User Onboarding at Different Stages of Growth


Sean Ellis defines startup growth in 3 stages. There’s Product/Market Fit Stage, in which you’re trying to match pain points/value props with a specific persona. Then there’s Organic Growth Stage, where you’re growing by word of mouth. And then there’s Scale Stage, where you’re cranking on all cylinders and optimizing for further growth.


He lays this out in The Startup Pyramid:



As a startup, you need to be clear and honest on where you are in your growth. Honesty helps you apply appropriate focus and strategies to maximize your return. Steli Efti and Hiten Shah emphasize the importance of being self-aware in one of their greatest Startup Chat podcast episodes ever (IMO).


When it comes to user onboarding, starry-eyed companies often try to imitate the very best applications out there at doing so. For this I blame two things. I blame science, for showing us how truly important user onboarding is. And I blame Samuel Hulick. Because his onboarding teardowns are so entertaining that they make us all feel smart and clever and like we can dazzle every new user into becoming a power user. But apps don’t have such great onboarding experiences out of the gate. They iterate over time to get there.


And after spending years working with companies on their user onboarding experiences at Appcues, we’ve broken down user onboarding by stage in a company’s growth to help you apply the appropriate user onboarding experience for your app today.


User Onboarding at Product/Market Fit Stage


The biggest, most important thing you can do in building your user onboarding experience at this stage is actually very little. Do nothing…or at most do next to nothing. Invest your time in talking to users as they sign up for your service. Get to know what they want, what they expect and how they expect to get it.


When you treat each new user signup sort of like a user test, you’ll begin to gain a high enough quantity of insights to identify your largest obstacles in your user’s first-run experience.


With those obstacles identified, your next step is to figure out how to get them through it. Start with words, and then move to an in-app solution.



You won’t get to these solutions by way of quantitative data at the product-marketing fit stage of growth. All you really have is qualitative data. So buckle up and do things that don’t scale.


For details on this approach, please read Jackson Noel’s Why Your Startup Should Ignore Your Onboarding Experience (For Now).


Tools to use at PMF stage:


  • Your bus pass: you should be visiting people who are interested in your product, and you might have enough money to spend on Uber yet. Sit down next to your prospects as often as possible run their onboarding like a user test.
  • Chat softwares: chat is another nice high-touch way to onboard new users from afar. Make your chat readily available by putting it inside of your product with tools like Olark, PureChat or Intercom.
  • Email: use email to solicit early feedback from new users. or Vero can let you send emails that feel like they were hand-typed, but really they’re automated.


User Onboarding at Organic Growth Stage


Alright. Now that you’ve broken through into the organic growth stage, you should start putting the patterns you recognized in your high-touch user onboarding to use.


It’s important to treat your user onboarding experience at this stage as an experiment. You can’t be certain that anything will work until you’ve seen the data to prove it.


In this post on Minimum Viable User Onboarding,—AKA MVUO—Appcues covered how one might do this without investing too much time into what might be a fruitless project. The post lays out 3 strategies to think about while building your MVUO.

  1. Build user motivation
  2. Ensure your users know how to use your product
  3. Drive users to take meaningful action


By now you should have a sense of what successful user onboarding looks like from a quantitative point of view, and you should set up some KPIs to measure against your experiments.


In this post on Sidekick’s User Onboarding Experiments, you’ll find that onboarding experiments take a long time to develop significant data. And if you don’t have that quantity of data yet, you may want to revert to strategies laid out in the Product-Market Fit stage above.


Tools to use at Organic Growth Stage


You’re going to want tools that are flexible for you to change your user onboarding experience on both a micro and macro level.


  • Appcues: build user onboarding experiences for webapps. With Appcues, you can create, publish and measure onboarding experiences inside of your app without writing any code. It’s the perfect tool for a webapp’s Product Manager or Growth Marketer looking to hack their way to an onboarding win.
  • Apptimize: the leading solution for mobile experience creation and testing. Apptimize enables teams to create new experiences, test them, and deploy the winners to your entire user base.
  • Analytics Solutions: at this point, you should have an event-based analytics solution setup to measure your new user journey. Mixpanel, Amplitude or Heap Analytics should satisfy this need.


User Onboarding at Scale Stage


The holy grail of user onboarding experiences happen at the Scale Stages. Here you can implement deep insights about retention—like Facebook’s 7 friends in 10 days magic formula—into your user onboarding experience to move the needle further for your company.


Here your focus may be at making tweaks through copy, design and changes to your flow, stripping out all that’s unnecesary to squeeze an extra percentage
or two to your user retention. You may also consider implementing custom dev work to to help your product onboard it’s users more organically the way Quora uses its own algorithm or Slack uses Slackbot to get new users up to speed.


Tools for the Scale Stage:


  • A team of 200 developers: customized user onboarding experiences take a ton of development work and are hard to iterate on. That’s why it’s recommended you wait until you’re at this stage to develop them.



Ty Magnin is a Growth Marketer at Appcues, a SaaS product for webapps that helps you to create user onboarding experiences without writing any code. He authors a blog on user onboarding. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

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