The (in)famous walkthrough.

Where do you draw the line between a walkthrough and onboarding? Or to put it another way, are these terms interchangeable? I asked this very question on Twitter.

Image of a tweet asking the question, do you use the terms Walkthrough and Onboarding interchangeably
image of a tweet from Brian Casel, giving his version of what the difference between onboarding and a walkthrough is.
Image of Connor Lindsey on Twitter giving his definition of what onboarding and walkthroughs are.

Even experienced SaaS founders differ in their definition of what walkthroughs and customer onboarding are. Many use these terms interchangeably and expect others to know which bit we're referring to. So, let's look at customer "onboarding" as a whole experience. Or to put it another way, the first few minutes of a new customer journey.

The new customer journey.

How do you give your trial users the best chance of converting to paid customers? This is a tough one as it varies from SaaS to SaaS, however, there are mistakes that I see over and over in my customer onboarding reviews. Mistakes you'll want to avoid.

  • Forcing your customers through a walkthrough. While you might think you’re doing them a favour, you’re creating resentment. It's far better to give them the option to ignore it altogether, come back later, or start looking around immediately.
  • Letting users skip the walkthrough and then having no way to get back. This is important, and it happens all the time. Just because someone doesn’t want to go through your onboarding right now, it doesn’t mean they won’t want to later. Make it easy to get back to the walkthrough if they choose to. Show them that it will still be available in Settings or in the help widget. Wherever is appropriate. Just don't cut them off without warning.
  • Abandoning your trial users on the dashboard and offering no help… at all! This is more common than you might expect, (particularly in newer, smaller apps). Yet when we experience it ourselves it gives the impression that the app is unfinished or that the founders simply don’t care enough about our success.
  • Constantly reminding your customer that they are a bad person/user. And how do we do this? We continually remind them that they've failed to complete "X". You know those sticky reminders...“You've only filled out 65% of your profile details”. This is incredibly frustrating, especially if the customer thinks there’s no way to complete this data to the satisfaction of your software. What if I didn't go to university or what if I don't have a certificate etc? It becomes incredibly demoralizing... and ends up marring the new user's experience! Let them dismiss these warnings if they don’t think they're relevant. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself, is what we're asking for 100% necessary for their success?
  • Thinking that onboarding just shows people how your app works. Outside of this basic function, onboarding can also be incredibly useful for collecting important data in bite-sized chunks. Forcing new users to give you all their data as soon as they've signed up can be too much, too soon. Give them time to look around and soak it all in. If something is not vital to their immediate success, give them a break.
  • Custom building the onboarding yourself. Go on, admit it, you’re already planning how to build this out. With so many existing solutions out there you’d be crazy to build something. Put your skills to better use! Here are seven examples to check out: 

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User onboarding. Isn’t it the same as a walkthrough?

I hope we can see that there's overlap between the walkthrough and onboarding. For me, the walkthrough is the opening chapter of customer onboarding.

We can think of a typical walkthrough as an introduction to the basic functions of your app. It's a "You-can-do-this, you-can-do-that", kind of thing.

  • This is where you build your proposals. 
  • This is where you update your account details.
  • This is where you can find help.

The walkthrough does as its name suggests. It walks users through the software. 

However, onboarding typically goes beyond this. Over a defined period of time, it subtly (or not in some cases) pushes the user to a point where they are ready to become a paying customer. 

You wouldn’t leave new users to fend for themselves after finishing the walkthrough. Not if you wanted to improve their chances of success. You’d nurture them through continued onboarding.

There are plenty of resources that can be incorporated into your onboarding, for example: 

Drip emails. These help new customers (and old ones) get the most out of your software. They can be triggered by an action or the fact that a user fails to take an action. For example, if you know that most new customers (who convert) send a proposal within the first two days, then you’d better do all you can to help new users do the same! Having this knowledge means you can automatically email new users who haven't sent a proposal by the end of day two. Encouraging them to do so will help them reach that "aha" moment.

Onboarding Calls. Few people like doing onboarding calls, but some trial users prefer to be onboarded by a real person. It helps to instil trust and can make the time from trial to paid user quicker. One way to do this is to make the option available during the initial walkthrough, from within a chat widget or even via one of those automated emails you’ll be sending out. 

Ongoing education. Initially, new users want to learn enough about your software to get the job done. But the less time they must spend in your app, the better. So, educating them on how to get the most out of your software can turn them from customers into fans. They’ll be far happier with your software knowing that they can get the job done in half the time. Ongoing education, via a newsletter linked to recent blog posts, or new and updated knowledge base articles can be great. Whatever works for your users.


I hope by now you can see the importance of onboarding new customers and doing it in a way that doesn't overwhelm them. The tricky thing about onboarding is that every user is different, yes you might be using user personas (which is great), but user personas will only get you so far. You will need to test, (live user tests are awesome) iterate and test again. No one gets it right the first time, or the second. Successful onboarding can significantly impact your growth, so getting it right just makes financial sense, right?

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