How To Build Onboarding For Digital Productsby@malkovko
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35,769 reads

How To Build Onboarding For Digital Products

by Konstantin MalkovMarch 17th, 2024
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A strong onboarding requires a deep understanding of what is that job a product gets done for its customers. Communicating that job in customer language during onboarding sets a new user off to a good start and significantly increases long-term retention.
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Over the past 7 years, I’ve had the opportunity to build onboarding for 3 mobile apps. In this article, I outline the general approach that I worked out to improve onboarding. If you are just getting started with onboarding, this guide can help with breaking into it.

Why working on onboarding is cool

  1. You build empathy for the product. To craft a strong onboarding, you should build a deep understanding of your product and how it brings value to customers.

  2. You build empathy for customers. By talking to customers both existing and new you step into their shoes and get their perception of the problem the product solves.

  3. Your impact on business is huge. Working at the top of the funnel means that even small improvements in onboarding significantly affect all the following metrics, such as feature adoption, monetization, and retention.

  4. Your impact on customers is also huge. The first impression matters. If onboarding doesn’t bring new customers to their first a-ha! moment, they leave (and hardly return ever again).

  5. You get a glimpse of life before the product. New customers don’t come out of nowhere. Some circumstances brought them to the product. Working with marketing to understand those circumstances gives you a bigger picture of the environment you operate in.

  6. You get feedback fast. Hopefully, your product will have a steady flow of new customers. You either bring them to the a-ha! moment during the very first session or not. You don’t have to wait weeks to measure that. It is very rewarding.

How to approach onboarding

There are lots of questions you need to answer when you start working on onboarding. It is hard to pinpoint a specific order because they kind of enrich one another. Luckily, going through them is very fulfilling.

What is the current goal of onboarding?

How did this goal come about? How do you measure progress against the goal? Well, it’s a good set of questions when approaching any problem, not just onboarding. You want to understand what is the status quo and how a company wants to move it.

How does the product retain customers?

Forget about onboarding for a second. You want to know which product features are the most popular by measuring the share of all customer base using those features. You also want to know which of the features retain customers better by measuring what percentage of customers tried a feature once and then used it again over time. Popular features with the best retention rates represent the value that the product brings to customers. Unpopular features with high retention rates are potential gems that a company hasn’t yet realized its product hides.

How do customers perceive value?

Numbers give you a bigger picture of where your product excels. But you want to know what exactly is the benefit that customers get from your product. Preferably in their own words. I know of two ways to do it.

  1. Customer interviews, in-person or over Zoom. You want people to walk you through the job that the product gets done for them. Ask how they first encountered the problem, how they solved it before discovering the product, what made them look for another solution, and what result they got from using the product.

  2. Product/Market fit survey by Sean Ellis. Essentially, it is a qualitative method that strives to quantify product/market fit by asking How would you feel if you could no longer use the product. But it’s the following questions that give you real insights.

    1. What is the primary benefit that you have received from the product? uncovers how customers perceive the value they get from the product and what language they use to describe it.

    2. What type of person do you think would benefit most from the product? gives you a customer profile in customers’ words.

      I highly recommend diving into how Superhuman built an engine to foster product/market fit using the survey.

Does the current onboarding’s success metric reflect value?

Now that you know what features of your product retain customers and how customers perceive their value, it is time to take a step back and check whether the existing onboarding’s success metric matches that. Often, the effectiveness of onboarding is measured with conversion rates into registrations or subscriptions. While these metrics are important to business, they alone hardly predict whether a customer will stay with a product. Instead, you want your onboarding metric to be a strong indicator of future retention.

How is the current onboarding doing?

You have come a long way to understand how your product gets customers’ jobs done and what is the best way to measure it. It’s finally time to work on onboarding! But before reinventing the wheel, assess the existing onboarding against your findings. Are there any low-hanging fruits? Sometimes, simply removing superfluous steps will get you first wins.

What should ideal onboarding look like?

Simplifying onboarding will only get you this far. Achieving exponential growth might require rethinking the whole thing or parts of it from scratch. And it’s not always about making onboarding as quick and simple as possible. Often, you want new customers to provide you with personal data or preferences to enable the full experience afterward. Making sure customers understand how each step of the onboarding flow is bringing them closer to solving their problems is the key.


Every product is unique either in the problem it solves or in the customer segment it targets. There is no silver bullet for onboarding customers. Fortunately, if you went through all of the steps above you probably know about your product’s onboarding more than anyone else. Which makes you the best candidate to tackle the challenge!

To wrap things up, remember onboarding doesn’t end with the first session. Each new feature might require its own onboarding tailored to a new context, completely different from that of a new customer. But the beauty of the approach is that while it doesn’t provide you with a solution, it does give you keys to finding one.

Thank you for giving this a read. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Would love to hear how you approach building onboarding and what challenges you face.