How to make onboarding self-serving

If you’re building a lightweight inexpensive tool, you can’t afford to have onboarding that requires human intervention to get customers started. Why? Simple — because humans need to be paid. The unit economics doesn't work out in favour of having a sales team that onboards every customer. Unless, of course, your annual recurring revenue from each customer is in the range of thousands of dollars per year.

This guide will help you make your product onboarding self-serving. No hyperbole, no unactionable advice, only prime examples from our own journey.

5 things you can do to make onboarding self-serving

So what’s important for a product’s onboarding experience to be self-serving? Here’s what we think is absolutely necessary:

  1. Defer building onboarding until you’ve really understood your customer
  2. Restrict it to “just enough setup” so that customers experience the product’s value faster
  3. Welcome your customer like you would in the real world
  4. Educate your customers through experience instead of instructions
  5. Defer introducing variables that are outside the user’s control

What do we mean by all of this, you ask? Hang on, we’re just getting started! Let’s dig a little deeper:

Defer building onboarding until you’ve really understood your customer

It’s tempting to start working on onboarding pretty soon into the product development process. After all, onboarding is the first thing your customer will see, so why not really nail it right at the start? 

The truth is, for a SaaS product, onboarding is the first step in communicating your product’s value. Think of it like creating a virtual tour for your customer. Without knowing what matters to them and how your core product solves these problems, it is pretty much impossible to highlight features that communicate the relevant value.

With Pause, for instance, our beta users helped us acknowledge how important a powerful Slack integration was to them. That altered the direction of our onboarding experience. You have to design the movie before you create the trailer for it.

Onboarding is also paramount in determining how useful the product will be for the organisation. It must replicate how the customer functions in the real world accurately. For Pause, this meant that we manually onboard our first 20 customers to understand their data and the exact setup they’d need.

Wait: why not user-test a flow instead? In a simulated environment, users will only think of things in close proximity to them, not the larger use cases. What they prefer is different from what works.

We onboarded our first 20 customers manually to understand their data and exact setup

Restrict it to “just enough setup” so that customers experience the product’s value faster

SaaS products are notorious for hefty setups. A systems-first approach has made us believe that they have to be. What if we tell you it doesn’t?

Consider your onboarding like a storefront that allows your customer to grasp its value upfront. Bombarding them with extra information and asking for unnecessary steps before they’ve entered and experienced the store is only going to strengthen their desire to walk away (the paradox of choice is real, people).

Instead, if you only show them what is relevant for them to want to experience your store, they’re more likely to stick around. The same goes for onboarding. Only show customers what they absolutely need to know and only ask for inputs that are required for the product to function effectively. Ruthlessly trimming features here is a worthy journey to undertake. 

Welcome your customer like you would in the real world

Who doesn’t like a kind word or a welcoming hand? It helps us get by. We are naturals at it in person. Software products, somehow, get a free pass at being the exact opposite. Intrinsically, we trust other people to help us get a job done more than a piece of software. But as we said, for a lightweight tool like Pause, that option isn’t available. 

What can you do then, you ask? Over-communicate and play.

Over-communicate by using tooltips and supporting text for industry-specific jargon, to ensure customers aren’t left confused.

Play with copy, illustrations and interactions to be peppy, fun and personal. It’ll carry your customer through like you might’ve in person.

Does a SaaS product need to be fun? Let’s just say, it’s as delightful behind the scenes as it is in front of it.

Educate your customers through experience instead of instructions

Experience is better than instruction, just as actions speak louder than words. Your customer is more likely to understand your product if they’re playing with it themselves.

For Pause, it was imperative for us to simplify the onboarding experience to such a degree that the experience allowed its users to navigate it, without getting confused and losing track of what they have to do.

We did this with a combination of educational elements like support text, buttons with hint text and tooltips along with a flexible flow that didn’t break if users moved back and forth to figure things out themselves.

Maintaining context whilst enabling play and movement is a tightrope, but a worthy one to walk. 

Defer introducing variables that are outside the users’ control 

The illusion of control is important in keeping a customer gripped and providing a sense of security. The last thing you want is to introduce elements that throw this balance off, both figuratively and systemically!

For Pause, this meant that we held all organisation data up until users freely added and edited their setup. Only then did we go ahead and create an organisation in the backend, which then is a true reflection of the most up-to-date data.

We also—counter-intuitively—pushed the invite flow to the end, This ensured that the rest of the organisation’s employees come in only once the tool is set up for this.

Decisions like these help reduce the chances of error and the cost to your company. Most importantly, it cuts down the number of variables the customer and your backend engineers have to account for. And that, folks, is the secret to keeping the product effective and seamless.

We hope this guide brought value to you. If you have any ideas, questions or follow-ups, use the chat icon to write to us. 

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