Customer Success

How to Align Your Team for Maximum User Onboarding Success

August 7, 2018

Canva—a popular B2C design tool—has onboarded an impressive 10 million users to date. This is an exceptional feat in itself, but what’s more impressive is that its users are creating 13 designs every second. That’s an average of three new designs every month for every single user. In other words, Canva’s users are thoroughly engaged.

So what’s the secret?

Canva is a great product, but what makes it different from other great products is its ongoing attention to educating and motivating customers with user onboarding.

This shows that you’re missing a lucrative opportunity to maximize user engagement for the long term if you treat onboarding as a one-off or as a side project. But to take user onboarding from the side and put it front and center, product teams need to be aligned to create consistent and compelling onboarding experiences.Canva

Bring onboarding to the fore

It is a familiar story: Product teams learn about the benefits of onboarding, so they give it a go and experiment. They see some improvements from implementing a basic system, but they find it doesn’t deliver the outsized impact they were hoping for. As a result, onboarding falls by the wayside and at best gets a review twice a year. Once ticked off the list, the team moves onto something that they think is more important. But this is a mistake.

As the popular axiom roughly goes: Anything worth doing is worth doing well, but anything worth doing takes effort. And this is exactly the same for user onboarding.

What I’ve found from working with companies like Canva is that the results that great user onboarding can yield—increased activation, retention, and revenue— require at least 5% of your product resources indefinitely. To do this, the leadership teams need to be, well, on board. The reason: user onboarding is a product of various departments: UX, development, customer service, and sales. When onboarding is championed as a driver of user and product success, your team can focus accordingly.

With this dedicated support and focus comes an increased capacity to meaningfully improve onboarding. So let’s take a look at four ways you can make this happen.

1. Align your onboarding and go-to-market strategies.

What a lot of companies don’t realize is that the “ideal” onboarding experience varies, depending on your go-to-market strategy. This is because your users’ motivation and ability are influenced by how they access the product. Aligning your team’s mind-set on this point is a key part of getting onboarding right.

For example, product led companies who go to market with free trials or freemium products will care much more about user onboarding and want to approach it differently. After all, they are sourcing their paying customers (i.e., revenue) from existing free users. This means it’s critical that the free users engage with the product and see the value as fast as possible.


Pinterest is a standout example of this approach, with their 200 million monthly active users. This achievement is driven by a team that devotes resources to an onboarding process. The result is an experience that’s built for speed and efficiency to get the user to the core value right away.

If companies don’t offer a freemium product or a free trial, they are onboarding actual paying customers—not users—who care about different things. Because customers already have a basic understanding of your features and value, they will be laser-focused on finding a return on their investment as soon as possible. This means customer onboarding needs to reflect these goals and include methods that support all kinds of learning preferences.


Sketch is a good example of this in action. The popular design tool uses a welcome modal to give customers the flexibility to onboard in a way that works best for them, be it through guided tutorials or just diving into the product at their own pace. This onboarding approach offers multiple clear paths to achieve user ROI without leaving customers alienated.

2. Make activation a top-level KPI 

A KPI is a metric that is essential to the success of your business. It creates expectations, supports focus, and aligns teams for action. Because onboarding contributes to the success of the business, activation—a critical onboarding metric—needs to become a top-level KPI.

Activation is all about the first user interactions, where onboarding helps a user successfully engage with the product. This point in the user journey has huge downstream effects on retention, referral, and, ultimately, revenue. Increasing activation will yield greater monthly recurring revenue gains than any other pirate metric.

pirate metric

When you put the performance of your activation rate into the spotlight as a KPI, your team is in a better position to manage, optimize, and react to the way you onboard your users.

3. Appoint someone as the DRI

User onboarding is a team sport. But, as with any team sport, you need a captain. Because without onboarding ownership, you won’t be able to implement the improvements needed to drive any meaningful change.

The directly responsible individual (DRI) is someone who owns the entire onboarding process, from researching, designing and testing to creating educational tools like webinars and in-app messaging. When someone is directly responsible for the success of onboarding—and everything the goes with it—it becomes a recognized business function that gets taken seriously.

So, what does this DRI look like? Because onboarding is a multifaceted subject, the DRI could be a product manager, a product marketer, or a user-experience designer. The main thing is that the person must understand your product inside out and have the ability to empathize with your users. This will help the DRI understand and push through the changes that will have the biggest impact.

Next to this, you need to consider the resources you are willing to allocate to onboarding and then make them abundantly clear to the DRI. How much engineering help will you give them? Are you going to look toward user-onboarding software to supplement your efforts? How much should marketing and/or CS get involved? This will help you set realistic goals when it comes to activation.

4. Know where onboarding begins and ends 

Onboarding doesn’t stop at a user’s first aha moment or after their first session in the product. Onboarding drives users to and beyond the activation event. For existing users and customers, the process continues as you develop new features and increase product value. This is how you improve retention with and loyalty to your product.

For a well-rounded onboarding strategy, your team needs to visualize the full customer journey and anticipate the user’s questions, ability, and motivation at each step to deliver the most effective onboarding solution. This is not something that is reviewed once or twice a year; it should be a consistent focus. Your product is continually evolving; the onboarding process should, too.

User Onboarding Strategy

Outside of your product, onboarding can take the shape of email, webinars, and sales calls. When you consider the big picture, you can align your teams with each user touch point for a better user experience.

Don’t just check the box

When you fully commit the effort and resources to onboarding, your company will see the results you’ve been hoping for. Onboarding is not a magic switch you can flip on to achieve success; great onboarding needs to be part of your company’s DNA.

Excited to work on making your onboarding great? Take the next step and learn about the EMBED framework for improving your onboarding at The User Onboarding Academy.

Ty Magnin

Director of Marketing

Ty Magnin is the Director of Marketing at Appcues, a software platform that helps people create product-led experiences like user onboarding, new feature announcements, or NPS surveys. Prior to Appcues, Ty was the first marketer at Work Market—acquired in 2017 by ADP.