Should you remove onboarding questions to reduce friction?

If you have been part of a product or growth team that works on activation, you must have heard of this idea at one point:

“Let’s remove onboarding questions!” 

At a glance, it makes sense:

  • You are asking a bunch of questions before showing value.
  • Fewer steps = less friction.

But then why does every SaaS product still ask them?

TV gif. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney in HIMYM goes "what?" before his face contorts and he follows up with, "why" much more aggressively.

The answer is actually quite simple. Because by removing them, you will lose more than you gain:

  1. The data offers strategic value in helping you refine your ICP & anti-personas.
  2. Different users activate differently. You won’t get to personalize the onboarding journey if you don’t have the data to base it on.
  3. The data acts as a proxy to measure your acquisition quality. Whom you bring into the house is just as important as what you do after they come in. If most of your signups are low-intent or non-target, nothing you do inside the product will help much. Or worse, you end up making changes to please non-target while hurting the experience of your ICP.

The question “How did you find us?” reveals acquisition channels you should double down on. Self-declared attribution is becoming increasingly valuable as software-buying behavior evolves and 3rd-party tracking becomes a thing of the past.

Chris Walker from Refine Labs talks about this “Dark Funnel” concept a lot. I highly recommend that you check out his argument.

Also, since onboarding questions are so common in SaaS, a user who drops off during this flow likely has extremely low intent to begin with. Even if you remove the flow, they’ll simply drop off at the next step. I’ve run this test on six different products and got the same result every single time.

However, this does not mean…

  • You can ask a gazillion of questions. Be reasonable and don’t ask for things you can get programmatically (e.g. locale, device) or from 3rd-party enrichment services (e.g. Clearbit).
  • You don’t care about optimizing the conversion rate of this flow at all. In my experience, a 90%-95% conversion rate is what you should aim for.

An alternative approach that I have seen is to ask onboarding questions in the second session or later. While this approach can be valid, keep in mind that:

  • Most people who sign up for a SaaS product do not return after the first session. By asking only those who have, the data will have a stronger sampling bias.
  • The user experience is not necessarily better. Some users may actually prefer to get through this hurdle at the beginning rather than have their flows interrupted later on.

For these reasons, I don’t recommend reinventing the wheel. Instead, focus on using the answers you get to improve the experience that comes afterward. A good way to think about this is using the “Psych Framework” created by Darius Contractor. In a nutshell, you want to maintain the “Psych-level” of users by balancing giving and capturing value. 

Remember, activation is not simple addition and subtraction. A tactic might improve a secondary metric but introduce negative effects down the road. You always have to consider the big picture.

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Hi, I’m Austin!

I love exploring new ways of building and growing products. If this sounds like your cup of tea, feel free to get in touch.

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Austin Yang profile

Hi, I’m Austin.

I write about product management, SaaS, growth, plus anything that comes to mind during hot showers.