Principles for New User Onboarding

How to acquire and activate new users

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Photo by JK on Unsplash


Terms like “onboarding” seem pretty straightforward, but people tend to use them to mean a wide array of different things. My favorite definition is a bit broader than most:

Onboarding is the experience between signing up and becoming an engaged user.

Note that “engaged” will mean different things for different products. The main thing to understand is that onboarding goes beyond that first session. It’s everything in a person’s journey up until the moment when they are truly up and running with your product.

  • Follow-up engagement: Everything that happens afterward. This includes notifications, support, and early product use.


In short, you should care about onboarding because you care about retention. Engagement, word of mouth, network effects, and a bunch of other important drivers are all dependent on retention; the centerpiece of the modern-day growth model. If you want to improve it, the best place to start is with onboarding:


Before you start doing any work on your onboarding flow, you need a super clear picture of why people sign up for your product in the first place. It’s easy to nod along to this and say “I know why people come to my site,” but take a second and think more deeply about this idea.

  • What did you hope to get out of it?
  • What differentiated it from the competition?
  • Did it achieve the goals you wanted it to?
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You’re eager to jump in and start making product changes, but I suggest you pump the brakes momentarily while we go through one more research step. As a general rule, it’s helpful to separate information collection from creation. Building a product is no different.

  1. Aggregate user-level data for a bunch of events
  2. Set up a table where you can compute the correlation between columns


You know the ultimate goal of your users. You know the indicators of them reaching that goal. It’s time to build. Identify and remove obstacles along the user’s path to achieving the value that they came for.


If your product is dead simple, you might not need to include user education. Don’t waste people’s time giving advice they already know. On the other hand, if you are doing something new to most people, have an unfamiliar user interface, or need to explicitly point out important nuance, then consider the following:

  • Tooltips: Similar to walkthroughs, but a bit lower-touch are tooltips. These are little bubbles or markers next to features that users can hover over or click on to get more information about how a feature works. Be cautious to overdo it here, or else you will end up pulling people’s attention in a bunch of different directions.
  • Video: Personally, this is my least favorite. It makes sense to have videos available for the curious, but if your product is so complex that you need a detailed video explanation to get people started, be a little worried. Most of the time, it will just get skipped.
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Ideally, your onboarding process isn’t a total drag. It’s your first impression! You need to provide a reason for the user to keep up the momentum. These improvements aim to answer the question, “Why should I put up with all this?” by clearly presenting why someone should be motivated to go through this process.


You shouldn’t leave users empty-handed at the end of onboarding. Give them a small dopamine hit of accomplishment. These improvements help people achieve the value they came to you seeking. In my experience, this makes them the most powerful of all.

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Once you ship the new onboarding experience, that’s not the end of the road. Onboarding should be treated like any other product feature. It should be continuously optimized and iterated on.

Keeping users in the flow

This is where the majority of your time should be spent. In general, it’s much easier to keep someone engaged than it is to re-engage them. In rough order of potential upside, improvements here can be bucketed into three categories: Motivation, focus, and friction.

  • Focus: What is keeping users from getting distracted with the other 10 billion things on the internet? It’s your job to decrease distractions. Make it clear what the next action is and don’t take attention away from that if possible.
  • Friction: What is making it more difficult for users to complete the action? Friction will always creep back in the flow. Beat it back by removing unnecessary steps, setting smart defaults, and improving performance.

Bringing users back into the flow

You never want to see users churn early in their experience, but the world is an imperfect place. When it inevitably does happen, what can you do about it?

  • Message: Once you reach users that you aim to resurrect, what are you going to tell them? You can give them a reminder, saying that they didn’t finish the process they started. You can say that something has changed, maybe prices went down or a new feature was shipped. Lastly, you can offer more useful information. The key is choosing the framing that makes the most sense in the context of the action the user was performing when they left the flow.
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I’ve laid out the broad strokes of how I’m thinking about engineering new onboarding experiences, but clearly, there’s more to it. These are some more principles that I’ve found useful helpful using the framework above.

Customization vs. personalization

Customization and personalization are distinct concepts that are often used interchangeably in practice. Customization is when users deliberately choose between options. Most people would agree that this is a good thing, but it’s also a high cognitive load task.

Lasers, not shotguns

It’s tempting to accomplish a lot during user onboarding, but you also don’t want it to be too long, right? This thought process isn’t wrong, but it can lead to ineffective and overwhelming experiences for new users.

Active vs. passive

There is a spectrum when it comes to how “hands-on” your onboarding process can be. Ultimately, this depends on your product and business model. Superhuman is a paid product trying to teach you a new way of working, so it makes sense for them to get on a call and explain the workflow.

Delightful first moments

Onboarding should guide users to the aha moment. Lots of great product teams get this part right. Where they miss opportunities is with all of the other first moments. First login. First landing. First emails. All of these things can be done in special ways. When you put them all together, they add up!

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Setting intelligent defaults

You should be opinionated about how your product is used. Most products try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one in the process. These opinions show up in product design, but also in defaults. Be mindful of what you choose. The reality is that the majority of users won’t change it. As they say, the devil is in the default.

Account for different contexts

Keep in mind that some people will come into onboarding with less context than others. With Hugo, this shows up in team invites. People can invite team members via email and they are in the product before ever landing on our marketing website.

Match triggers to natural patterns

Triggers are what bring people back into your product: Push notifications, emails, messages, and more. Before you go adding a bunch of triggers, take the time to understand your natural usage patterns. Then layer on cues to amplify them.

Onboarding is ongoing

Throughout this post, we’ve talked about onboarding in the context of initial experiences that a person has within an app. This isn’t wrong, but in a way, onboarding never ends. As users become more experienced at using your product, there will be features they haven’t discovered and updates being introduced.

Growth at Hugo. Previously data science at Squarespace. Writing here now:

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