Self-service onboarding: the critical part of the product success

The onboarding period is critical, as you should show your solution at its best. Otherwise, new users will miss the value of your solution. At PandaDoc, we’ve come a long way and tried different approaches to our onboarding. In this article, we’re going to show you what we’ve learned through this process. 

What is activation? 

Most activation definitions come down to when a new user extracts the solution's value for the first time. It is a simple concept but paramount for any Product-Led Growth company. 

In 2023, the competition will be steep. New users will review several options during their search, compare them, and make a decision. Some decisions are linked to typical buying criteria, such as price, but often, those decisions come down to the product’s benefits. 

Here comes activation. If a new user doesn’t succeed in getting the value at least once, what are the chances the user will even compare the solution with others?

Key thought #1: Until new users identify the solution's core value, you can’t retain them or make them purchase it.

How did we define an activation moment?

A moment when a new user realizes the solution’s value for the first time sounds pretty clear. As product builders, we know exactly what kind of value proposition we communicate. 

Well, this is true and false at the same time: 

  • You may miss the moment when value is extracted as perceived by the users; or
  • You may optimize for one group of new users while rejecting another.

We defined our activation moment as the one when a new user sends their first document. By the end of 2021, a team consisting of a product manager, a product analyst, and a user researcher was working on new activation metric criteria for our evolving product. 

There were three key steps to define an activation metric:

  1. Find actions (or events) that have predictive power on conversion to paid;
  2. Run interviews to understand when users truly understand the value of PandaDoc;
  3. Summarize the findings to pick a metric related to a predictive event supported by the user interviews.

Our product analyst Artsiom Kazubouski used the Critical Success Index (Venn diagram approach) and Information Value / Weight of Evidence approach to assess one variable's predictive power over another. The data analysis helped define a list of actions, their frequency, and predictive power. 

The user research let us understand better what makes people buy PandaDoc products. We talked to recent customers (purchased within the last few weeks) to learn:

  1. What in-product experience defined the moment they realized a desire to pay?
  2. What was their process leading to that moment?
  3. What have they tried in the app?

The third step — summarizing data proved to be much easier than we thought — without complicated Customer Journey Maps (CJMs), connecting different insights, and looking for patterns.

We learned from quantitative and qualitative research that the defining moment is related to creating or using a template to create a document. Quite often, new users went through additional valuable actions when interacting with templates, such as using variables to save time on document creation. 

Then, hindsight kicked in. It made much more sense to measure activation as it relates to the template experience. After all, PandaDoc helps you save time on document management, while many other solutions only offer eSignatures.

Key thought #2: You can define an activation metric based on qualitative and quantitative research. It is simple but not easy.

Activation is part of onboarding

With the new activation metric in sight, we put on our experimenters’ hats and built a lot of hypotheses on how to navigate more users through a template experience. For many products, a significant number of users don’t go through an activation moment. 

We’ve also realized that activation is just a part of the whole product onboarding. When you consider more than just an activation metric, you realize that:

  1. Certain segments of users have additional decision criteria;
  2. Some users prefer different forms of engagement (do, show, tell);
  3. There are additional actions that reinforce the core value proposition.

Then, we set out on a new quest — define an activation moment for different segments and add additional valuable actions that make people more likely to convert. Now we’re personalizing our product by teams (i.e., Sales, HR, Legal). 

We strive to make it easier for users to understand how PandaDoc fits their workflow and business needs. Some teams may have additional preferences that either already exist or need to be developed.

Key thought #3: Activation is great, but building holistic onboarding is even better.

How do we approach experimentation?

We have a core metric — the rate at which new users activate our solution. In addition, there is a set of metrics describing the rate at which they go through additional valuable actions. We focus on the key activation moment but keep adding additional experiments to see whether we can move additional metrics along. 

At PandaDoc, we have a product manager responsible for activation and onboarding. The role requires expertise in user experience (because onboarding can significantly influence UX), empathy, and strong analytical and management skills.

Either way, we have an experimental backlog of:

  1. User experience fixes and changes;
  2. Short and simple experiments;
  3. Bigger bets that significantly change the experience.

We are trying to balance between tiny changes and bigger bets. New users evaluate templates by selecting the right one and learn how to use them using our prompts. Soon, we will experiment with guiding the user through a complete use case (such as building a proposal) through a predefined flow and a template. That takes longer but shows the whole experience from start to finish and lets us not be stuck in local maxima.

Key thought #4: Bigger changes are required to solve the most pressing issues.

Onboarding is never done and never great

Onboarding is a key factor in touching the hearts and minds of new users. Users will go to your competitor if the experience is unclear and fails to meet expectations. 

Given the importance of this part, it will always get a lot of attention from key stakeholders in your organization. Trying to please stakeholders is an easy road to creating Frankenstein’s monster. Instead, you should keep an open mind toward all information and feedback. Also, designate a single person with decision-making power and trust from stakeholders to own the onboarding process. 

On the other hand, the constant stream of opinions highlights how crucial onboarding is and how it can only become better but never great. Users will experience issues during onboarding as they have different preconceptions, skills, and knowledge about your product. So, you should continuously improve and personalize it.

Key thought #5: Expect to have people who won’t get to the activation moment. Just get better and consider the problems of users during onboarding.

Konstantin Valiotti
written by
Konstantin Valiotti
Tamiracle Williams
edited by
Tamiracle Williams
Tasha Levytska
illustrated by
Tasha Levytska
photos and pictures by
PandaDoc and public sources
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