Credit: Stepping Stones on the River Witham, Grantham, UK © John Walton – CC license

This article was first published on LinkedIn March 19, 2019.

Over my years in UX working on subscription-based sites, I’ve seen that one of the biggest sources of frustration for companies is that they invest in attracting site visitors, but the visitors only visit, and don’t sign up for the product that is being offered.

When I sit down to study the sign-up process with research subjects, and ask them to “think aloud” as they go, I hear the same concerns over and over again. What I’ve learned is that visitors fail to sign up not because of the quality of the offering, but because these concerns – their unspoken questions – are not being addressed.

In today’s social world, an ever-increasing chunk of your marketing budget is spent on Google Ads, Facebook advertising, and creating marketing content, with the aim of driving potential subscribers to your site where they can sign up for your product. All this expense is for naught, however, if you aren’t paying attention to the five common user concerns that affect the conversion of visitors to signed-up members once they arrive.

I think of this conversion process as stepping stones across a river, because it’s a sequence; users will never get to the third stepping stone if you can’t get them to the second. For each stepping stone, there is a question in the visitor’s mind that must be answered. Fail to answer the question at any stepping stone, and the user will be gone, and you will never get them across the river to the Land of Membership.

The key mental shift is to ensure that your sign-up workflow provides answers to these user questions, rather than simply talking about your product and having a large Sign Up button on the page.

So here are the five stepping stones and the question in the user’s mind at each step.

1. Branding – Do I like the look of this place?

First impressions matter, and the visitor’s first question is “Do I like the look of this place?” Your home page (or a landing page from a campaign link) is often the user’s first significant interaction with your brand. As we all learned in Marketing 101, brand is about perceptions – it’s what your customers think about you. So obviously you want visitors to get a positive initial branding impression as soon as they hit your site.

Your brand is most readily evoked by your visual identity, which starts with your logo and, if you have one, the logo tagline. The purpose of logo and tagline is to establish a vibe and a brand promise – are we fun and playful (Snapchat), or serious and business-like (Salesforce)? Place the logo top left or top center – that’s where the visitor’s eyes go first. A tagline reinforces that visual tone with words, and conjures up what you offer, not what you do. The Lexus tagline The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection says nothing about cars, but it sure sounds upscale and desirable.

Whatever tone the logo and any tagline establish, that tone should be continued into the design of the site itself through consistent, appropriate and harmonious use of color, typography and imagery. Do a five second scan over your home page without reading it – does it feel good to you? Does the feeling it gives match the brand you want to project? What you want is a unified and instant first impression that says: “We are a professional organization that you can trust.” If it does that, the visitor will then move to the next stepping stone, which is your messaging.

2. Messaging – Is this what I’m looking for?

With some initial trust established, the user now wants to know: “Is this what I’m looking for?” This should be spelled out prominently on the page in a few clear words.

Shopify’s home page does a good job with this. Their home page headline is: “Build your Business – you’ve got the will – we’ve got the way”. Below that, and even stronger, is: “With you from first sale to full scale. One platform with all the ecommerce (sic) and point of sale features you need to start, run, and grow your business.”

All this works together to reassure you that Shopify will support you and has everything you need to sell online. If I’m looking for an e-commerce platform, I’m probably ready to learn more.

Back in 2016, Dropbox’s home page used to state: “Get to all your files from anywhere, on any device, and share them with anyone”. The benefit of what was being offered was absolutely clear. Note they didn’t say ”We offer online file storage and sharing” – that’s a feature statement. Today, as they have grown and added more products and services, their home page message has changed to the vague and less-compelling: “Dropbox is a modern workspace designed to reduce busywork—so you can focus on the things that matter.”

Not only is this statement so fuzzy and generic that you could substitute the name of almost any B2B company into it, it also may be a indicator that their original and clear brand promise of secure online storage is getting diluted as they expand from that highly successful core service into other business areas.

So keep the brand messaging short and specific, and be sure to phrase it as a benefit statement, as Shopify does. Remember that the user’s question is “Is this what I’m looking for?”, not “What do you do?”

A good management team exercise (that will also quickly reveal if you all think you are in the same business!), is to each write a product/benefit statement of under 20 words that summarizes what you offer and how it helps the user. You can tell if it’s user focused, because it will always have the word “you” or ”your” in it (see the examples above). Then as a group, edit and combine the ideas until you get to a product/benefit statement that you all agree captures your unique offering.

3. Features and Benefits – Do you offer specifically what I need?

If the user likes the messaging, their next question is “Do you offer specifically what I need?”, so the next step is to list three to six of the most valuable features of your offering, each with a user benefit. Again, keep things short and focused. For example, for a music recording app you might say: “5,000 drum loops with rhythm-tap search – quickly find the right beat for your song!” Don’t overwhelm the user with all 229 features of your app here – focus on the ones with the highest user value.

You want to provide just enough to keep the user moving toward Sign Up. If you decide you must offer a link to the full feature listing at this point, have that listing display in a modal overlay that can be closed when done, so the user can review it and get right back to the signup flow where they left off.

4. Happy Customers – How do I know you can deliver?

After being highly engaged by your audacious claims about your product’s features and benefits, the visitor’s next question is “How do I know you can deliver?” In short, the user wants to be sure that they are not going to get burned by using your product. The best answer is: “We already have lots of happy users, and here’s what some of them have to say.”

That moving strip of customer logos on so many home pages isn’t just there for bragging rights, but to make a visitor think: If this product is good enough for these known companies, then I can trust it, too.

A couple of brief testimonials can also reassure visitors that happy users already exist. If you are in start up mode, get quotes from beta users. If you are established, get them from companies that are actively using your platform.

It can be hard to get testimonials from busy customers, so sometimes it’s best to simply write up a testimonial yourself, based on what a customer has told you about their experiences, and ask them if they would review and approve it. Again, be sure testimonials include the user benefit aspect: “After using SupportElf for six months, we’ve reduced average issue resolution time to under one hour.” Cite the person’s name if they are willing to let you use it, but at least cite their job title, and company name, or industry sector if you can’t use the company name. If you can get permission to use their headshot too, so much the better – and once they say yes, don’t sit around waiting for them to send it, just grab it from LinkedIn.

5. Pricing – How much is this going to cost?

Of course, before the user is going to sign up, they want to know “How much is this going cost?” If you have two or more paid plans, a pricing table with a column for each plan’s features is a great way to go, and most users are familiar and comfortable with the pricing table format. Offering 14 or 30 day trials is the norm these days, so add a Try Free for X Days button on the best plan. After experiencing all the goodness that the best plan can offer, user are less likely to settle for a less-feature-rich option once the trial is over.

You might decide to initially drive users to just the free trial, and if so, be sure to have an easily-accessible link to the pricing table either in the top level in your navigation, or as a link near the Free Trial button, so users can see what it your product costs after the trial is over before they sign up.

On this topic, let’s go back to Shopify for a moment. If you just search “Shopify” on Google, the top paid link takes you to a Shopify landing page that any new visitor might reasonably think is their home page. This page does a great job of hitting the first four steps, but then misses step five (clear pricing info) by asking the visitor to sign up for a 14 day free trial without offering a way to see what they will pay after the trial is over. There is absolutely no link to any pricing information (or to anything else, for that matter) on this page, only a button that links to the Free Trial sign-up form.

Any visitor might reasonably ask: Why would I spend 14 days building and trying out a new store if I have no idea what it is going to cost me on day 15? – I’m out of here. This show-stopper issue could be solved by simply adding, under the Free Trial button, a View Pricing link that pops up the pricing table. In what feels like an effort by Shopify not to scare people away, I suspect they may be doing just that.

In short, there is one important rule: Don’t fudge on pricing. Make clear the full cost of each paid plan, and the term in months or years of the user’s commitment. Visitors want to know: Are there refunds for early termination? Can I upgrade or downgrade without penalty? How do costs change as I add more users? Be sure that the visitor gets answers to their pricing questions, and can see they don’t need to worry about bait-and-switch tricks. For example, if the discount for paying annually instead of monthly actually requires a 2 year commitment, clearly say so.

Be sure to also provide links to your Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy somewhere on the page, so that the more detail-oriented visitor can review them before they pay.

Finally, while these are the five steps that take the user smoothly and progressively towards actually signing up, there is one more question the user may have at any point along the way.

About Us – Who are you?

I don’t include “Who Are You?” as one of the stepping stones, as it’s not part of the sequential flow; the visitor may decide to take a quick diversion to view it at any point in the Sign Up journey.

However, especially if you are offering an expensive business product, it’s very good practice to give visitors the option to learn about the people behind the company. It’s not enough to have a company description, although that is good, too. What counts is your team, so provide a page with pics and brief bios of the management team and the board.

You build tremendous trust when you are willing to show the team behind the product. Adding links to your LinkedIn profiles only add to that trust. The link to About Us (or whatever you choose to call it) can be in the footer links or a menu, but just make sure it can be easily found in a logical place if the user chooses to look for it.


If your site can successfully answer the five stepping stone questions, a visitor is more likely to fill out your Request a Demo form or reach for their credit card, and become a new customer on your platform.

From a design perspective, whether you lay out the steps in a single scrolling page (see Mailchimp for a well-executed example of the stepping stones down their scrolling home page), or a series of linked individual pages, focus on keeping the visitor moving smoothly across those stepping stones. Provide enough information to keep the user moving forward, but no more. It’s fine to offer links to those extra details on-page or in the navigation, but don’t clutter up the user’s progress towards the sign up form. Conducting user testing before you take the sign-up flow live to see if you have just the right amount of info to move users along, and fine-tuning and re-testing, can pay big dividends.

Once you see the sign-up process as guiding the user through a series of discrete steps, you will make better decisions about how to design your sign-up flow, so that it progressively increases trust and interest. Once live, you can build a funnel of the sign-up pages, using enterprise tools such as Pendo or Hotjar, or the free but more limited “goals/funnels” feature of Google Analytics, and see at which steps visitors drop off. Then you can rework those problem pages to maximize the number of users that move on to the next step, and ultimately sign up and pay for your service.

I hope this article helps you see your sign-up process as a means of answering the unspoken concerns of potential customers as they look for solution to their business need. Addressing those concerns in a logically sequenced and informative workflow can set you apart from your competitors, and increase the number of visitors who become paying customers.

I’m a UX Designer with over twenty years experience based in Charleston, SC. If I can help you with a UX initiative, please message me on LinkedIn.