Forget about the "Aha!" moment

Imagine some car company rolled out a completely new car. No pedals, no steering wheel. Beautiful futuristic self-driving car. When you came to the dealership, they proposed you to take a car to test drive for 14 days. No credit card required. Then you could decide whether you want to buy it or not. Great so far. You fill in forms, sign some papers and ready to go.

GM self-driving car

GM self-driving car

There is one problem though, you have no idea how to even start this car. It has one giant screen with tens of buttons, no pedals or steering wheel. Of course, you’ve got a 375-page manual and zero intention to read it. There is a guy, who suggests you upgrade to better version now. That’s it.

Now, here is the deal, you already own a car. It’s yours, it’s okay, you get used to it and even love it. There are hundreds of other car companies and you surely can find something less complicated. A car that doesn’t make you feel stupid. Frustrated and disappointed you leave.

It doesn’t matter how great your product is if you can’t show it the right way to your potential customer, explain the benefits and major features, help him/her learn at least the very minimum required to understand how great your product actually is, you have no business. Would you agree with me on that?

I strongly believe that great first-time user onboarding and activation process is the key to a successful and thriving business. The biggest question is how can we achieve that?

The “Aha!” moment

Have you ever heard of the “Aha!” or “Wow” moment? I bet you did. In the world of SaaS startups, those are “moments” when a user suddenly realise the full potential of your product.

David Skok describes “Wow!” as “the moment in a free trial where your buyer suddenly sees the benefit they get from using your product, and says to themselves ‘Wow! This is great!’. It’s also the moment where you have converted them into a fan who is likely to buy.”

Samuel Hulick says that “Aha!” moment is “the point where the clouds suddenly part for the user and the high-level benefits and abstract notions you’ve been preaching immediately become startlingly, excitingly clear.”

My name is Tony Freed. I specialise in user onboarding and activation rates optimisation for SaaS startups. And I strongly recommend you forget about the “Aha!” moment. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. Absolutely not. But, I think that “Aha!” moment, as an idea, is harmful.

Here is why.

Too vague

There is no single clear definition of “Aha!” moment. Everyone explains it as he/she wants. Moreover, the explanations are always too vague which leads to a lot of confusion. Definitions like “buyer suddenly sees” or “the point where the clouds suddenly part” sound too magical. We’re researchers looking for patterns, not alchemists looking to transform base metals into gold or find an elixir of life.

It’s vital to have onboarding and activation performance indicators. It’s paramount to have clear goals for a first-time user journey. “Aha!” moment isn’t one of them because it lacks clear simple definition.


Even Ty Magnin’s very simple explanation of “Aha!“ moment doesn’t help much - “the moment when new users first realize value in your product.” The problem, in my opinion, is that it can happen at any moment starting from visiting product’s website. I mean, try to explain the very same thing (some theory or a movie for example) to two different people and the chances are high that one may need more time and explanations, while another one got it before you even finished.

Same about digital products. The realisation may come to your customers at different times of their journey or even not come at all. And that’s alright. They might still use your product and be happy.

Some customers may fully realise what your product is about on your landing page. Suddenly they will see their exciting future with your product in details. Love at the first sight. Together forever.

For others, it may happen after months or even years of active product usage. Suddenly they will realise how important your product to them or how powerful it actually is or how much better it is than anything else on the market.

“Aha!” isn’t the goal

But even if they reached that point of realisation, what does it mean for you? What’s next? The realisation of potential value is necessary for product adoption. The problem is that it doesn’t lead to purchase or even stickiness.

I fully understand, moreover, realise the full potential of healthy food... you know… I’m fully aware of the benefits… till Friday night.

Same about any app. I may say “Wow! How cool is that!”, but that doesn’t mean I’ll buy it or even use it. Because if I said “Wow!” or “fully understood the potential value”, it doesn’t mean I want to invest in it and, what’s even more important, feel the need. It means that I understood the idea and like it. That’s it.

I won't become a happy, loyal, paying customer with great LTV, NPS of 10 and whatever, after saying “Whoa, I can have super strong passwords without having to remember any of them? That’s awesome!”. Not at all. All it supposed to do is to help me realise that I have some level of expertise, it’s not so hard and I can do it, and the product is actually helpful and does what it promised to do.

So, what’s the alternative? I would argue that there is only one way - the systematic approach.

Systematic approach

As I previously wrote, I don’t think there is another approach except for systematic research. Clear goals, well-defined problems and continues study are the keys to great results such as better retention and lower churn.

I would love to propose you my approach to customer onboarding and activation. It’s a 4 step process that describes everything users go through to become power users starting from the very first website visits. The steps are: “preparing”, “onboarding”, “activating” and “empowering”.

Let’s take a closer look at each step.


Preparing step is where the potential customer discover and learn about our product before signing up. It can be our website or a landing page, ads, social and blog posts, chat with sales rep, or things that he/she heard about the product from other people (including existing or ex. customers). It’s the step where we make a promise to improve users life in a particular way, set up expectations and defining communication style. If he/she is curious enough, trusts us enough, or maybe feels some sort of connection or respect (depending on product), he/she will sign up to continue exploring our product or service.

The goal

So, the goal of this step is to make prospect users understand what we promise to do for them and make them feel that they can trust us, that we can potentially deliver on this promise and improve their lives in a particular way, and the whole process won’t be hard and stressful.

If a user doesn’t understand what the product is about he/she is unlikely to sign up. If a user doesn’t have enough trust in us, he/she is unlikely to sign up. If a user doesn’t believe that we can do whatever we promised to do, he/she is unlikely to sign up. If a user thinks that it would be hard, he/she is unlikely to sign up.

Depending on the industry and target audience we will have to put more attention to different features like trust or benefits. For example, some products required to prove very early that they are secured. Some may provide service that is so innovative that it’s hard to believe they can actually deliver on that promise they make and so on. But the goal is always the same.

The research

How can we achieve that goal? First of all, we have to know our customers very well. Who they are, what they believe in, what they fear of, etc. Customers interviews is a great way to collect such information. Interviews might be hard to do right, and I’m writing a complete guide to customer/persona development interviews, so stay tuned.

Second of all, we have to test our page to see if we provide the right information and visuals to achieve our goal. In my opinion, the best way to do that is 5-second tests where you show the page (landing page or website page) to a potential customer for 5 seconds and then ask him/her what he/she understood, feels, and so on.

The measurement

The result we are striving for is more sign-ups. So, the performance indicator here is simply sign-ups to visits ratio.

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Onboarding step is where users meet our product for the very first time (may include multiple interactions though). It’s a process of leading a customer to the point of initial success or realisation of potential value.

The goal

The goal of user onboarding is to make users decide to give us a chance and start using our product. We can achieve that goal by providing the best possible first-time experience that helps users realise that our product can actually deliver on the promise we made in the previous step.

User onboarding includes registration, first interaction with the product, emails and other forms of communication that the company uses during that short time learning period.

Registration is part of user onboarding funnel as it’s the very first screens that a user interacts with. If a user feels that registration is hard, frustrating or confusing, we already failed. Because that’s what the user thinks now about the whole product.

Send too many notifications, and users might feel overwhelmed. That what they feel now about your product.

A great experience is vital here. I’m not talking about UI, I’m talking about user experience - what he/she does and what he/she feels. If you can make users achieve something and “celebrate” that success with them, you have to. If you can’t, make them feel at home. This is where the realisation of potential value comes from. This is the moment where you can distinguish your brand from others and make users like you and remember you.

The research

It’s not easy to create a great first-time experience that will make a user feel good about your product. Customers interviews and controlled observation user research will help you to do that. Once again, knowing your customer's needs, wants and expectations are crucial here. But in order to create a really great experience, we have to watch them going through our onboarding knowing what do they feel and think at each moment.

There are two ways to achieve the onboarding goal: “initial success” and “realisation of potential value”.

“Initial success” is a process of pushing a customer to take some product related task, complete that task and “celebrate” their success emphasising on how easy and fun it was. For example, If your product helps customers to communicate with others, make them send a message to somebody as soon as possible. If your product helps customers to create images (logos of example), lead them through some simple image creation process as soon as possible. But remember that experience doesn’t matter if you not “celebrating” user’s achievement. It’s what they did, it’s how they feel about it. Show a huge “congrats” popup, give a medal, update their status, etc.

However, sometimes it’s simply not possible to lead a customer to some achievement. For example, it’s pretty hard to make users achieve something meaningful during a CRM onboarding. The realisation of potential value is the moment when a user understands how the product actually looks and works, and can understand/experience the single most important feeling. For example, Pipedrive emphasises how easy it is to use their product. That’s what a customer should feel through onboarding. At Cardlife we put a lot of attention to security and efficiency and that’s what we tried to make our customers feel through onboarding.

Know your customer and your product.

The measurement

The goal of onboarding is to make sure a user comes back again and ready to give us a chance and start using a product. Thus, our main metric for user onboarding is initial churn - how many users come for the second time.

However, there are additional performance indicators we should take into account: how many people dropped-off during onboarding and how many people actually started to use our product. While the first one is pretty obvious, the second one is not so much. We have to know what is the minimum set of actions users have to take to start using our product.

For example, when I’ve been working with Cardlife (helps companies manage their SaaS subscriptions expenses) we knew that a user had finished onboarding and entered the activation phase when he first used a Cardlife card to pay for a subscription.


The user been to your website and decided to sign up. After registration and short onboarding process, she decided that the product looks promising and can potentially save time / make something easier / reduce costs / etc. So, now she’s trying to carry out some real tasks.

The goal

This is not an onboarding phase anymore. Now our goal is to make the product an integral part of the user’s life. It’s a process that can take weeks or months, sometimes have to be restarted, slowed down or accelerated depending on user’s activity. But the most important part of it is the first month (more or less). During that period users should go from curiosity to effortless use of the basic features, and from scepticism to the idea that the product worth paying for.

A perfectly onboarded user who was excited and amazed by the product at first may disappear very quickly without proper activation. Lack of activation is the second reason for churn. Lack of proper user onboarding reduces dramatically the chances for successful activation.

The research

Activation requires from us to know what is the perfect usage scenario for each user persona. Using interview, surveys and usability tests we will learn more about our users, how their day looks like, what do they currently do to solve the problem our product suppose to solve, and what prevents them from becoming active, happy and paying customers. This is rarely about features, but usually about usability.

Re-activation happens a lot and requires attention to customer’s activity and tracking their health. For example, a friend of mine owns a gyms chain. We worked together to understand how he can reduce churn. Analysing the data he had we understood that if a gym member visits a gym only twice a week he/she has almost 80% chance to cancel his/her subscription during the next couple of months. So, he asked receptionists to check status with each “not healthy” member and even give him/her an hour with a personal trainer for free. Worked great.

The measurement

How to measure activation? That fully depends on the product, but basically, when an activated user is as active as we expect him to be, he/she is activated. Active means that he/she uses all the basic features and has healthy retention.


A few months went by since the user signed up started to use our product. She is active and healthy. Now we can move on and try to upgrade her to become a power user (or hero).

The goal of this step is to convert an active and happy user into a power user who knows every aspect of the product, feels that we have the same worldview and willing to help others adopt our solution. Such customer is very unlikely to churn and also will be your best advocate and promoter. There is no better marketing than word-of-mouth.

To convert a regular user to a power user we need to onboard him/her to power features or celebrate his/her investment in the product (for those who’ve been helping others in product community for example). Since we’re talking about user onboarding and activation, let’s focus on power features. Those are features that can make usage easier (for example, shortcuts) or provide advanced abilities (for example, custom reports and dashboards).

Inviting active and healthy customers to participate in close webinars and workshops dedicated to power features is one of the smartest decision growing company can make. It’s much better than any in-app features onboarding funnel. At this point it has to be personal.

How can we measure results? Each case is different, but I would suggest you to put attention on churn among power users (which supposed to be extremely low), health and referrals.


Growing your SaaS startup is hard. Moreover, it’s harder than ever. Cost of acquisition is up across the board, customers have more options and less patience than ever. There is no room for magic and guesses. Only a systematic approach and continues research can provide great results.

I suggest you think about user path for product adoption as a 4 step process: preparing, onboarding, activating and empowering. Each step has clear goals and requires particular research and knowledge about users.

If you have any question, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll be happy to chat.