1. Web Design
  2. UX

How to Design an Engaging Onboarding Experience


You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression! In this article, I’d like to define an engaging onboarding experience, review great examples and provide some actionable steps you can take to improve your own onboarding process to grow your user base.

A Definition

The term “organizational socialization”, comes from the field of human resources. It refers to the process by which new employees get up to speed, gaining the knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective as members of a larger organization.

Onboarding is a much easier term to grasp
“Onboarding” is a much easier term to grasp!

In web and application design, we use the slightly easier to grasp “onboarding” – a process of orienting and familiarizing your first-time users with the product. By providing essential directions, proper onboarding increases the possibility of engagement and conversion into a loyal “power user”.

The goal of the onboarding process is to make a good first impression, explaining everything the user needs to know and nothing more. Beyond first-time use, successful onboarding will also help towards retaining users in the long term; a huge challenge many businesses face. 

“Companies focus on acquisition more than customer retention, even though it can cost 7x more to acquire new customers.” - Get Satisfaction, Social Studies Company

The goal here is to familiarize your first-time user with your product and make it as enjoyable and smooth as possible.

The Onboarding Process

The unique, yet tricky, part of crafting an effective onboarding process is that it's going to be performed only once, right after the user makes the decision to start the process. There are no second chances, and the whole thing needs to be orchestrated well to educate and engage users before they start getting bored with your product’s complexity.

According to Ed Hallen, co-founder at Klaviyo, there are three primary goals in building a great onboarding flow:

  1. Take care of one-time setup. For example, on Twitter, this involves uploading a profile picture, entering a description, etc. This process should be painless–and better yet, fun!
  2. Generate excitement about using the product in the future. Even if users get fully setup, you have to leave them excited enough to come back. This is one way in which Instagram excels–it immediately shows us beautiful pictures that make us want to take our own.
  3. Teach the user how to use the product–by doing, not by words. Google’s introduction to MapsGL is a great example. Switch into MapsGL and you get a tutorial walkthrough that guides you through viewing historical landmarks around the world.

Whitney Hess, an independent user experience design consultant based in New York City, has identified three A’s needed for an effective and successful onboarding:

  • Accommodation
  • Assimilation
  • Acceleration

Accommodating your users means giving them the tools they want and need to use your site to their benefit. Assimilating means helping the user to absorb the culture of the site and, in a sense, come to resemble the existing users. And accelerating generally applies to delivering on the “value proposition” better and faster.

duolingo value proposition
Duolingo’s value proposition, demonstrated by UserOnboard

Product Demonstration

This approach has been used from the infancy of the onboarding process as a field. Imagine a presentation of the product, walking users through the passive presentation of the product and introducing the main features.

As this approach has been used pretty extensively it has its flaws, such as the fact that it’s often passive and doesn’t really challenge the user, which can translate into an early abandonment of the website.

To get into the “zone”, a user has to be interested, but also challenged (to some extent) to get an optimal and pleasurable experience that brings them back wanting for more.

“When we’re not challenged, our performance suffers and we become disengaged.” - Daniel Goleman

Make Sure User Takes Action

To make your onboarding more fulfilling, consider introducing some actions the user has to take to complete the process. Ensure the user is challenged, but not inconvenienced by wasting time getting them to complete the task you’ve set.

Think of Twitter; their onboarding process requires that you pick some people to follow before you can go ahead and start using your account.

Tumblr asks you to follow some people and name your very first blog.

Pinterest suggests some people/boards you may like to follow.

LinkedIn is constantly* reminding you to import your contacts so you don’t miss someone new you’ve connected with recently.

*some would argue too much!

There is a thin line you don’t want to cross when obliging users to take an action. Make sure the action has benefits (more contacts, likes, fans, followers) and is easily executed.

Simplify Things

Less is more. Get rid of the visual clutter and noise to increase the likelihood of a first-time user sticking to your product from the very beginning.

Consider using fewer inputs for data collection. Instead of taking the first, last name, email and password, make it just email and password during the early stages. Fewer actions required from the user will prevent “decision fatigue” and significantly increase your conversion rate.

“Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex,” – Roy F. Baumeister

Think of using an email address for a sign-up form, instead of forcing the user to come up with a username.

Consider the ultimate time-saver for signups: a one-click social login using one of the most popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Google.

Pinterest allows one-click sign up for new users, simplifying the onboarding experience.

Make (Some) Decisions for the User

Gruffify uses a progress indicator 1/8, offering feedback: a great way to keep users

I’ve already mentioned decision fatigue that users will suffer from. Making decisions for users, especially first-timers, will help get them closer to their goal. Dim the background to emphasize the button they should click, place a tooltip pointing to an object they should look at. Help users preserve their willpower.

Make it Clear makes it really clear what to do next. All other distractions have been dimmed out.

Use clear and concise language, get rid of the unnecessary slang or tech terms. Make the process human; instead of saying “share an update” say something like “what did you do today?”.

Make sure there is only one thing at time the user needs to take care of. Whether this is to enter an email, follow people or import contacts, make it so simple they cannot resist getting the benefits of performing the action.

Pinterest makes it very obvious how to get the browser button.

Never-ending Rewarding Onboarding

Many products have reward system built in. People are constantly seeking for validation, acceptance and following. The platforms we’ve mentioned throughout this article so far give you just that; the more you use, the more you create, the more interactions and rewards you get.

Avoid Patronizing Tutorials

You don’t want to make your users think they are too dumb to use your product. A great example being iPhone; it doesn’t come with a manual, but users understand it by following steps as soon as they hit the power button. Strive to improve your product as much as possible, empathizing with your users and considering them before all else.

Users react well to simple guidelines, but once they have the basics, leave them to explore freely.

Create a Sense of Progress

User education feature unlocking progress bar by Jesse Dodds on Dribbble.

Most onboarding experiences don’t indicate how long the introduction will take, and if the users sense that it’s too demanding they will abandon the process. Consider including a simple progress bar to show how far they have come and how little is left until they reap the benefits of investing their time.

Square Cash has a quick and easy 3-step process explanation.

Rethink, Rework and Rewrite Your Copy

Getting copy right is crucial in every aspect of written communication and it’s especially true when we’re talking about first impressions and interactions with your website.

“Sales-killing choices are those that appear very similar and offer the consumer no shortcuts in making a decision.” - Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence

When writing your copy for your onboarding process you should consider the following advice from Brian Clark of Copyblogger:

  1. Be useful to the reader.
  2. Provide them with a sense of urgency.
  3. Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow unique; and..
  4. all of the above in an ultra-specific way.

Utilize Data and Iterate

Collecting data, analyzing it and making decisions based thereupon is going to take you way further than blind guessing and assuming certain things about your product and audience.

“Every time we launch a feature, people yell at us.” - Angelo Sotira, co-founder of deviantART

Listen to your users, analyze how they perform your onboarding routine, find critical points where users give up and leave. Ask them directly to really understand their needs and pick their brain to iterate your product.

Tools and Resources

Below are some great services that will help you to improve your onboarding process and accelerate user base growth.


Intercom is the ultimate all-in-one customer relationship management (CRM) tool that allows you to get to know your users and their browsing habits. Collect data, get smart insights, automate communication and talk directly to your users.

Heap Analytics

Heap Analytics allows you to get to know your audience and their understanding of your product. This tool automatically captures every user action in your web or iOS app and lets you measure it.


Olark empowers communication between you and your customers. When an automated onboarding scenario fails, users can turn to real people to talk about their struggles.

Don’t Show Everything

Yes, your website has many amazing features and you want your users to know about all of them, but you should keep your focus very sharp and introduce only the essential features to avoid potential skepticism from the user’s point of view.

“Research shows that three positive statements have the power to persuade, while adding a fourth and fifth trigger skepticism.” – Hands-On UX Hacks

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

You don’t have to create everything by yourself, there are many websites that have struggled with the same problems you . Do your research, analyze competitors and learn some lessons from the best businesses in the world.


UserOnboard provides tips, advice and teardowns of world-class websites and apps to help you get better at crafting engaging onboarding experiences.


User onboarding is an ever changing process and highly depends on your business. You can’t replicate another product’s onboarding experience and expect the same results.

Analyze people and follow the evolution of online culture to predict how your users will react to your products or services. Iterate your onboarding flow as you gather more data.

I hope this article will be valuable and help you improve your user retention rate.

I work with many startups and I’d like to hear your experiences onboarding users. I am always open to feedback and suggestions, leave a comment below or catch me on Twitter @tomaslau.

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