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The Total Guide to Product Onboarding

Product onboarding

In this guide to product onboarding, we’ll examine product boarding inside and out, from the product experience to product adoption to user training.

More specifically, we’ll look at:

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  • What product onboarding is 
  • The ROI of effective onboarding practices
  • The relationship between product onboarding, user onboarding, customer onboarding, and employee onboarding
  • Best practices, tips, and strategies
  • Pitfalls to avoid

And much more.

To start off, let’s cover some of the basics:

Product Onboarding: Definitions and Key Concepts

Anyone researching product onboarding will certainly brush up against a number of related terms and concepts.

Here are a few key definitions that can shed some light on product onboarding and adoption:

  • Product Onboarding – Product onboarding is a stage in the product adoption process. Users are first introduced to a product or platform, familiarize themselves with that product, learn about the product’s features, and develop their first impression of that product. 
  • Product Adoption – Product adoption refers to the implementation, integration, and utilization of a product in the user’s daily life or day-to-day work environment. It includes product onboarding, as well as related activities, such as support and training.
  • The Product Experience – The product experience includes the user’s entire set of interactions with a product, including product adoption, as well as product interactions that occur over the long term.
  • User Onboarding – User onboarding, software onboarding, employee onboarding, and customer onboarding often refer to the same process. The emphasis and nuance differs for each term, however. User onboarding focuses on users, customer onboarding refers specifically to product onboarding for customers, and so forth.
  • Digital Adoption – While product adoption places itself against the backdrop of the product experience, digital adoption focuses on digital transformation, enhancing the user experience, and maximizing software ROI. Later, we will look at digital adoption vs. product adoption in more detail.

Understanding these ideas is essential for any business that wants to manage and improve the onboarding process.

And in today’s digital work environment, this includes virtually every business that adopts new technology.

Product onboarding is also of particular concern to product creators, such as SaaS providers or software developers. 

In either case, effective onboarding can make a difference in a product’s ROI, which is why product adoption is a focal point for many modern businesses.

Product Onboarding FAQ

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about product onboarding:

What is product onboarding and adoption?

As mentioned, product onboarding is a stage in the product adoption process.

That process includes other processes and business functions, such as:

  • Pre-adoption communications, such as marketing and sales communications
  • Support, such as customer support and technical support
  • Product training

Product adoption models can vary depending on who you ask, but they typically revolve around processes such as these.

Why does product onboarding matter?

Optimizing the onboarding process can make a big difference in the product’s profitability, making it a top concern for any business that creates or invests in products.

For instance, an enterprise that implements a new SaaS platform would be concerned with:

  • Maximizing employee productivity as quickly as possible
  • Simplifying and streamlining the onboarding experience, in order to minimize frustration and burnout
  • Raising skill levels quickly and efficiently
  • Utilizing software to its fullest extent
  • Maximizing software ROI

Onboarding is concerned with all of these areas, since poor onboarding experiences can increase frustration and even drive new users away.

The developers of that SaaS platform would be concerned with similar issues as those just listed. 

The SaaS platform’s onboarding experience, after all, affects important metrics, such as:

  • User engagement
  • Retention and longevity
  • Productivity and proficiency levels
  • The product’s bottom-line profitability

In short, product adoption is a key stage in the product experience, which can have a significant impact on any business invested in a particular product or technology.

Product onboarding vs. user onboarding: what’s the difference?

The difference lies in the underlying model or framework.

That is:

  • User onboarding and user adoption focus on users and the user experience
  • Product onboarding and adoption focus on the product experience
  • Employee onboarding is a stage in the employee life cycle, which often includes product onboarding
  • Digital onboarding and adoption are rooted in digital strategy

All of these frameworks are useful for understanding product onboarding and adoption.

Because they all cover the same territory – how users adopt and implement new digital technology – there is a great deal of overlap in the meaning of these terms.

However, different terms often denote different backgrounds and different audiences.

A product developer or creator, for instance, will often concern themselves with product design, the product experience, and product adoption.

A business undergoing digital transformation, however, will view the adoption process through the lens of digital strategy and digital transformation.

See below for a more detailed discussion on this topic.

How do you design great product onboarding experiences?

We will go into more detail later, but ideal onboarding experiences share a few common traits, such as:

  • Simplicity – Simple user experiences keep users engaged, because they reduce mental effort and help users achieve their goals quickly. 
  • Usability – Usability refers to how easy a product is to use. The easier a product is to learn, for instance, the more usable it is – usable products boost user engagement and decrease frustration.
  • Utility – Utility refers to functionality. That is, whether a product does what users need it to.
  • Usefulness – According to the Nielson Norman Group, usefulness depends on both usability and utility. That is, products must deliver relevant functionality and they must be easy to use.

Areas such as product design, product training, support, and UX design all come into play during onboarding.

Improving the onboarding experience, therefore, requires a granular perspective on this stage of the user journey. 

That detailed perspective can help onboarding specialists understand which factors influence the onboarding experience, a prerequisite for any improvements. 

Who is responsible for product onboarding?

Larger organizations will often have onboarding specialists, directors, and managers.

Smaller organizations may delegate this responsibility to product creators, IT specialists, HR, or cross-functional teams, depending on the circumstances.

Also, as mentioned, onboarding means different things depending on the circumstances.

In a company developing SaaS products, for instance, onboarding specialists will focus on areas such as customer onboarding, engagement, retention, and churn.

An enterprise that adopts those SaaS platforms, however, may hire an employee onboarding specialist, who manages employee onboarding, product onboarding, and product training.

What are the pros and cons of having a structured onboarding process?

We have already seen many of the benefits to implementing a formal onboarding process.

These include improved engagement rates, increased user satisfaction, higher productivity, and lower user burnout, among other things.

But, like any other business investment, there are considerations and potential drawbacks.

This is especially true when onboarding programs aren’t structured or are poorly executed.

Potential cons can include:

  • The costs of onboarding outweigh the benefits. Onboarding programs take resources, time, and effort. If the costs of the onboarding program outweigh the benefits it generates, then it may be time to downsize the program or reevaluate the onboarding approach.
  • Onboarding can’t fix poorly designed products, poor sales funnels, or problems that occur elsewhere in the user life cycle. Onboarding can streamline the introduction and implementation of products. But if other problems are causing poor engagement, such as bad product design, then onboarding won’t be able to make much difference. This is one reason businesses should examine and understand the entire product experience, from marketing to support to adoption.
  • Lackluster or unnoticeable results. Poorly designed and executed onboarding may generate no noticeable results. However, if the audience is sufficiently large, onboarding should generate some tangible impact – if not, the onboarding process should be reeaximined.

Onboarding is certainly no cure-all. 

And onboarding can come with risks and costs.

Most of the downsides, however, come as a result of poorly implemented onboarding practices – or from other points in the customer journey. 

In most cases, effective onboarding is well worth the investment.

To generate positive outcomes from onboarding, organizations should develop structured onboarding programs that explicitly tackle the challenges users already have during onboarding and adoption.

The Biggest Challenges to Effective Onboarding

The benefits of effective product onboarding are clear: better engagement, improved productivity, and an improved user experience.

However, onboarding is not without challenges.

To realize the benefits of great onboarding, businesses should account for – and avoid – the most common challenges that affect product onboarding.

Here are some of the biggest pitfalls that onboarding specialists must prepare for and handle:

  • Learning curves. Every software solution comes with a learning curve. Some are steeper than others, but regardless of software complexity, learnability plays a key role in the onboarding process. Training, product design, and support all affect learnability, and many of these can be optimized and improved over time.
  • Disengagement. Users can become disengaged if a product is uninteresting, difficult to learn, or if the onboarding process is not welcoming enough. Disengagement can cause a number of problems, from low user productivity to user churn.
  • Frustration. Ineffective training, confusing product design, and poor support can all contribute to user frustration. That frustration, in turn, can easily lead to the other problems below.
  • Burnout and abandonment. When users give up on a product and abandon it, there is a good chance they won’t return – after all, their minds are made up at this point. Onboarding specialists should do their best to understand why users abandon the product, then fix that problem as best they can.

Naturally, there are more obstacles and pitfalls that can hinder effective onboarding. 

However, those covered above are the most common. Preparing for those can go a long way towards streamlining the onboarding experience and improving engagement.

Proper preparation, of course, begins with having a structured, strategic approach to onboarding, which we will cover next.

5 Product Onboarding Best Practices, Principles, and Strategies

Below, we will look at some best practices when it comes to product onboarding.

Here are 5 strategies that can help set an organization on the right path:

1. Make the commitment to implement and optimize a structured onboarding process.

Whether an organization is developing new products or adopting them internally, structured product onboarding can deliver positive ROI.

But the first step is commitment.

That is, organizations must actually decide to implement a structured onboarding process in order to reap any benefits.

Obtaining such a commitment make require effort, however.

To justify and earn support, professionals may need to do some legwork, such as:

  • Demonstrating the potential value of a structured onboarding process
  • Obtaining executive sponsorship and buy-in
  • Developing proposals, strategies, and project plans
  • Spearheading the project

If the organization already has a formal onboarding process, then these steps may not be necessary.

Instead, professionals may evaluate the organization’s level of commitment to that process, the results of that process, and if it is enough.

2. Use data to gain insights and inform decisions.

Data should fuel every business project, including product onboarding.

Data and analytics can help:

  • Offer insights into the onboarding process. The right metrics and KPIs can help demonstrate the value of onboarding, track progress, show what’s working, and reveal what needs more work.
  • Monitor user behavior, sentiment, engagement, and performance. User metrics, such as engagement, productivity, and proficiency, can all be affected by the onboarding process. Understanding those metrics can reveal much about how users interact with a product.
  • Offer insights into the product design. User testing, which occurs earlier in the product design process, will reveal a great deal about the product’s fundamental design. However, the more users that come on board, the more data product developers will have to work with – and some of that can be used to enhance future product versions.
  • Enhance and optimize the onboarding funnel. Ultimately, data is used to upgrade and enhance product onboarding. To reap the benefits covered earlier, businesses must take a data-driven approach to onboarding.

Among other things.

To achieve these results, however, businesses must regularly collect and analyze onboarding data – and make changes when needed.

Common data sources can include:

  • Software analytics, from the software platform itself, from digital adoption solutions, and so forth
  • User feedback, surveys, and polls
  • Training data

Also, data from other sources can help shed light on the onboarding experience.

Technical support calls and customer service calls, for example, can help stakeholders understand users’ concerns and needs.

And that user data, as we’re about to find out, is critical to the success of any onboarding process.

3. Let users lead the way.

Today, the user experience has taken the spotlight when it comes to corporate strategy.

For years, organizations have recognized that digital transformation and the digital revolution isn’t just about technology … it’s a revolution in the way businesses deliver value to their customers.

This revolution puts users and their experiences at the heart of the modern business model.

Which makes perfect sense.

After all, users are customers, and customers’ needs are the driving force behind any new product or service.

Being customer-centered means that customers and users should be leading the way when it comes to products, including:

  • Product design
  • Product adoption
  • Product onboarding

And every other facet of the product experience, from support to marketing.

4. Stay agile and adaptable.

Lean, agile thinking can benefit every business area, including onboarding and experience management.

As with any other customer-centric process, onboarding programs should be built around the customer.

And since customers’ needs are continuously changing, products, product adoption efforts, and product onboarding programs should be able to change as well.

That is, products and their related business processes should be:

  • Adaptable and ready to change
  • Efficient and lean, reducing waste within business processes
  • Responsive to user input

The shorter the gap between user input and product changes, the more efficient the process.

5. Look beyond onboarding, at the user’s entire digital environment.

In the digital work environment, change is continuous.

Perpetual learning and growth are the new normal, according to many experts. 

It’s not hard to see why – today’s worker must constantly learn new digital tools. 

This means that in order to stay competitive, employees must continually learn, re-skill, upskill, and train.

Unfortunately, the digital disruption of the workforce has left employees and organizations both unprepared.

The “digital skills crisis,” for instance, affects everyone – without the right digital skills, employees will be unable to find work.

And organizations will be unable to find talent.

To tackle this obstacle, organizations need mechanisms that are built around continuous learning and change.

Since the digital environment continually introduces employees to new tools, organizations should be accommodating.

That is, business should concentrate on areas such as:

  • Integrating and streamlining digital workflows. Today’s digital worker uses a number of tools to accomplish a task. Therefore, adoption and onboarding specialists should extend their view to include the entire digital workflow – not just a single tool.
  • Enhancing productivity across multiple tools and platforms. A user’s productivity depends on how well they use several tools, not just a single product. Organizations, therefore, need onboarding strategies that account for and include multiple platforms, rather than just a single tool.
  • Support continuous digital adoption and training. In today’s business environment, continual software upgrades mean continual skills development. Organizations must be able to train continually, with minimal impact to services or productivity.

When looking at the bigger picture, it is clear that organizations need to think beyond the user or the product.

Instead, it pays to look at the digital environment as a whole. 

When we do, we see that most product adoptions are propelled by digital disruption and transformation.

How to Measure Product Onboarding

Those interested in learning how to measure product onboarding should start with the goals, then work backwards to discover appropriate metrics and KPIs.

A business that wants to accelerate training time, for instance, would measure training programs – timelines, results, costs, and so forth.

If the goal is improved workplace productivity, then the most important metrics would revolve around employee productivity, learning, engagement, proficiency, and so on.

Here are some common metrics that can help onboarding specialists track their progress:

  • Time-to-competency. How long it takes users to achieve basic competency with a product.
  • Learnability. A usability attribute that measures how easily people can learn a product, which can be derived from other metrics, such as time-to-competency, error rates, and so forth.
  • Overall proficiency levels. Skill levels with software, which can be assessed individually or within groups.
  • Performance. How well employees perform in their jobs before, during, and as a result of onboarding.
  • Engagement, satisfaction, frustration, and other sentiments. How people feel at specific points in their onboarding journey, and why.
  • Costs. Costs should measure all overhead associated with adoption and onboarding, including customer support costs, technical support costs, training costs, and so on.
  • Timelines. How long the whole onboarding process takes, but ideally subdivided even further into stages or touchpoints.
  • Returns and outcomes. The positive ROI, results, and outcomes of the product onboarding process.

Though onboarding specialists will likely have a particular set of goals that interests them most, it is worthwhile to track other metrics as well.

After all, positive onboarding programs can deliver a number of benefits. Even if those benefits aren’t the primary goal, that data can still offer useful insight into onboarding efforts.

Product Onboarding Software, Platforms, and Technology

What are the best onboarding software solutions on the market?

As with any modern workflow, onboarding requires the use of several platforms, not just one.

Below are some of the most common and useful onboarding solutions:

HR Platforms and HCM Platforms

HR and HCM platforms are one-stop tools that perform a wide variety of HR-related functions, such as:

  • Document processing
  • Onboarding and orientation features
  • Attendance and payroll
  • Benefits, retirement, and insurance
  • Training management
  • Surveys
  • Self-help portals

Among many others.

These platforms are must-haves for any business that wants to streamline HR workflows.

Although they offer plenty of HR features, they don’t offer in-depth training or analytics – two features that can truly enhance onboarding efforts.

Employee Training Tools

Employee training should begin as early as possible, even on the first day.

To deliver effective, efficient onboarding and training, organizations should invest in specialized training tools, such as:

  • Learning management systems. Learning management systems blend content management systems with teaching platforms. These tools allow trainers to create and manage teaching content, collaborate with students, grade students, track attendance, and more.
  • Traditional training methods. Classroom teaching, group training sessions, and one-on-one training approaches are still useful at certain points in the onboarding process. When it comes to digital onboarding, however, there are more modern, useful approaches.
  • Digital adoption platforms (DAPs). DAPs are digital training solutions that accelerate training time, improve onboarding efficiency, increase user productivity, and more. 

Using the right tools at the right stage of the user journey can make a big difference in the results and effectiveness of onboarding programs.

For instance, DAPs are most effective when it comes to product onboarding and training, as we’ll see below.

Analytics Tools

Analytics and data are necessary to track and measure product onboarding programs. 

Chances are, every organization will already have a variety of analytics tools and data sources at their disposal.

Here are a few common sources of data and analytics:

  • Website analytics
  • App or software analytics
  • Data from user testing software
  • Survey software
  • DAP analytics

Onboarding specialists should take sources such as these, combine the data, and use that data to inform decision-making and gain insights.

Digital Adoption Platforms (DAPs)

DAPs are ideal for onboarding and training.

These platforms, as mentioned above, can significantly enhance onboarding and training outcomes.

They do this through a set of innovative features, such as:

  • Contextualized guidance offered directly inside the target platform or product. In-app guidance delivers the right information at the moment of need. This dramatically improves usability, knowledge retention, and user productivity, among other things. 
  • Walkthroughs that take users step by step through any workflow, automatically and without the need for human intervention. Even brand new users can learn complex workflows and tasks. DAPs walk them through instructions automatically, reducing the need for technical support calls or research.
  • Analytics that offer insight into user behavior and training needs. DAP analytics track user behavior and software usage, helping onboarding specialists better understand how users learn, train, and perceive a specific product.

DAPs are quickly becoming standard among the world’s most forward-thinking companies.

Many of the world’s leading companies use DAPs to streamline product adoption, both for their in-house employees as well as for their customers.

Companies such as Amazon and Adobe, for instance, use the WalkMe DAP to improve employee performance, productivity, and proficiency.

Given the strong upward trajectory of DAPs, onboarding specialists may begin to question the emphasis on “digital adoption” versus “product adoption.”

Digital Onboarding vs. Product Onboarding vs. User Onboarding vs. Employee Onboarding…

Is there a difference between these terms? 

And if there is, does it matter?

As touched upon earlier, there are a number of terms that preface “onboarding,” “experience,” and “adoption.” 

  • Digital onboarding, adoption, and experience
  • User onboarding, adoption, and experience
  • Employee onboarding, adoption, and experience
  • Product onboarding, adoption, and experience

In many cases, there is a great deal of overlap between these terms – and in some instances they are used interchangeably.

However, each term emphasizes a different angle, which makes certain terms more useful in certain circumstances.

Digital adoption, onboarding, training, and experiences, for instance, are the best terms to use when discussing enterprise software adoption.

There are a few reasons why:

  • Digital adoption supports digital transformation. Product adoption, however, restricts its focus to individual products. Both are useful perspectives, but for the enterprise, it pays to implement strategies and models that mesh with an organization’s digital strategy – such as digital adoption and transformation.
  • The emphasis is on digital workflows, workplaces, and environments … not individual products. Product creators may tend to focus on the product experience, which is a useful lens to look through. However, this perspective risks leaving out the wider digital environment of its users. Digital adoption starts and finishes with that ecosystem, considering how different digital tools work together to create digital work environments.
  • Effective adoption aims at maximizing software utilization, productivity, and ROI. For a business, software is an investment. Digital adoption is an approach and a process that focuses on generating ROI from that investment, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In short, digital adoption focuses on streamlining and improving the entire digital environment.

Product onboarding is a crucial piece of that puzzle – but digital adoption looks beyond individual products, at how those products work together.

For an enterprise undergoing digital transformation, therefore, digital adoption and transformation offer more useful frameworks.

Product creators can also benefit from using digital adoption as a model … after all, all products fit within the context of the user’s digital environment.

Keeping that context in mind can only help developers better understand their users’ needs, build better products, and improve the product adoption process.


In this guide, we have explored product onboarding inside and out.

We have looked at product onboarding, product adoption, product design, and the product experience.

We have compared product onboarding to user onboarding, employee onboarding, and digital onboarding.

We have looked at a few product onboarding best practices, strategies, and tips.

And we have looked at the best product onboarding software.

If professionals want to improve their onboarding process, where should they go from here?

Here are a few avenues for further research:

The entire economy is undergoing digital transformation.

For that reason, the importance of effective product onboarding cannot be understated.

To stay competitive in the digital future, organizations should recognize that the user experience is the new battleground.

And product onboarding is one of the most important stages in the user’s journey – earning users’ engagement and trust during this stage can literally mean the difference between a product’s success or failure.

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