Understanding User Onboarding Flows [+ 6 Great Examples]

Getting onboarding flows right is the key to making sure users smoothly transition between onboarding milestones and into satisfied customers. Here’s how.

Daniel Zarick

October 25, 2021

13 minutes

User onboarding flows are an ideal way to get your customers and users acclimated to your core product or service, as well as the individual features or functions within your product. Implemented well, take your users from newbies to pros, helping them reach their goals and reducing churn along the way.

Below, we’ll show you what user onboarding flows are and how they’re best used in a variety of businesses. Plus, we’ll give you six examples of companies that have nailed aspects of their onboarding flows and tell you why they work. Let’s dive in.

What Does “User Onboarding Flow” Mean?

A user onboarding flow is a cohesive method for bringing a new user (or current user) into a new or updated user interface, feature, or product. It’s all the processes, steps, and expectations you set with customers for the period of time that they’re learning how to use your product or service.

Each flow should encapsulate all the milestones a customer or user needs to meet (and actions they need to take) to get from point A to point B with your product or service.

User onboarding flows also aren’t single events. Most companies implement numerous user onboarding flows within the customer success journey and customer lifecycle. Each UI, operating system, or device type might need its own user onboarding flow, for example. Or, you might segment flows based on the size of the customer or the tool they’ve signaled their interest in.

These flows have varying levels of complexity, and each helps to guide customers between all the identified milestone points or value points. Let’s examine some common types of onboarding flows.

Breaking User Onboarding Flow Subtypes Into Two Categories

User onboarding flows are generally broken down into four subtypes. Here’s a quick overview of each one and what they’re trying to achieve:

  • Aha-Moment-focused flows: These flows emphasize a low time to value, with the goal of reducing churn and increasing lifetime customer value. For complex SaaS solutions, getting clients to that first “Aha!” moment is often the first and primary objective.
  • Feature-focused flows: These are usually shorter flows that onboard a current user to a specific (often new) feature. These flows aren’t about first impressions; they’re more like tutorials focused on retention.
  • Success-focused flows: This flow focuses on success with a specific tool or functionality, not the entire product. Success-focused flows get customers to a place of comfort and confidence with their go-to tool(s).
  • Account-focused flows: Lightweight SaaS tools (including most free-to-use and consumer-facing tools) depend on account creation more than anything else, so these onboarding flows focus squarely on encouraging sign-up.

While it’s important to be familiar with those subtypes, at Arrows, we believe that there’s a better way of understanding user onboarding flows. Think of your user onboarding flows (across any of those subtypes) in two categories: why-to flows and how-to flows.

  • Why-to focused flows give customers content and interactions designed to remind them why they’re doing what they’re doing.
  • How-to focused flows give customers content and interactions that show them specifically how to do or use something.

The why is always important: Customers aren’t going to use Dropbox if they don’t see a reason to store large files online, for example. But Dropbox is a fairly low-touch product, one with little need to educate on any other “why” questions beyond, “Why use the service at all?”

The more complex, or high-touch, your SaaS product or service is, the more important that “why” becomes.

Users could be deeply invested in your product and yet still not see the need to implement a feature or step that would save them time or increase efficiency.

To help customers get the most value out of your product, it often requires educating them on “why” in a compelling way, from the big picture (“Why use our product?”) to fine details (“Why use this specific feature?”) Then, you follow up with the “how.”

What the Best Onboarding Flows Have in Common

User onboarding flows are as varied as the products and features they introduce (not to mention the customer types they’re built for). There isn’t one right way for every SaaS company. Still, the best onboarding flows do share some key similarities.

As you build out your own customer onboarding flows, make sure to emulate these four traits:

They Understand Who Their Users Are

The best flows are created with a clear understanding of the end user. The broader your product, the harder this is — but it can still be done.

As an example, here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re building flows for a B2B SaaS product and audience:

  • Will a single person use your product, or will multiple people in the company use it?
  • Which company roles use your product?
  • Does your product target users with a high level of technical proficiency? (What about a certain age group or experience level?)
  • What are the goals of your product users?

These answers deeply inform how you should structure your onboarding flows. The challenge with this is that you can’t always account for every scenario, nor will your flows always target a narrow, easy-to-define segment. But you still want to clearly identify who you think the flow is for — and write to that audience.

For instance, a highly technical audience doesn’t need as much hand-holding. They might appreciate more technical details or be prepared to work through a longer, more complex flow if the end goal is more in-depth product knowledge. Conversely, if your flow is for a broad audience that includes nontechnical users, they may prefer a lighter walkthrough that doesn’t get too into the weeds.

They Build Different Flow Pathways for Different Users

Building on the previous point, it’d be unwise to try to build a single user onboarding flow that appeals to every user and adequately meets everyone’s needs. Any flow will either be too complicated or too simple, or miss the mark for someone.

For this reason, comprehensive onboarding programs start by building multiple pathways to cater to their largest and most significant audiences.

What might these different flow pathways look like for you? Here are some examples.

  • Creating content for different languages, dialects, regions, etc.
  • Creating different how-to and why-to content for each flow. (In some cases, employees just need to know how, while decision-makers and leaders need to know why. In other cases, the why helps everyone.)
  • Creating multi-step flows overseen by a customer success manager, as well as flows with a single email

They Segment Their Users Into Appropriate Flows

Building flow pathways is only the first step. Next, you have to segment users into the right flows, and this requires a process all its own.

Top-notch success teams are great at performing this segmentation. They understand the multiple personas and target audiences for their product and recognize that every customer has different value points.

The trick is figuring out which users have enough commonalities so that your team can group them into segments and scale flow creation over time.

You want to find the right balance where you provide enough personalization to make various customer types feel heard and appreciated, and you get them their value as quickly as possible. But you have to do these things without drowning yourself in more user onboarding flows than you can manage.

They Fully Understand Their Product and the Value It Brings Customers

To create an excellent user onboarding flow, the creators have to fully comprehend the product, feature, or tool they support and the value that customers can gain from it.

Achieving this level of understanding requires a collaborative approach within your organization. In other words, it’s time for some serious teamwork. Your success team and sales team needs to connect with your product team on the following:

  • What is being built
  • What the product features mean to customers
  • Which problems the product is solving
  • Which updates exist
  • Which features are coming down the pipeline
  • Where customers are currently getting stuck
  • Which questions they frequently ask

Once you have clear answers to questions like these, you’ll be in a much better position to create successful onboarding flows.

They Recognize That Flows Aren’t Stagnant Pathways

Finally, the best flow pathways aren’t one-and-done, stagnant pieces of content. They evolve as more data and feedback arrives. As you receive that customer feedback (from first-time users, successful users, and frustrated users alike), you’ll get better and better answers to the questions we talked about above.

As you continue to iterate, it’s very possible that new pathways will emerge, while others may die off entirely. And your existing flows must stay current as you add new features to your product. A user onboarding flow that doesn’t match the current UI or feature set is practically more harmful than not having one at all.

This kind of growth and evolution may feel like a resource drain, but it’s essential. It’s a good sign that your team is building healthy flows based on ongoing development and customer feedback, rather than old assumptions.

6 User Onboarding Flow Examples

Now that you have principles and best practices in mind, let’s examine some publicly available examples of onboarding flows, from could-be-better to wonderful (not necessarily in that order).

Some of them include most or all of the user onboarding experience, showing users how to use the product or offering a product tour of sorts. They may even demonstrate use cases, showing how customers might incorporate a feature into their workflow. Others are much narrower in focus, simply guiding users to and through the sign-up process.

1. Sprout Social

Sprout Social is a social media management platform with plenty of helpful examples of onboarding flows. The company offers great self-guided resources and many webinars for customers who want to learn at their own pace.

They also offer 1:1 onboarding (for qualifying customers) and in-app modules to help along the way. Whatever their customer’s learning style or level of engagement with the platform, odds are they have a targeted onboarding option.

Judging by their onboarding flows, Sprout Social appears to have achieved significant harmony between all their internal departments, allowing them to offer an exceptional variety of flows.

2. Dropbox

Dropbox is a more low-touch tool, one that doesn’t require a ton of complex onboarding — at least anymore. When the company was newer, they had more work to do to establish a use case and get customers onboarded.

Today, Dropbox offers high-quality self-guided onboarding for individuals and companies. They get users to the value point quickly (uploading their first asset) by guiding users from sign-up to that first value realization point in a seamless, easy-to-follow flow.

3. LinkedIn

LinkedIn might not be an obvious choice, as it isn’t what most people think of as a SaaS tool. The sign-up process and profile creation is pretty much a self-service operation, and most users are very familiar with how social platforms work.

However, they keep users engaged and motivated with their “profile strength” bar. Once users set up their own profiles, they get instant feedback on how complete their profile is and how effective it is at accomplishing their specific goals (finding a job, making connections, sharing thought leadership, etc). It even offers tips on what users should do to raise their profile’s score.

This tool doesn’t show up in the early onboarding or sign-up process. It appears only once you set your page up and is a perfect example of a success-focused flow. It’s narrow in focus and keeps encouraging you to improve your profile so you can get the most out of your LinkedIn experience.

4. Instagram

Setting up an Instagram page is fairly straightforward, and their volume of active users highlights that. However, it’s still well-executed. One interesting takeaway here is that an excellent and intuitive UI can make your user onboarding flows much simpler.

Not everything at Instagram is commendable, though. Instagram (not unlike its parent company, Facebook) has an unfortunate habit of rolling out new features and gadgets without doing a thorough job of introducing them. More feature-focused flows, with tips on how to navigate to new features and use them, could help.

5. Slack

Slack has taken a major foothold in the business world, so much so that it seems like all the major companies are trying to emulate the service (Microsoft Teams, for example).

How did the company do this? First, Slack packaged an intuitive user experience around a function that no one else had quite figured out and designed their product to grow alongside each team. Once a few users at a company got hooked, Slack spread like wildfire throughout an organization.

One way that Slack has done well with user onboarding flows is in how it rolls out new features. Whenever something new shows up, Slack calls out the new feature with little pop-up messages that show up contextually, the first time you get “near” the new feature.

These pop-ups aren’t particularly complicated, but they require a great deal of thought and planning to execute properly. They can and do vary from platform to platform (since not all features display or function identically on a PC as on a smartphone), allowing Slack to fit naturally in any team’s day-to-day.

6. Evernote

When Evernote first launched, it was a unique “everything notepad,” more than just an app for jotting down text-based notes. One of their greatest challenges was getting people to understand exactly how they might use it for and why it was worth it.

To solve for this, Evernote’s onboarding experience is an effective mixture of why-to and how-to flows, showing new users how to do basic functions in the app and which use cases it’s perfect for.

Users interacting with Evernote for the first time receive a multi-screen tutorial where they’re directed to create a note, use the camera, and more. By the time they finish, they’ve covered the basics and been directed to turn on their camera and microphone permissions if desired.

Evernote also does a great job of segmenting or differentiating its flows based on device type. Wherever users interact with Evernote (tablet, smartphone, desktop, etc) they get an optimized onboarding flow.

Implement Your User Onboarding Flows Effectively With Arrows

Arrows is the onboarding platform of choice for SaaS businesses looking to maximize the effectiveness of their user onboarding flows.

Your teams can work together in a single cohesive system to create custom, user-friendly flows for your unique audience — and stay aligned and organized while doing it.

See how Arrows works and transforms the way businesses build and manage their user onboarding flows.

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