and marketing, so stay sharp and arrive at your own conclusions.

What is SaaS user onboarding?

To begin with, what is SaaS customer onboarding, after all? Some designers associate this concept with some sort of a guide to a product. Others close their eyes and see beautiful screens with welcome and greetings on the first launch.

SaaS Onboarding Best Practices and Common Mistakes Cieden

But in reality, onboarding is not a tool but a process within a customer journey, - complex, multidimensional, and, preferably, enthralling. The purpose of a user onboarding flow is to familiarize a user with your product, set the vector of their in-app actions, and provide all the necessary information and support to make a product fully operational for a customer. Only if all these pillars are taken into account, you may count on the long-term success of your project on the market. 

How exactly are you going to do this and what methods to use in optimizing signup flows – only your imagination is the limit.

While clothes make the man, the customer onboarding process makes the product. There are no second chances to impress your end-user and earn their trust. And without trust, customer retention and loyalty are pure science fiction.

A potential user expects your product to become that very long-awaited prince charming that will soothe their pains and make life easier. That is exactly why it is so critical for the onboarding process to create a positive long-term impression in their minds. Otherwise, a user may quit your site or app to never come back.

It is not just a theory. Product teams of the dozens of SaaS companies learned from their own experience serious implications of the quality of user onboarding flow for their businesses. For example, streamlining the onboarding process at the virtual workspace platform TeamTwine increased the customer retention rate from 35 to 70%.

Effective Onboarding Principles

In his article, John Ozuysal introduces the “triple A's” rule to create efficient and successful onboarding.

The first one – accommodating, means giving a user all the tools needed for using a product. The second one -  assimilating, provides a user with a knowledge base enabling their understanding of how exactly (in what way!) a product should be used. Finally, accelerating implies conveying your product value proposition as soon as possible, - but also as best you can. Imagine you are a James Bond chasing a beautiful girl to give her a bouquet of beautiful flowers: you are to be quick and still careful not to damage your delicate cargo in the rush.

John also distinguishes three basic components of effective onboarding.

First, highlight the valuable core functions making your product unique. Explain to a user why they are to prefer your product to those of your competitors, showcase the primary drivers of customer success, and exemplify the positive outcomes for resolving their tasks. Demonstrate social proof wherever appropriate. Be clear and concise. 

Second, provide a user with an opportunity to adjust the product to their needs and interests. Envisage powerful tools of customization and opt-in forms empowering a user to start using the software at its fullest potential and achieve their personal outcomes. This is also a brilliant first step in building good and lasting relationships between a customer and the brand that ensures long-term retention, as well as a more meaningful and valuable feedback.

Third, guide users, i.e. provide clear instructions on how to use your application. This applies to both using of the product as a whole and the configuration of individual modules, such as profile photos or administering user interests. This component may take different forms of educational content and training including product tutorials, actionable guides, video instructions, interactive walkthroughs, product tours, etc.

Onboarding Process Best Practices

Now let's proceed to the most practical part of this article. Take your laser scalpels, we are going to dissect and explore the anatomy of some best practices used in the onboarding process of the top-level SaaS products.

Initial set-up

Good practice for the first launch of a product is filling in personal data such as user name, interests, a profile photo, etc. This is how Twitter does it, by offering customized topics and selected accounts that may be of greatest interest or relevance to you, based on the preferences indicated in the profile section. As an outcome, each session on Twitter becomes growingly enticing, since a user knows that a myriad of events and subjects (and people!) that they are most excited about await in their user journey – specifically in the news feed.

Initial set-up

At the same time, applying this practice in the wrong way may on the contrary lead to devastating effects on the product experience and long-term retention, even among your most advanced users. Of course, if you are Twitter and creatively explore every way to personalize the digital experience of your customers without great fiscal risks, then do everything you like. Otherwise, be extra careful. In particular, never ask a user for personal details that have nothing to do with the customization of their content.

The hook of engagement

Initial set-up is not enough to make the onboarding a piece of candy, even despite the efforts a user invested in filling in a sign-up form and a profile. So let's brainstorm other potential sources of their motivation to get back to the platform. 

For example, Soundcloud can pitch a good idea. At this cloud-based streaming platform, immediately after completion of a signup process, a user sees playlists with trendy songs and thoughtful mixtapes, again, tailored according to the particular tastes of a user.

SaaS Onboarding Best Practices and Common Mistakes Cieden

Interactive learning

This type of onboarding can be perfectly exemplified by the task-management tool Todoist. After signing up, you are offered to create several key tasks, set their deadlines, add them to active sections or projects, etc. 

SaaS Onboarding Best Practices and Common Mistakes Cieden

Actionable guides and a product walkthrough have no fixed form. So you can use all your imagination and creativity to design onboarding that both amuses and entertains prospective users while giving them all the necessary information about the product activation.

In this way, a user doesn't merely observe a product's functional capacities, but can immediately “touch and feel” it from all sides and make a well-founded decision if it fits them.

Onboarding Mistakes

Well, we have just covered the SaaS onboarding best practices. Tired? Wait a while, you'll catch your second wind! You know that avoiding mistakes is sometimes (often!) more important and financially crucial than following conventional wisdom. The customer onboarding process is no exception. So reviewing the key onboarding errors capable to distract prospective users during the product activation – i.e. producing customer churn – is a must for designing a successful customer onboarding process.

For your information

Customer churn is the percentage of users who stop using your product over a period of time. The churn rate is calculated as follows: we divide the number of users having quit using your product by the overall number of users that started using the product during the period for which the rate is calculated. For example, if at the beginning of the quarter we had 500 users, and at the end, only 250 of them remained on the platform, the churn rate is 50%. You can find more detailed information on SaaS churn and the best customer reactivation strategies on in our feature article


This is when you implement onboarding as a residual, simply because “that's what they tell us to do” and not because you personally think that's the right thing to do.

Such an onboarding approach usually leads to designing the onboarding process carelessly, often without taking into account all the functionality that your user needs to get acquainted with. But it is evident we can achieve nothing good without proper effort and thoughtful actions.

The best way to avoid this mistake is to plan onboarding for each individual feature at the time you develop this feature. Create a centralized content hub; write all the necessary text at once and add the necessary tips to the layout. The success of the customer onboarding journey builds on exactly such tiny details and small steps.

Non-standard onboarding elements

Overall, this mistake is typical not just for the customer onboarding strategy but for any aspect of the customer journey.

Standard elements such as green buttons to confirm or using arrow icons to navigate between onboarding elements are familiar to every user of websites and software. The use of non-standard elements increases the likelihood of a user making a mistake or getting stuck during onboarding, which significantly reduces their engagement, creates additional friction points, and ruins the overall impression of the product.

Focusing on features rather than basic value

As a product designer, you may be anxious to introduce every cool feature of your creation to the end-user from the very beginning of SaaS onboarding. This is a very understandable desire: all the features are so cool, and unique on the market, and you have invested so much time and soul into each of them.

But don't hurry, however much you would love to. An excessive amount of information in signup flows can confuse the user. Instead, for meeting your onboarding goals apply a more artful approach: tempt a customer with the value for which they reached out to your product. The sooner a user turns even a small goal into reality, the more likely it is they will stop at your product as the most valuable and useful.

Lack of guidance

In SaaS onboarding, no matter how skillful and experienced your customer is or how clear and intuitive your interface is. On the first visit to a site or application, you need to provide a user with a short guide, lesson, or a set of tooltips.

For me personally, as a product designer, Ozuysal's guide has become a new revelation with regard to the universality of onboarding. From the perspective of marketing, this set-up process of customer onboarding takes place both inside and outside a platform. For example, there is a separate algorithm for e-mail onboarding.

So get ready not only for the design of in-app/onsite onboarding but also for the design of e-mail templates... and who knows what else! Remember red and blue pills for Neo from Matrix? This was also an example of user onboarding experience – user activation for reality.

Your homework is to be creative and pick up other examples of such “off-site” onboarding. Who knows, maybe this will give you new unexpected horizons and better prospects for in-app onboarding design?

Leaving a user success without a compliment

Of course, with an ideal approach to onboarding, a message with congratulations should appear immediately upon filling in signup forms and hereafter in the case of successful outcomes at performing every task. But in the context of an effective onboarding process, positive reinforcement is even more helpful, as it allows you to easily create a starting point and a benchmark for building a product and nurturing positive customer experience.

Onboarding problem-solving

So, how to identify and eliminate problems in your user onboarding flow?

John Ozuysal recommends using the so-called Immersion Research. It envisages taking on the role of your end-user as deep as possible, instead of researching a group of real-life users. If for some reason you have no opportunity to provide centralized monitoring of onboarding metrics and collect feedback from your potential customers, this method is exactly what you need. 

This type of research will be especially useful for those products that do not yet have a client base, or if you, as a designer, lack an opportunity to reach them out. In general, this research method is good for developing empathy, an indispensable qualification for UX/UI designers, product managers, and overall onboarding teams in any company. It is also a relatively quick and low-cost way to test the effectiveness of the onboarding you've created.

To quickly analyze the effectiveness of onboarding, ask yourself the following questions (either free-form or as a formalized onboarding survey):

  • How long does it take a user to interact with your product for the first time?
  • What exactly takes extra time during performing the key tasks during onboarding?
  • How long does it take to complete each onboarding task?
  • How long does it take to complete the onboarding completely and start using the product?

Additional ways to enhance the efficiency of the immersive research method:

1. Make a checklist of the onboarding goals you would like to accomplish as a user of the product on your first visit. Try to accomplish these objectives under different circumstances.

2. Write down every idea that comes to your mind and every detail that relates to your onboarding experience. Do this again and again. This also includes first impressions, emotional states and thoughts that arise along the way, and the time you spend on the completion of every task. Repeat this exercise in different situations.

3. Try to look at the product with a fresh eye. I know it won't be easy given that you are the author of the design and it is actually your beloved child. But just try to use it in the same way as you would use work with any other product for personal purposes. Note whether the UX of onboarding clearly states the required value and functionality of the product.


The art of user onboarding is a delicate yet also quite complex matter. 

Hopefully, this information was useful and interesting to you and shed light on some important points that should be taken into account when designing user onboarding aimed at the long-term success of a digital product and laying the groundwork for customer retention.

Specifically, you can draw the following conclusions about this delicate matter:

  • although user onboarding is often treated in terms of educational support or first-time emotional impression, in fact, this is a more complex realm that includes a wide range of tactics aimed to both enlighten and engage prospective users;
  • to take into account every aspect of an efficient onboarding, a designer should follow the three “A” principles of accommodating (tools), assimilating (knowledge), and accelerating (value), as well as include three components of functionality awareness, adjustment opportunities, and implementation guidance;
  • the best onboarding practices such as interactive learning, the hook of engagement, and initial set-up, are to be used not indiscriminately but taking into account the specifics of your platform and end-user;
  • avoiding the key onboarding mistakes (such as underestimation, excessive focus on features, lack of guidance, etc.) is even more critical than following best practices, because they are primary factors of your SaaS customer churn;
  • even if you have already designed your product’s onboarding and now get worried about its quality and efficiency, it is never too late to identify and eliminate its problems. One of the good and time-proven methods is immersion research based on placing yourself in your user’s shoes.

In conclusion, let me remind you that this article expands on John Ozuysal's vision of the UX design of the onboarding process, as it is introduced in his work “Designing Onboarding User Experience”. You can find a link to the original guide earlier in the text.

This is a new format for this series that aspires to bring more conceptual depth and profundity to our work on UX Upgrade. Henceforth, we are going to rotate such theoretical reviews with purely practical app redesign classes. As an outcome, you are going to get a double-edge sword of Knowledge and Proficiency easily cleaving even the most complex UX/UI design challenges.

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