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Guide: What is user onboarding for SaaS software?

2 months ago

This guide includes an introduction to user onboarding, along with ideas for strategy and tactics you can use today.

What is user onboarding? A bit like helping a user to climb.

User Onboarding describes the process whereby users are introduced to a service over time, with the aim to ensure users are successful in reaching the goals or benefits promised by the service. Regarding SaaS applications and services, a User Onboarding Strategy will follow the user from initial sign up through to continued communication about product changes and opportunities throughout the customer lifecycle. User Onboarding is usually part of a larger Customer Success Program and is one part of your overall communication strategy.

In this guide, we’ll look at the state of user onboarding, and what practical steps you can do to improve your user onboarding today.

Who is this guide for?

You might be responsible for

  • Marketing a SaaS product to ensure conversion rates increase.
  • Supporting customers through trials and onboarding to ensure users gain value.
  • Training employees to ensure internal adoption of an organization-wide software roll out.

You need to help new users connect to the benefits of your application as quickly as possible. Your context is unique, and yet the problem is the same.  

“Surprisingly, great user onboarding experiences are not about the product showcasing itself... It is about making sure the user actually gets value from your core product.” via The Usability Geek - User Onboarding Comprehensive Guide.

Video: What is user onboarding?

In this video, we look at the big picture of user onboarding, and the practical steps you can take right now.


User onboarding will always be changing

Users go through onboarding at various points in the customer lifecycle.

  • When they are evaluating alternatives or upgrades.
  • When they already made a purchase and are starting to use the product.
  • When a colleague invites them.
  • After a major update or a new feature is being introduced.
  • When they return to the application after a long time of not using it.

Meanwhile, your SaaS product is evolving in several ways. Your product is changing in direct response to user feedback.  Your product also matures in relation to your capabilities and knowledge of the market. And even your market is changing, the early adopters of your application will have different requirements than late stage adopters. That’s not even mentioning the shifts in the wider market of competitors, alternative solutions, and technologies which put outward pressure on your company to respond.

With this context considered, you need to choose tools for your onboarding process and employ them where they will be most effective.

A typical customer engagement strategy for user onboarding may include multiple channels. These vary in the level of effort to respond quickly to user’s needs, and the ability to scale and grow.

  • User experience design of the application itself

    • Benefits: Directly affect the value of the product. High level of effort for changes.
    • Limitations: Difficult to create tailored experiences for user types. Progressive disclosure, empty states, progression systems
  • In-app messaging, walkthroughs

    • Benefits: In-context. Customers see this as part of the application itself. Easy to improve.
    • Limitations: Challenge to get the right message to the right users at the right time.
  • Emails triggered by behaviour or over time

    • Benefits: Timely messages, analytics and tracking. Lifecycle emails, behaviour-based triggers.
    • Limitations: Low open rates and response rates.
  • Documentation and resources

    • Benefits: Comprehensive and thorough.
    • Limitation: Out of context, difficult to find what they need, often outdated.
  • Support response

    • Benefits: Directly helpful, front-line services.
    • Limitations: Difficult to scale.
  • Phone calls and screen sharing 1:1

    • Benefits: Hand-help guidance.
    • Limitations: Difficult to scale and costly. 

Your product will always be reacting and responding to all of these factors. That’s probably why you’re looking at interactive onboarding tools like Inline Manual, instead of investing heavily in a multimedia training solution or videos. Maintaining content - at scale - which is relevant is a very crucial consideration.

“You don't get a second chance to make a first impression.”  - Whitney Hess on onboarding in UX Mag.  

Documentation versus user onboarding

In-app guidance does not replace documentation. A comparison we like to make is that documentation is like a map. Whereas a guided tour is something you’d pay extra for, it brings you to the main landmarks in the shortest time possible. 

Users expect documentation to be comprehensive and thorough. Yet, they are often overwhelmed because they are not even sure where to start or what is possible. Being told to read the documentation can feel like a slap in the face (“RTFM” - read the freeking manual).

Getting a hand-held, one-to-one guided tour might be ideal, but it’s not scalable or practical. For example, a 1:1 screenshare might be an perfect experience for onboarding, but how can you scale that? Even sectors where customer onboarding was usually a one-to-one hand-held process are moving to digital onboarding in 2017.

Instead, the guidance offered with in-app walkthroughs and interactive tours can provide expert knowledge to users more quickly - 24/7.

Two big obstacles to avoid when you’re designing a user onboarding process

As CEO of Inline Manual, Marek Sotak has consulted with hundreds of customers and thousands of prospects. He sees a familiar pattern: product owners want to fit too much into the onboarding experience. They overwhelm and confuse new users.  It’s better to match the message of the right benefits to the right users, at the right time. And also to reduce friction in onboarding. 

Limited time? Clarify the message for types of users.

Product owners and marketers know they have a limited amount of time to convince a user about the benefits of your product. Not every one of your first-time users will be interested in all of the many features and benefits of your service. Make sure to target your message. 

Here’s an example from our client, Virtua Gym. They have different onboarding experiences for users based on their roles. They use rules to create segments based on a user’s role, whether they are a business user or end user. In this case, they have tasks laid out for users who’ve already made a purchase and are getting ready for business. Their customer’s clients will get an entirely different orientation experience. 

Example useronboarding task list

Reduce friction for free-trial user onboarding

For users on a free trial, commitment is low, and time is limited. There is already quite a bit of friction to get a user to sign up. Think of what you can do to reduce friction within your application. Some steps such as the first-time configuration require inputting personal information, and that can be a huge barrier. Instead, you could start your users’ accounts with sensible defaults or sample content.

Get your users to the WOW moment more quickly. David Skok in For Entrepreneurs, suggests that there is a high fall off rate for set up and configuration steps. He referred to a case study where a HR product gave users sample data to work with, and that made all the difference. Providing sample data reduces the friction of around a sensitive area of human resources.

Our customer eToro does something similar. Instead of asking people to put up real money in the free trial process, they give users 100k of play money to practice with while they learn about their unique way of investing.

You can put these two ideas into practice with your onboarding strategy.

  1. Get the right messages to the right users in context.
  2. Lower the barriers and reduce friction in the process. 

"Onboarding is your first date with your user — you don’t want to talk their ear off and you want to be as charming as possible." by MK COOK, Digital Telepathy

Get Familiar with Common User Onboarding Patterns

Now we can look at some of the tactics you can employ as you plan in-app user onboarding. Here are three common user onboarding patterns, and when to use them.

Interactive walkthrough Tooltips Coachscreen
Example - Walkthrough Example - Tooltip Example - Coachscreen modal
Also called guided tour, playthrough, joyride. Also called launchers, hotspots, annotations. Also called slideout, slideshow, carousel, modal windows

When to use it?

  • Product tour
  • Set-uli wizards
  • Tutorial

When to use it?

  • Highlight new features
  • Moved features
  • Advice for new users

When to use it?

  • Announcements
  • Welcome screens
  • Offers

Don’t make them long.

Don’t clutter your screen with them.

Keep these short and punchy. Add video.

Common user onboarding cases

As we’ve discussed above, user onboarding is an ever changing process responding to shifts in user needs, the market and your application’s capabilities. 

Here are some examples of when you can employ the user onboarding patterns shown above to help users reach their goals and attain your company’s objectives.

Onboarding: Do you want to encourage users to upgrade or convert?

  • Use a tooltip when they are in a specific section of the application.

  • Use Launchers to highlight features.

Adoption: Do you want to improve new feature adoption by loyal users?

  • Create Segments based on user attributes or behaviour (admin versus editor.)

  • Using Segments you can autolaunch a message to users who haven’t logged in since your recent redesign.

  • Prompt by offering a walkthrough, "Want to do this rght now in three steps?"

  • Remind them that the help is always available in the widget

Support: Do you want to reduce support requests?

  • Provide articles and walkthroughs listed in your widget.

  • Control which articles appear based on the context (such as where they are in the application).

  • Link to articles and walkthroughs from your support tickets or documentation.

Training: Do you want to guide users in context in a structured way? 

  • Create walkthroughs based on completing specific tasks.

  • Use the widget to list typical tasks users need to complete infrequently.

  • Supplement training materials with in-app articles and walkthroughs.

  • When a new process is introduced, launch messages for staff when they login next. 


As we’ve seen in this guide, onboarding is not just a “product tour” - it’s the complete experience whereby a user finds success in your application. User onboarding also isn’t just for first-time users. It also applies if you’re onboarding new staff people, or helping returning users get up to speed with changes.

The context is constantly changing: the wider market, your target market, your customers’ needs, and your application. Your best bet is to start small with minimal investment and see where you can have the greatest impact. Ideally, you would create the perfect application, yet there still is no application that doesn’t need user onboarding and support.   

In the simplest example, first-time users need to see value in your product before they will make a purchase. But onboarding continues beyond the first-time user experience. As part of a continued customer communication strategy, you will want to ensure users are aware of and adopt new features in your application.

When you want to get your users up to speed as quickly as possible - you can apply the concepts and techniques of user onboarding. In the long term, keeping users aware of new capabilities will help them work more efficiently, and get them to success quicker.

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User onboarding resources and references

As you’re getting to grips with user onboarding, we’ve compiled some great resources to inspire and guide you.

Teardowns on

These teardowns look most specifically at the user sign up process, and the time it takes to get to the “wow” moment for users. The teardowns consider the visual design, copy and flow of these experiences.

Teardowns on User Onboard

Empty States

If you want to reduce friction in user onboarding, a good empty state will entice a user to complete the next step, getting them closer to success. This site catalogues great empty states in desktop SaaS services and other apps.

Screenshot Empty States

Also check out these user onboarding pattern libraries:

Visit Patterns for new user experiences for ideas. Krys Higgin lists and critiques common patterns to help guide users to success. She breaks down set-up wizards, guided tours, etc.

Also review UI Patterns- Onboarding for patterns and when to use them.  

UI patterns in user onboarding class=

Should you build interactive walkthroughs in-house or use a service?

2 months ago

If you're looking into building walkthroughs and tooltips right into your application with open source jQuery libraries and JavaScript tools, you might be wondering if you could save money and time by using a service like ours at Inline Manual. In this article, we'll compare the trade-offs and risks. We'll also help you identify when it's time to farm it out to someone else, especially if it's creating friction between your teams.

Open Source Solutions: Free as in Kittens

It’s an incredible testament to open source that there are so many JavaScript libraries which handle step-by-step walkthrough tours or interactive tooltips. These open source tools help developers extend their applications with ease, saving them many hours of development. The initial investment to get set up is minimal, but in the longer term, you get more problems.

In our previous article, we outline the issues a DIY custom-developed approach can create. 

  • Authoring and creating content is slow, and you can't change on-the-fly.
  • Communication is complicated in the development workflow.
  • Not on the same schedule
  • No Analytics. Lack of visibility into results.
  • It’s time-consuming to develop and test. 

Our competitor, Pronovix, lists many free and open source WalkMe alternatives for creating guided product tours. Considering the sticker shock buyers get when they see WalkMe’s prices it’s understandable that the lure of “free” is compelling.

The problem is, you probably want more than just a click-through interactive tour, you might want tooltips as well. Another competitor, Appcues, list 73 Tooltip Plugins Made With jQuery, CSS, JavaScript. You’d need yet another to get guide-on-the-side articles and yet another for modal window messages. Does this mean you’ll need to identify as many open source projects as the features you want?

Compare functionality

If you compare using a collection of open source libraries versus using a comprehensive SaaS solution like Inline Manual you’ll see you’re missing some key features.  They tours are limited in terms of interaction, and they sit on top of your application, with no management tools. You don’t get an easy to use editing interface that puts the marketing or customer service teams in charge of the content. And you’re also missing tools which help you fine-tune your messages by segmenting who sees your content, and in which context or location.

Feature List Open Source SaaS - Example Inline Manual
Click through tours Yes * Yes
Tooltips Yes * Yes
Pop-up messages, modal windows. Yes * Yes
Articles - knowledgebase alongside the application Yes * Yes
Interactive tours (prompt user to interact in UI, and respond) No Yes
Translate in the UI - Multilingual workflow, export/import. No (potentially with custom development) Yes
Segmentation - Different messages for user types, start date, last login, etc Custom development Yes
React to context - display content only on certain locations Custom development Yes
Branching - give different reactions depending on user activity. Custom development Yes
Revert Errors - Version control system Relies on Development Workflow Yes
Site Management - Who can edit or review content Relies on Development Workflow Yes

(*) Yes, you can find libraries which have all these features, but they won’t have all of them. Your team will kludge together and manage multiple libraries at a time.  

In some cases, your development team could achieve some of the functionality with custom development. But why spend time on that when you should be focusing on the core of your business?

How do the open source walkthrough and tooltips work?

Each of the open source libraries is a set of code files which your development team would adopt into their source code. It needs to be kept up to date and secure. All changes and customizations would have to take place as part of their development workflow.

Let’s take a quick look at how these tools work. The tools are deceivingly simple at first glance, but limited in what they can do, and how you can scale with them. 

In this example below, you can see Intro.js has a slick pop-over tour. Users can click to “Skip” or go Back and Next. When users are prompted to click something, like this Demo button, the option is locked down for them. They can’t learn-while-doing. Being able to prompt users and respond to their actions is what makes an interactive walkthrough in fact, interactive

IntroJS example

The other big issue with open source libraries and scripts is that the editing workflow is tricky. It relies on either a marketing or customer support person to communicate each step, click, copy change and grammar edit to developers.

This example from Shepherd, an open source library for tours, shows what the source code looks like. For a developer, it’s easy to see where you edit the title (if you had access to the source code.) Yet even a developer would have to take some time to identify the right selector elements in their application to ‘attach’ the popovers. This is a job for developers, but it’s not as easy as it looks.   

Showing the code example

Usually, when SaaS product teams start with product tours, the development teams implement open source libraries like these to build user onboarding tours right into their applications. If the results are good, the Marketing team will see more people are completing their onboarding; and Support will see fewer tickets and help requests. Everyone is happy! 

You start to use these tools more, and soon you’re pushing on the product teams. This DIY approach works well for a little while until suddenly you outgrow the solution. For these reasons, a DIY jQuery user-onboarding solution will build up friction between customer-facing teams and product-focused teams. Product development will always take priority, and development teams are strapped for time.

"How does Facebook handle their user onboarding?" is the wrong question

Consider your capacity first and foremost. 

Potential customers have asked, "How does Facebook handle their user onboarding?" They have new features announcements right within their application, tooltips, and quick UI prompts to guide users through feature updates. Facebook does everything in-house with dedicated teams of developers who focus just on feature adoption or user onboarding.

The big difference between Facebook and most companies is capacity. It takes weeks to build, test and iterate user onboarding content. And that doesn’t consider the technical side of maintaining all of those iterations and changes in the content itself. Each change in wording would require the same process of adding an issue, describing the end requirement, assigning the issue, UAT (user acceptance testing) of the finished work and getting it added to the release. 

When you keep it all in-house, marketing and customer success teams will have to wait from when they make a request and when they finally see it in production and having an effect on customer response. Even if it's a simple tooltip, or even change to the CTA of their Welcome Walkthrough Tour. Their product teams are busy with development. 

Most SaaS development teams don't have that luxury of time.

If the time you’re spending just on communicating and managing is equal to more than the cost-per-month of most SaaS user onboarding solutions (like ours starting at $28-$59 a month) - then, why not save the time and money?

Let us address your concerns - contact us for a demo

It’s likely your product development team wants to know how much creative control will you have using a user-onboarding SaaS service like Inline Manual? For example, Inline Manual offers total design control to make the interactive walkthroughs and guides look like it's part of your application and not a third-party add-on.

  • How hard is it to install and maintain? Installation is a single line of code, and you don't need to touch it again. Unlike the hassle of maintaining many libraries and their dependencies!
  • Will I have total design control? You can edit custom CSS, and completely design the look and feel, or inherit your existing styles. You can also create templates to keep a consistent approach to interactive design.
  • Will we have reliable QA and Testing? You can have staging and production sites, as well as role-based site and content management. It's easy to revert and publish changes from the UI.

You can read more about the kind of creative control you'll have with Inline Manual. We delved into these issues in more depth, to help you and your development team address their concerns.

In this article, we compared using a SaaS user onboarding service versus building in-house with custom or open source solutions. If you have an internal development team who is resistant to the idea of using a SaaS service, contact us for a demo. We’d love to show you and your colleagues how much creative control you’ll have.

New release! Attractive ways to improve customer engagement

4 months ago

In our recent releases we’ve been working on the back end to improve targeting and translation. Today we’re making it easier for you to create engaging interactive walkthroughs. This release includes new ways to attract users to guide them through your onboarding flows. There are also improvements under the hood for smoother integration.

If you’re planning your customer engagement strategy, these are important features to consider.

Improve customer engagement with launchers

Now you can change the style of Tooltips and Launchers to draw user’s attention without getting in their way. These attractive launchers can link to pop-over tooltips, or right into a user onboarding flow, or step-by-step tutorial.

Say for example, you’re making a new product launch, or announcing a new feature. As part of your customer engagement strategy, you may want to reach out to existing users so they don’t miss this new feature or product upgrade. Because these users have already been through your product onboarding process, they’re already familiar with your application. If they’re quite adept, they may not notice subtle changes in the UI. Tooltips can be helpful, but even still, they may tend to think those are for new users. Instead, try changing the look with a Hotspot which pulses. This will draw the user’s attention so they don’t miss important information.

Previously, by default a tooltip or a launcher was a question mark in a circle. Here are the new styles of Launchers and Tooltips, and how you can use them with different content.


Add tooltips to your UI without code
When to use a Tooltip. New users especially like information points like these in the UI. A small question mark shows where you provide more information. You can replace the content with single characters such as a small “i” for information. This can save users from having to refer to an FAQ outside your app or seek support.


Add a pulsing launcher to attract attention
When to use a Hotspot. Create a hotspot to draw attention to a new opportunity in your application. Need to highlight a new upgrade to existing users? This will help draw their attention.


Add short text tooltips to your app
When to use the Text style launcher. In some cases, you may want to prompt users with a short phrase. With this style, you can change the text to a single word or two and the launcher has a fixed width.

Long text

Add long text tooltips to your UI
When to use the Long text style launcher. This is similar to the Text style launcher, except this will resize to fit more text. For example, Long text could be useful when users are filling out a form, you might like to put in a few words of information. However, if they click on the launcher, they can get the additional detail.

Smoother user flows and interactive walkthroughs

With Inline Manual you can target any selector in your application such as a header, or a table or a button. You may want to draw a user's attention to a table header, or prompt them to click on a link. Our Authoring tool identifies the best selector in most cases without requiring you to code or know the source code of your application.

If you were just making a product tour, the selectors you interact with in your app wouldn’t matter too much. Generic headers and tables might do really well in most cases. However, if your customer engagement strategy depends on guiding your new users through your application, and prompting them to click specific things in your UI, then being precise about the selectors you choose is very important.

What makes Inline Manual stand out is the way you can use interactive prompts to get users to take action within your application. With interactive walkthroughs, you can also react to user events in your application, for example when they click or hover over elements in the user interface. Making this work relies on the selectors you identify when you’re building your walkthroughs. The more specific you can be with the selectors, the more precise you can be with how you prompt users and respond to interactions.

This release improves how the Authoring Tool detects elements in your user interface. Now you can find better selectors and fine-tune your walkthroughs for specific applications.

You won’t see any changes visible in the authoring tool, all the magic is happening under the hood. The default behaviours should work nicely with both single page applications and dynamic elements. Our Customer success managers will be able to help with the initial configuration if the defaults won’t work as expected, so please do contact our Support team.

Find out how to fine-tune the CSS selectors in the Authoring tool.


When you’re implementing your user onboarding and customer engagement strategy, you don’t want to be limited in what you can do. Thanks to our customers for continuing to share your stories and experience with us so we can better understand how you use Inline Manual.

We’re always looking for ways to make it easier to get fine-grained integration with your application so your users have a seamless experience. This release will make it easier to be precise when creating interactive experiences, with smoother integration with your app’s user interface. And you can provide help for users to keep them engaged and in your application.

We’ve also released various bug fixes and ongoing stability improvements, which help us to continue to deliver you 99.97% uptime.

Watch this webinar for inspiring examples of user onboarding

4 months ago

This webinar includes websites that have the best user onboarding flows and explains why. In 17 minutes, you’ll finish with practical ideas and inspiration.

It’s easier to understand user onboarding best practices from real-life examples. Watch this webinar for examples of websites that have the best user onboarding flows.

Marek Sotak shows you sites and applications that have great onboarding processes and he explains why. You’ll finish this webinar with lots of ideas for user onboarding which you can take to your site.

There are many tools available for in-app guidance, and many companies do it in house with full teams of developers. If you’re wondering how you can create the best in-app onboarding experience for your users without any coding, request a product demo of Inline Manual.

You can also sign up to our next live webinar on 18 May 2017 for a product overview of Inline Manual.


New release: Improved translation workflow and more

6 months ago

With our clients, we’re helping onboard, convert, and engage new customers all around the world. When you’re reaching a global audience, multilingual support is crucial. We’ve introduced an easier translation workflow which enterprise applications need for global reach at scale.

Thanks to your feedback, we've also improved the Topic display, giving you quicker access to details and saving you time in targeting your messages to users.

Here are some more details about today’s release.

Improved translations workflow for multilingual content

Many of our customers have global audiences, and they need a way to translate content quickly. With Inline Manual, you can already translate your interactive walkthroughs into any language. Once you’re translating to several languages, the workflow gets trickier.

Now Standard Pro and Enterprise customers can export content, translate it in another application, and then import translated content. For a limited time, we’re allowing all account levels to try out this feature.

This new workflow will make it easier to write and manage translations. You can export and import the translation files as CSV or Excel files. In those files, your content editors can edit the HTML source and any tokens you’re using. Then you can import the translation file back.

Translating a walkthrough

Use AND/OR to target your messages.

By default, topics are available to Everyone. With segmentation you can make topics only available to your chosen segments. For example, you may want to add articles and walkthroughs which only administrators and editors can see.

You told us you were creating additional segments to handle these cases. Now, we've made it easier so you can use both AND and OR operators to combine segments. Find out how.

User new operators to choose segments

See tags when viewing your Topic list

Now you can see the tags assigned to a topic, right on the topic list in your Site.

By using tags, administrators can quickly see which content they are working on. When you’re using Segmentation to offer unique content to different types of users, it can get confusing if you have topics with the same names. That’s just one way to use tags.

Topic tags


We’re hearing more and more from our customers that they are reaching audiences at a larger scale than ever before. That is such great news! The new translation workflow makes it smoother and faster to communicate to a global audience.

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