If you’re trying to build a product that’s easy to use (aren’t we all?), self-serve onboarding flows are one of the most important things to get right.

The problem I’ve found with self-serve onboarding is how much information is required to create a good first experience for our users. There are infinite questions to answer, and nobody gets it right the first time.

Since trial and error is our best learning experience, we need to create systems that help us learn from our first users and improve our product design, messages, and overall onboarding experience.

I’ll share a simple process to improve your self-served onboarding journey and optimize it for conversion in this guide.

Should we all build self-serve sign ups? 🤔

Self-serve onboarding means giving prospective customers a way of trying, buying, and using the product for themselves.

After product-led B2B companies like Slack or Dropbox showed explosive growth, everyone suggests having self-serve signups in any software business. But good onboarding flows takes a lot of time and resources, especially if you want to improve conversion.

So the question is: should you build a self-serve flow if you have an early product? I think the easy answer is: YES.

You should give your prospects a road to take if they’re interested in your product. The more walls you have between your prospects and your product, the more time it will take you to learn from actual users.

This doesn’t mean spending months of design and development time in a sophisticated onboarding flow. You can start with an MVP and slowly improve it.

What we usually mean by self-served onboarding

Every blog post about onboarding mentions a few things every product should have:

Now, this is A LOT of work when you’re an early-stage product. And the problem isn’t just time and resources, it’s also information.

When you’re early you don’t really know what’s most important to your users at each stage of their journey. Of course, you can make educated guesses, but I wouldn’t recommend taking weeks to create beautiful content and email campaigns that may add zero value to your customers.

And since we need to learn from actual people going through our onboarding, I’d say it’s best to start with something simple and then improve it.

How to optimize your onboarding as an MVP

1. Design a simple onboarding journey

The onboarding journey is the series of steps your users will take when they first sign up. I mentioned a similar journey when talking about Free Trials, every onboarding path looks something like this:

Step 1: Signup.

Step 2: Setup (something users need to do before they can actually use your product).

Step 3: Getting to value (something users do that actually delivers value to them)

Step 4: Engaging with the product (depending on what you do this can mean sharing, inviting a coworker, or coming back repeatedly).

When we talk to Palabra users about this, we always suggest thinking about a simple and linear journey for onboarding. The more possibilities, user segments, or steps there are to consider, the harder it will be for you to improve conversion.

If you already have a complex onboarding process created, I suggest rethinking what are the most important things you want your users to do. Try to reduce unnecessary setup steps, and point every user flow towards your value-adding feature.

2. Track each stage

By tracking I mean using something to see where your customers are in this journey. To improve your onboarding journey you should be able to see where people are dropping off, and which types of users struggle most when first using your product.

Each step of the onboarding journey should be translated into actions your users take. If they just added a profile picture, that might mean they’re on the setup stage.

I’ve seen early teams do this manually with a spreadsheet or CRM. If you have less than 10 weekly users, it might make sense to keep track of users this way.

If you want to build a system that can scale right away, I suggest keeping automated tracking as simple as possible:

I’ve seen companies send this information to Pipedrive or other CRMs through Zapier, but it’s a solution prone to error.

You can also workarounds with analytics platforms (like Mixpanel and Amplitude) or messaging apps like Intercom. They require some manual processes for it to work since they weren’t built exactly for this use case.

We built Palabra with early customer journey optimization in mind, so let me know if you’d like to talk about onboarding tracking.

3. Manually help people move forward

By having clarity over where each customer is in their onboarding you can reach out to those that haven’t completed it. I’ve seen companies do this by giving a phone call to each new customer. If your users aren’t tech-savvy they will probably appreciate the human touch.

You can also send a quick email to those that signup pointing them to their next step. Keep it as simple as possible at first, and make sure you’re helping them focus on their next step instead of drifting off.

The reason I suggest starting manually is that you get to talk to as many customers as possible. You can learn what words they use to describe their problems, where they usually struggle, and what worked for you to help them move forward.

This information is what will allow you to create awesome messages, automated in-app tours, and even make UX improvements to your product later on.

4. Measure conversion

Very basic step-over step conversion can help you find where the biggest drop-off is. From what I’ve seen our users do, I noticed analyzing week over week conversion is what makes the most sense at the early stages.

You can do this with a very simple spreadsheet, and manually note how many users get to each stage every week. This will give you a baseline conversion rate you can then consistently improve.

You can also get these if you’re using Palabra to track your onboarding journey.

When does automation make sense?

Automated messages that move users forward while you work on other things is a very appealing idea for every founder, but it should be used with caution. Setting up an automated message and creating content to nudge users often takes more time than starting small, and can lead to nowhere.

For automation to make sense you first need to know what your journey looks like.

Ideally, you should be able to learn from your onboarding MVP, and know a few things first:

It’s getting easier every day to create automated campaigns or in-app tours without coding it yourself. I suggest starting with a very very simple onboarding campaign but still keep manually following up on users if you’re early.

By starting small and manually you’ll be able to understand exactly what customers need when they first use your product, and that will allow you to create an effective onboarding campaign after just a few weeks.

Final thoughts

To me, working on an early product feels like continuous trial and error. Over the years, software makers have created processes to structure this chaotic learning strategy.

I think the best thing we can do as founders has put these systems in place. Processes that continuously allow us to learn from our users and improve our product and messaging.

We’re building Palabra to help that exact process, that’s why we chose to prioritize simple customer journey creation. We think every founder should have access to information about how their users interact with their products to make them better.

If you’re struggling to get access to where each customer is in their journey, I’d love to help. Go ahead and book some time to chat!

Great onboarding emails don’t need to have impressive design. They should provide a clear path for new users to follow to get as much value from your product and as quickly as possible. While creating Palabra’s onboarding, we went through our favorite plain text emails. Here’s what we learned.

Plain text is the way to go 🚀

Writing HTML emails takes a lot of time, even with image based builders. As an early stage company, we simply didn’t have enough time to design and mark our emails.

We also have a lot of reasons to go with plain text instead of image-based. It helps deliverability, accesibility and looks much more real and important than ad-looking emails.

That’s why we decided to go with plain text emails all the way. We explored different email sequences that used plain text (or simple styling) to understand what they did best. And where better to start than our very own inbox?

We noticed a few of the onboarding email sequences we got were really helpful for us as users. They kept simple a simple design and used mostly text to share their best features.

And we found some awesome examples of onboarding sequences that use little to no HTML styling:

Here’s what we discovered.

Welcome emails are more than a confirmation

Every SaaS company must start their onboarding sequences with a welcome message that is sent when a user joins the platform. This is a must by now, since everyone who signs up will expect some sort of confirmation of their transaction.

I mean, it is essentially a welcome message, but it can be so much more.

For example, SuperHuman sends you a warm welcome message that immediately teaches you how to use their Command.

Another excellent example of welcome email is from Zest:

We love these simple but catchy lines. They nail the exact effect that plain text should achieve: make you feel among friends.

Both Superhuman and Zest suggest a next step you should follow after receiving that first email. This gives a clear path for people to follow if they want to get value from their products. And that’s the best thing you can do with a welcome message.

A name and a face

This is a great tip to increase engagement. I always feel awkward when I don’t know who is writing on the other side. Is it the CEO? Someone from Sales? Is it a super intelligent baby? Who knows.

We can see this information clearly in Notion’s emails. Ivan is not only a name, he is Notion’s Co-founder. It’s flattering to receive a direct message from a co-founder, it also gives the impression of commitment from the very roots of the company.

At Palabra we do the very same thing. Our emails are sent by Paula or Karen, who are the founders (and the heart) of this project.

A photo is not a requirement in itself, yet, the clearer the image we have of the person who sends and receives the emails, the more engagement we can generate.

Even if you have hundreds of people working in your business, you can create an identity to address your users.

Emojis in the subject (use with caution)

This point is more to talk about email subjects, a very important topic that sometimes is forgotten.

If every email is a gift to your users, the subject is the wrapping paper. You want it to be shining, flashy, stunning so the reader has no other option than to open the email.

Definitely, most of the plain text onboarding sequences than we observed have emojis (at some stage) in their subjects.

Remember: emojis are important, but they have to reinforce the idea of the text in the subject. Otherwise you’re gonna look cu-cu or, even worse, desperate.

Zest win the contest of better subjects seding thing like:

You can also include them in the body of the email to generate a greater visual impact and a neatear appearance.

Email ’til you make it

Yes, we received tons of emails per week. In fact, Superhuman mentioned it in their onboarding email sequence.

(this is simply genius)

But preciscely for that reason you have to be present. The first days are critical to impress your users.

Zest has the strategy of sending an email the first day a user joins. And then three more during the second day, another 4 days after and another one 10 days after.

Imagine someone you’re dating sends you 4 emails in 10 days (well, in that case, you’re probably Meg Ryan, so maybe it’s not so bad).

This could sound excessive, but it can take a while until people understand your value. Just make sure the value you’re providing is clear, and that each email you send has a reason to be in people’s inbox.

Thank yous matter

Far from recommending you stalk your users, we want to encourage you to use emails as a tool for a meaningful exchange of information. You can learn one thing or two about your own service or product.

The Superhuman sequence puts feedback as a priority, using sentences like:

We love hearing your feedback: please reply to this email and say hello :)”

“We love hearing from you! Please reply and let us know what you think 😃”

In the email sequence that we mentioned from Zest, at the 10 day after the user joins, they ask for the thoughts and feelings about the platform and for the likes and dislikes.

A “thank you” at the end of every email leaves a good impression. Of course. It’s also a good idea to make a special thanking email. When a business is growing, every user is something to thank, so let them know that in your own words (or emojis!).

If you read this far, ping us at Twitter and tell us who sent you your favorite onboarding emails.