Successful Patterns in User Onboarding with Mark Colgan

mark colgan
Product Stories
Successful Patterns in User Onboarding with Mark Colgan


In this episode of Product Stories, Victor Purolnik talks to Mark Colgan, Founder of The Product Onboarders. Mark has audited more than 60 onboarding flows of SaaS companies and shares some of the costliest mistakes made as well as how to avoid them

Episode Highlights/Topics:

  • Why audit user onboarding flows? If it’s bad, people won’t stick with your product 
  • Purpose: The Product Onboarders pretend to be your least technical savvy users  
  • Unbiased, Objective View: One of the best SaaS onboarding practices and strategies
  • Why get onboarding right? Match effort put into customer acquisition, developing product
  • Most Common Onboarding Mistakes (and how to avoid them): 
    • Home or Landing Page: Not enough social proof throughout site
    • Call to Action: Communicate if you require a credit card or not 
    • Signup Flow: Reinforce product benefits with testimonials
    • Welcome Screen: Use correct grammar, language, and role or lose users
    • Demo Data: Show what product looks like to motivate user to continue
    • Product Tour: Revisit/access additional information to use and navigate product
  • The Product Onboarders: Creates custom video identifying onboarding issues for $129      



Mark Colgan on LinkedIn

The Product Onboarders 

Read the transcript:

Victor [00:14]: Welcome back everybody. Today’s guest is Mark Colgan, founder of the Product Onboarders. He’s audited dozens of onboarding flows of SaaS companies. And today he will share with us the costliest mistakes people make in onboarding and how you could avoid them. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark [00:31]: Hey Victor. So good to be here and yeah, really looking forward to talking about all things, product onboarding.

Victor [00:37]: Absolutely. One of our favorite topics here for sure. Because it’s so important. Once you want to close someone, onboarding is pretty much the most important thing you have to get right. How come you audit onboarding flows? What’s your background, Mark?

Mark [00:52]: Yeah, it’s a good question. And an interesting one. So my background, well the very high level, is I started off in recruitment, moved into marketing and then more into a sales and revenue role. But I’ve been specializing in B2B SaaS companies. And as I worked as a consultant, I would often work with companies and I noticed that they just wanted net new, top of the funnel. They wanted more leads, more prospects, more conversations and I refused to do that in the first few months of the working engagement with them, because I always wanted to look at what are they currently doing with the leads that they have, or the users that are signing up. Because if you have a leaky bucket, there’s no point in putting more water into the top of it. So that was always my approach with it.

Victor [01:33]: And then one of the patterns that I started to notice is that yes, the marketing can be great. The sales process can be fantastic or if it’s product led. The website looks really nice. But then there was a huge sticking point when it came to user onboarding. And obviously if your user onboarding is bad, then you’re not going to have people sticking around and returning. So I started to focus a lot on my time on just looking at the user onboarding and realized that there wasn’t actually a service out there that offered any sort of third-party objective feedback whilst knowing the best sat, onboarding tactics and strategies as well. So you can go and find that user tests and use user or similar websites. But what they’ll pretty much do is just give, you’ll have somebody looking at your product or your website, and they’ll have a few answers to go and to answer. Some questions to answer.

Mark [02:20]: Whereas what we do at the product on borders is we pretend that we are of your least technical savvy users, but are likely going to use your product. And we run through that website, the signup flow, the first run experience and the first, I guess, 10 minutes in the platform and we do a video so you can see our reactions when we’re getting lost and confused, and we’re not sure what to do next. And I found that we just kind of hit a nerve with, the product owners, founders, CEOs, as well as product managers and even growth marketers as well that it was a really, really valuable service. So we decided to kind of make it more consistent. And I partnered with Helen Pete Field, who’s a SaaS copywriter. So she brings a lot of value into the copywriting side of things, which is really important, not only for your website, but also your microcopy throughout your product. And then I come there from more of the strategy of the onboarding flow.

Mark [03:11]: Yeah that’s awesome because you’re right. I mean, having somebody who’s totally new, look at your SaaS product and then try and figure it out. I guess this unbiased view is so important because we as SaaS owners, we have actually no idea what it is like for a new user to go through the app the first time. All of it is completely like we know what to do and we never see these mistakes that we make because it’s so clear to us. What have you seen are the most common mistakes people make with their onboarding?

Victor [03:44]: Sure. Yeah, there’s a few that I can run through today and I’ll probably pick out the most common ones. But I just want to go back to the point you made there Victor of that, as the founder, as the developer who’s built the product. You’ve seen it day in, day out. You know exactly where to click and even a simple thing, like an icon rather than a full menu. Or you might have an icon of a home but it doesn’t have the word home next to it. Yes most people will know that means home, but then there are some really creative icons that might be used as part of the UX, which people have no idea. And it’s quite hard to remove yourself from your own product and look at it objectively. But it’s really, really important that you get the onboarding right because you put so much effort into customer acquisition and obviously you put a lot of effort into developing the product.

Mark [04:29]: Recent stats say that 40 to 60% of users who sign up for a free trial of specifically of a B2B SaaS application will use it once and never come back. So it’s really important that we don’t overlook the importance of your onboarding here. And really this is where retention starts as well on the onboarding process. So go back to your question of the most common mistakes people make in their SaaS onboarding and Victor, maybe I’ll go through these.

Victor [04:53]: Oh, maybe because since you’ve touched this really interesting point. So before we actually go to the question that I initially asked, I think you’ve really hit a nerve here, but when you said we as owners, we don’t always know. But I think it goes even deeper than that. Also our UX designer who has knowledge on UX and how to make things usable, but also designer obviously gets to know your application so good that they probably don’t see everything that’s happening, right?

Mark [05:21]: Yeah, definitely. And in fact, we actually spot quite a lot of bugs that people had never seen before because they’re only looking or following the workflow that they’re working on. Whereas we are a completely random person who’s been let loose in a product and we’re clicking around and we’re jumping around in the product, just like a user would do, a curious user would do. So there’s often times a lot of things that are discovered there. And to your point, a designer’s job, I’ve seen some fantastically, beautiful looking SaaS products. But really the usability hasn’t been thought through and it’s specifically for the product onboarding process as well. So there are several people on your team that have worked very, very hard and this isn’t taking any credit away from the work that’s been done to get it to this point, but it’s really important to have that third party or even your mom or your dad or a relative, just somebody who’s not involved in the build and the shipping of the code to go through the product and see how they get on.

Victor [06:15]: At that point my mom and dad probably are. So they’re out of that again. Awesome. So let’s go back to the mistakes.

Mark [06:25]: Yeah, sure. So I’ll try and keep it in an order of like the flow of the user’s journey. So first of all, we’re talking about the landing page or maybe the homepage and pricing pages, not having enough social proof, peppered throughout the rest of the site. Oftentimes you might see logos at the top and one testimonial at the bottom or a carousel of testimonials, makes sense to just sprinkle them through the cycles, not everybody’s going to get right down to the bottom. It’s definitely important to have some social proof above the fold as well. When it comes to get started, your call to action, which is driving people to the sign-up page, if you do require a credit card, you should be upfront. If you don’t require a credit card, also be upfront. And again, this is a classic example of you as the business owner knows that you don’t need a credit card to sign up to the product, but a user who’s brand new to the site won’t know that.

[07:10] So over communicate with the users and give these kind of risk reversal tactics to them, so they actually click through and get to that sign-up flow. Moving on the signup flow, I often see that it put additional social proof there as well. Often the classic is kind of login screen on the left and an image or some space on the right. Use that to reinforce the benefits of the product and the social proof that you’ve collected. And when it comes to the signup flow, keep it as minimal as possible. If you do need additional information, do that later in the journey. The main point of this page is just to get somebody to convert into that first run experience.

[07:46] And moving into the first run experience. So not having a welcome screen. So there is just a message that comes up that welcomes the user into your product and not using content, which is human. So I think we just think about it as an after for to kind of keep the standard system text in there, but have somebody who’s I don’t know, if you’re selling or if your product is geared to a particular geography, have somebody from that country or that geography go through that as well, make sure that the tweaks. I actually used a sales CRM, I was testing it out. The main reason I didn’t proceed with it is because the English within the product just wasn’t that good. And the reason why that was an issue for me is because the tool was a CRM and it was going to allow me to use it as a meeting scheduler and the title of the meeting once it was booked, had incorrect grammar in it. And I don’t want that going out in my name and there was no option to change it.

[08:38] And I gave that feedback to the team, but yeah, you’ll lose users like that, especially if the product is going to be customer-facing or external facing. So not having that welcome screen is a big one. And then also not segmenting your users based on their jobs to be done. What are they trying to achieve? How many products offered can solve different problems. So making sure you understand, like what is the reason that they’re using the tool and what they’re hoping to achieve is really important. And that way you can segment your user onboarding through the different flows based on the outcome that they’re hoping to achieve.

[09:12] I think another, a very common one, especially if you’re a product is like, let’s say like a hot java or something that requires some JavaScript to be installed on a website. So if it’s my website and I’ve got access to my WordPress or web flow, I can just go in and put that JavaScript in. If you’re selling to much larger companies, they’re not going to be able to have access to the website. They’ll often have to go to an IT department or the marketing department. So if you don’t show demo data, if you don’t show what the product could look like when somebody’s in there for the first time, whilst they’re waiting for their IT team to install the code, then you’ve missed a huge opportunity. And that person has to be very, very motivated to push and continue to see what the product looks like once they get that Java script installed. Just using that as an example Victor.

[09:57] So show them what their world could be like with demo data so that they can get started to feel what the product is like, start to understand how to use it and to navigate their products too. I think oftentimes you have a product tool. It shows up once and then it disappears. So how do we give people access back to the product tool or to additional learning where they can read and find out more watch videos. And oftentimes once you go for that initial first-run experience, you might be setting up an account or connecting an email domain sort of thing, but then your product has six or seven other modules in it. What is the next step that the user needs to take? And oftentimes a lot of people do the welcome and the welcome screen. They do the quick first run tour but then users left to their own devices to try and work out the rest of the product. And I think that’s pretty much a good summary of the core mistakes I keep seeing time and time again. And Victor I’ve reviewed over 60 of these user onboarding processes now. So that’s from quite a lot of data.

Victor [10:55]: Wow. That’s very helpful. This is from how many, over 60, you said that you’ve reviewed of these sources that you’ve made. So you guys have never really seen it all. Are these mostly B2B apps or B2C apps that you audited?

Mark [11:10]: Yeah, so most of them are B2B. Pretty much all of them in fact are business to business. That’s just because that’s where Helen and my expertise are. So we tend to focus on that and it’s what we know more than anything. So yeah the majority of these are B2B.

Victor [11:25]: Awesome. So that’s a lot of B2B knowledge there. One other thing that I found really interesting from your experience acting to be the least technical user, what did you find more helpful videos or tool tips, or sort of wizards, where you can create things? What did you find more helpful as a user who’s tried so many SaaS apps.

Mark [11:50]: So again, we put ourselves in the shoes of a very non-technical person using the product. So it really does depend on what you’re trying to achieve here. For example, a video is great, but not if it’s a 13 minute video. We like the fact that we do like to see videos there, which walk people through the product. But perhaps you combine that with using live chat and live chat automation, which opens up based on the screen that the person’s on, or you have it in the help docs. Because you have different levels of, I guess competency when it comes to using a product, some people won’t want to watch the video. So always give people the chart, the opportunity to close the mode of the video, if it’s in a mode. Same with the tools and tool tips as well, they can be effective, but it really does come down to the technicality of what you’re trying to get people to actually do and to set up.

Victor [12:42]: What creative solutions have you seen for empty states or for minimizing switching costs and integrating with other solutions?

Mark [12:53]: Yeah. So from an empty state’s point of view, they’re a fantastic opportunity to educate the user and prompt them to action. And it’s a really good opportunity to create a good experience for a user as well. And maybe even add in some humor or personality into the empty states as well. You also don’t want to make people feel bad that the state is empty, that they haven’t done something yet. So yeah, using humor keep it quite minimal. There are plenty of examples online if you were to search for empty state’s best practice, but the key there is to prompt that person and help guide them to take that next appropriate action, which might be to upload a photo. It might be to connect a bank account. It might be to send their first email, but you want to make sure that you’re making that as easy and as simple as possible in those empty states.

Victor [13:38]: So how do you guys exactly help people? So you record a video that they can watch. Is there anything else that comes with it?

Mark [13:46]: Yeah. So at the moment the main service offering is that we record a 15 to 20, sometimes 25 minute video, where we go through a few of your pages on your web site. Typically the home, pricing, sometimes we get into the features we’ve really learned over the years that people are really interested in the user onboarding. So we don’t spend too much time on the website. So we do the website, we go through the signup process. Then we go for the first-run experience and then we have a play around with the product. So after we’ve completed that kind of the first thing that we’re supposed to do with the user onboarding, we’re asking ourselves and we’re talking out loud, would we come back? Would we use this again?

[14:22] Just before we finish the video, we open up our emails to have a look if there’s any onboarding emails that have come through. Typically we’re looking for a welcome email and usually a behavioral based email based on something that we’ve achieved on the inside of the product. And then that video’s recorded and sent over to the customer who’s requested it. And there is an opportunity for them to book an additional call with us where we can go through that in more detail at an additional cost, but all of these reviews are done for $129.

Victor [14:52]: Wow. That’s awesome. Cool. So where do we find out more about you and the product onboarders, where can we get started?

Mark [14:59]: Sure. So I’ve actually put together a checklist, which is pretty much the questions that Helen and I go through when we’re looking at the product onboarding. There’s over 80 items on that checklist and anybody can access that, there’s no need to put your email in to download it. So you can go to So that will give you access to all those 80 questions that we ask. And if you’d like to connect with me, LinkedIn is probably the best place. And you can find me at Mark Colgan.

Victor [15:29]: Awesome. Perfect. Thank you so much. This has been really insightful. Thanks for sharing your insights into the SaaS or onboarding processes of dozens and dozens and dozens of SaaS companies. It’s been a pleasure to have you on
the show.

Mark [15:43]: Cheers Victor. It’s been great. I’ll speak to you soon. Thanks.


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