SaaS Onboarding: How to Consistently Delight Users

To understand what a good SaaS onboarding experience looks like, think back to your most memorable interactions with other businesses. Perhaps they took place at a hotel while on vacation or maybe there’s a local business that goes above and beyond every time you shop there. This is what we want to achieve in your SaaS onboarding.

Software companies can provide onboarding experiences that rival in-person equivalents. Just because something is digital doesn’t mean that it needs to be boring or lacking a human touch. To start designing a memorable onboarding experience, we first need to look at outcomes and features.

Drive Customer Outcomes, Not Product Features

It’s easy to get caught up in the product feature rat race where you’re always thinking about new things you could build into your product. 

This is especially true for onboarding flows where companies tend to keep adding steps hoping that it helps improve the overall conversion rate. However, onboarding and product building shouldn’t be approached in that way.

Great onboarding flows are driving by outcomes, not features. This means that everything you’re asking the user to do has a purpose in helping them get somewhere. If you ask for gender but this is irrelevant to them using the product, you’re wasting the user’s time.

Airbnb Signup Flow
Airbnb Signup Flow

Over time, you could earn some leeway to ask for things that are that are only helpful to you but at the beginning of your relationship, you should avoid unnecessary asks. Remember that users don’t care about features but instead are interested in how a product could help them solve a problem they are facing.

Another point to consider is that we all have too many software options in our lives already. An average worker will be using 5 – 10 different tools from project management to analytics tools. How is your app going to stand out among all the noise?

A mentor has always told me that when working with clients, you should not see yourself as another priority but as the person who can clear other existing priorities. It’s not about making your software the most important priority but helping them tackle their existing to-do list.

Finally, I would urge you to consider who the right users should be. There’s a trend right now to make onboarding flows easier and less complex which seems to work in theory. Ask less of the user and they can get on with using the product. I even talk about avoiding unnecessary asks in a previous paragraph.

However, this doesn’t’ mean that you should be trying to get everybody and anybody to use your product. They will just churn out in a few weeks once they realized that this product isn’t for them. Even marketing automation can’t solve these kinds of issues.

You can use the onboarding process to filter out the wrong users. This can reduce your costs on customer support and the emotional cost of seeing users walk away from your product. Even though you should lean towards making things easier for the user, they should also do some work on their end before they can use your product.

Build Habits in 4 Steps

If we take a step back from the world of onboarding, we can see that we are really trying to establish new habits in our users. We want them to use our product on a regular basis whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, or some other frequency. This means that a short lesson on habit building is in order.

My favorite book on this subject is Atomic Habits by James Clear. The book was a smashing success and I still see in top lists in Amazon, Audible and other locations.

Atomic Habits Book Cover
Atomic Habits Book Cover

In the book, James provides a 4 step structure for designing a good habit that you can stick with. These are the 4 steps:

  1. Cue: Make it obvious
  2. Craving: Make it attractive
  3. Response: Make it easy
  4. Reward: Make it satisfying

The first step is to have a trigger or cue. This could be the end of our morning shower or right after we brush our teeth. The more consistent and reliable the cue is, the more we can use to establish other habits.

The second step is to come up with a craving that is appealing. This could be the excitement to lose weight or the desire to learn something new.

The third step is to provide a response or behavior. This is the habit itself which could be 10 pushups, read 5 pages of a book, or call a loved one.

The fourth and final step is to reward yourself with something you enjoy. Having a snack might be counterproductive to losing weight but you can reward yourself with music, excitement, or something else. The reward needs to be done at the moment and can’t be delayed for days or weeks.

In our onboarding process, we can take these same ideas to design stick products. Here are some questions to explore:

  • What cue will remind users to log in to the product and how you could set up that cue during the onboarding?
  • What craving are you helping the user satisfy through your product? 
  • How can you show the user what you will help them do?
  • What response or behavior are you expecting from the user?
  • How can you reward the user or help them design a reward for completing the behavior?

The onboarding is the perfect opportunity to show the user all of these steps or even help them set them up. They could set up email reminders to take certain behavior all while showing them how they will benefit from using your product. The reward could be a sound, prompt, or something that tells the user that they did something enjoyable.

Designing the Correct User Flow

Let’s now look at how to design your onboarding flow. If you already have an onboarding, you can start by mapping it out to determine where you could improve it.  When I work with companies, I typically want to see their onboarding in a simple flowchart. The tool you use doesn’t matter.

Marketing Stack Data Flow
Marketing Stack Data Flow

This is especially important for any product where you have different paths the user could take depending on their choices and responses. You may discover your “ideal” onboarding flow is quite complex. If you’re having trouble following the path on paper then imagine how users might feel.

I would recommend cutting your initial design in half. This will mean that you have to compromise on what information you get from the user but that’s the point. Force yourself to remove steps that aren’t critical to get a second version that is lean and efficient.

Your next step is to think about the habit-building steps from the previous section. How can you bring these ideas into your lean and efficient onboarding? You can add steps but keep the essential. If steps could be combined, then do that.

Notice that I haven’t talked about design yet. I believe that onboarding flows should work in their most simple form without any bells and whistles. You can then use design to improve the bare-bones structure.

The last step is to think about the commitment filters in this process. A commitment filter is any action that forces the user to commit to your product. Asking the user for their email is a common example that nearly every product has. 

Spotify Commitment Filter
Spotify Commitment Filter

There are some commitment filters that are quite strong. For example, asking the user for their credit card before starting a free trial. Some users will not provide a credit card before they even use the product. Some other commitment filters:

  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Social Insurance Number
  • Identity verification documents
  • Access/Invitation code

There’s no right answer as to which filters you should use in your product. You will need to experiment with different options and see how the conversion rate changes in the short and long term. The long term, in this case, is overall retention and churn.

SaaS Onboarding Software

Let’s now look at what data you need to measure your onboarding flow. I have 3 general sources of data that you should be tracking to get a complete 360 view of your flow.

Funnel Analysis

Funnel analysis is the most obvious way to track onboarding flows. You can see where users drop off and which steps seem to be causing the most issues. You can also slice the funnel to find interesting segments that are performing better than average. This report is available in all product analytics options like Mixpanel, Amplitude, Heap, and others.

We can take you from anecdotes to facts backed by data like the funnel report above.
We can take you from anecdotes to facts backed by data like the funnel report above.

Cohort Analysis

You also want to track users over time to better understand how changes to your onboarding flow affect long term retention. Simplifying your onboarding flow might increasing the conversion rate in the short term but it might have a disastrous effect on your long term retention.

Qualitative Data

Quantitative numbers are great but they are only half of the story. The other half comes from users themselves in the form of qualitative data. There are multiple pieces to explore here including heatmaps, session recordings, and surveys. 

Hotjar Heatmaps

Remember that great onboarding flows drive outcomes and not features. You can iterate your way to success by leveraging the proper data and charts. Finally, focus on delighting your customers and they in turn will love and use your product.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

All companies are sitting on a goldmine of data that they haven't fully explored. It's not about technology or capturing more data. The key is to learn how to make the most of your current data and convert it into actionable insights. This is the main idea behind my first book, The Data Miage: Why Companies Fail to Actually Use Their Data

I'm excited to announce the release of the book through all major retailers. If you're interested, you can download the first chapter for free using the form below. You'll learn what the best data-driven companies do differently and how to make sure you're playing the right data game.