UX Design for SaaS: The Ultimate Guide

May 17, 2024
Min read
Writing team:
Dmytro Trotsko
Senior Marketing Manager
Dmytro Trotsko
Senior Marketing Manager
Oleksandr Perelotov
Co-Founder and Design Director
Oleksandr Perelotov
Co-Founder and Design Director

SaaS moves swiftly. What remains constant, however, is high user expectations. According to PwC, 73% of users see UX as pivotal in their purchasing choices. This figure is projected to grow even further.

This isn't just a catchy intro. It's a critical reality. In this fast-paced SaaS scene, delivering exceptional user experiences isn't just a luxury—it's a necessity. In this article, we’ll show you how.

The big picture of SaaS UX

While the concept of UX has been around for at least 30 years, it’s not widely understood. So let’s take a look at the big picture.

UX design is not a monolithic concept. Rather, it comprises multiple facets that together create a holistic impression for users.

One useful framework for understanding these facets is the model proposed by Nielsen Norman Group in 2008. The model divides UX into three core elements: utility, usability, and desirability.

An onion chart illustrating the hierarchy among UX components: utility, usability and desirability

Utility in UX (SaaS or otherwise) refers to the practical value that a product provides to its users. No amount of usability or good aesthetics will compensate for the absence of utility.

Usability ensures your users can easily operate your product. No matter how valuable the product is, if users struggle to use it, it won't succeed.

Lastly, desirability involves emotional appeal and product aesthetics. While it may seem less critical, user expectations are at an all-time high. In a competitive landscape, if your product looks subpar, you risk losing users.

The hierarchy is simple. You start with utility, then prioritise usability, and lastly focus on desirability. Precisely in that order.


The utility of SaaS apps

Before a thousand lines of code, it’s best to make sure your product idea is viable. Here are a few ways we help clients ensure there’s a market for their SaaS app:

Deep interviews

Deep interviews work best for the early stages of SaaS ideation. They refine and define your concept, offering insight when certainty is scarce.

With our clients, we typically start with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is only good when it’s falsifiable, specific, and relevant.

From there, we need to find respondents to talk to. If you can’t find them directly, there are platforms such as userinterviews.com. During an interview, your goal is to listen. Remember: you’re not pitching, so say very little and take lots of notes.

A designer conducting a deep interview
Having multiple screens helps take notes more efficiently | a picture taken from our office

Once you conduct enough interviews, you can conclude and form further hypotheses if necessary. How do you know if you conducted enough interviews? – For us, a good indicator is starting to hear the same answers consistently.

Proof of concept & kickstarters

Interviews are a great start. They do help in eliminating uncertainty. However, the only way to gauge the real market response is by offering something to the market. The best two ways of doing that are PoCs and kickstarter campaigns.

Proof of concept:

PoC is like your end product idea. But much-much simpler. We recommend our clients execute only the core features so that users can see the unique value proposition. User testing and feedback during the PoC phase help assess the utility of your idea.

Kickstarter campaigns:

One of the most compelling ways to gauge support is to have users commit. The best proxy for commitment is money. If, even before launch, users get excited about your idea, then you’ve struck gold.

A screenshot from kickstarter where there's a person raising funds for their SaaS tool

What if your SaaS is Launched

If you already have a live product, here are a few metrics to see if you have any issues with utility:

Metric Definition Benchmark ranges
Monthly recurring revenue (MRR) Predictable revenue generated from subscriptions Growth rate: 10-20% monthly
Annual recurring revenue (ARR) An annualized version of monthly recurring revenue For companies at 1-5M in ARR, the median YoY ARR Growth Rate is between 52% and 59. The top quartile is between 102% and 154%.
Customer acquisition cost (CAC) Cost to acquire a new customer < 12 months' worth of revenue
Customer lifetime value (CLTV) Predicted net profit attributed to the entire future relationship with a customer > 3x CAC
Churn rate Percentage of customers who cancel subscriptions < 5% annually
Monthly active users (MAU) Unique users who engage with the platform in a month The average DAU/MAU for SaaS products is 13%
Net promoter score (NPS) Measure of customer loyalty and satisfaction > 27 is considered good

If you do comfortably fit into most of those ranges, you likely have a PMF.

If a few of your metrics don’t fit in these ranges, don’t get upset too soon. These are super generalized. Additionally, for metrics like CAC, the problem could be marketing and not the lack of market.

However, if you’re struggling with too many for comfort, it’s either:

  • You need to rebuild your UX from the ground up
  • You’ve built a product no one wants

The general rule of thumb for any metric is that it should be moving in the right direction. Having that is more valuable than fitting into a generalized benchmark.

Is your SaaS usable?

This is not a yes or no question. It’s rather how useable is your product. There are metrics and activities to help.

The easiest way to gauge usability is to do usability testing. Generally, it takes five users to spot 80% of all usability issues. As a consequence of usability testing, we can measure things such as success rates, time spent on tasks, error rates, etc. This research method is your go-to if your users are easy to access.

A chart illustrating diminishing returns in usability issues spotted after the fifth usability testing session
A graph that illustrates why you only need 5 users for testing | Source

All usability tests are based on a prototype. A prototype is essentially a sequence of linked screens. It looks something like this:

A collection of 18 screens that are interconnected with arrows

Then, after completing all usability testing sessions, we create a report. It features all usability issues and then ranks them based on severity and ease of fixing. Here's a snippet from such a report:

Two mobile design screens that contain comments about usability issues

There are a few useful quantitative pointers as well. For instance, things such as activation rates, completion rates, and time on tasks can offer additional context. There’s a big but though.

Many metrics may be influenced by factors other than design. Poor development, for instance, may be a significant contributing factor.

Things are even trickier though. It’s not immediately obvious whether the issue is usability or utility.

How do you know which one is it? – The next chapter’s for you.

Utility vs usability in SaaS

In our experience, it’s rarely obvious whether you have issues with utility or usability. Sometimes, it’s both. Sometimes, it’s neither. You have to use common sense. However, here’s a table to get you thinking in the right direction:

Metric Problems with utility Problems with usability
User engagement Low engagement, low usage frequency
User feedback Comments on lack of relevance or value Complaints about difficulty in navigation, understanding
User behavior Users quickly abandon the product Users spend time but struggle with certain features or workflows
Competitive analysis Competitors' products with similar functionality are more successful Competitors' products have similar utility but are easier to use
User needs assessment Users' core needs are not addressed by the product Users' goals are hindered by usability issues
Iterative testing Improvements to functionality lead to increased user adoption and satisfaction Enhancements to usability lead to smoother user experiences, as shown by metrics such as retention, churn, activation, etc.

Desirability in SaaS

If you struggle with desirability alone, we have good news for you. This problem is the easiest to fix. Doing reskins with no structural changes is fast and painless coding-wise.

However, projects like that don't happen too often. We've been doing UX for SaaS for around 6 years now and have never encountered a product that had issues with desirability alone.

UX SaaS best practices

We know you know the obvious stuff. As such, we’ll talk about things that we see our clients struggle with the most.


Does every user need to be onboarded? – No, but the onboarding flow should be always available. Users should be able to skip and resume onboarding at any time.

The goal of any onboarding is to get the user to perform the core action. In Slack, for instance, the core action is to add your teammates and start chatting. While this core action will vary greatly based on the kind of product you have, the goal is the same – to have the user reach an aha moment.

A screenshot from Slack onboarding with a prompt to invite colleagues to the workspace

Not every onboarding needs to be a simple carousel though. The intensity of onboarding depends solely on how complex your product is. Simple walkthroughs work better for simple products. Beyond that, you may need to look for other solutions.

A carousel of four mobile screens that illustrate an onboarding flow
An example of onboarding we designed for multiplatform app

Onboarding comes in different shapes and forms. Below, we’ve listed a few common approaches. Please note that they are not mutually exclusive. A SaaS product can utilize various methods.

Onboarding type Best use case Examples
Interactive tutorials Complex products with many features Adobe Photoshop, Trello, Salesforce
Guided tours Products with intricate UI/UX Google Workspace, Asana, Slack
Onboarding checklists Products with multiple setup steps Dropbox, Canva, Mailchimp
Personalized onboarding Products with customizable features Spotify, Netflix, LinkedIn
Product tours New products or major updates Airbnb, Shopify
Contextual help/tooltips Products with complex features or terminology Evernote, GitHub
Progressive onboarding Products with a learning curve Duolingo, Sketch, Strava

One final note we’d like to make about SaaS onboarding is that it should be self-served. That’s the best approach if you’re looking to scale eventually. Assigning manual help makes sense business-wise only for expensive products.

Don’t bloat your backlog

If your product is new, you don’t have the time to build dozens of features. The market is too saturated and fast-moving for that. A much better approach is to start with an MVP or an MLP.

The thing is that all research in the world will not guarantee success. That’s not to discredit the research. What we’re suggesting is that the only way to know for sure whether there’s really a market for your ideas is to launch it. That’s the value of an MVP/MLP.

Deciding between an MVP and an MLP depends on priorities. An MVP aims for speed and efficiency, focusing on essential features to validate the concept. Meanwhile, an MLP prioritizes user experience, aiming to delight early adopters with polished functionality. Consider factors like audience, resources, and timeline to choose the right approach.

Retention is everything

Any SaaS operates on a subscription basis. As such, it is your strategic goal to ensure a customer stays subscribed for as long as possible.

User retention is a huge topic in itself, but here are the best ways to keep retention high:

Building habit loops

Retention is all about having your users come back time and again. In other words, you need to nurture a habit. To do that, we recommend utilizing habit loops.

In simple terms, a habit loop requires three steps. First, you need a trigger. This trigger then initiates a designated action, which in turn rewards the user.

The tricky part is deciding which action is worth incentivizing, and which reward is meaningful.  

A loop that goes from trigger to action to reward and then back to trigger again
Image credit: Reforge

Building meaningful engagement

Another helpful tool is building engagement. You can break down engagement into interest, involvement, and interactions. In other words, ask yourself: what can I do to keep users engaged, and interested, and have them interact with my brand?

An example that we like giving is Grammarly. What they did was find a way to send engaging e-mails. Look at the screenshot below.

An e-mail from Grammarly that says "you were more accurate than 65% of Grammarly users"

How cool is it to know your accuracy? Especially compared to that of other users? That way, they’ve significantly expanded the number of touchpoints and created an additional trigger.

Nurturing a community

An additional way to retain users is to involve them in social activities. That way, your product becomes something more than just a SaaS app.

An example that we like giving is ahrefs. This is one of the best SEO tools on the market. Among other things, they’ve published a book, maintained one of the largest SEO YouTube channels, and regularly published new blogs and research. And they do live events and conferences as well.


In other words, Ahrefs managed to build a community of fans.

You can’t look worse than competitors

User expectations are not what they once were. There’s a new generation entering the workforce. They’re much less likely to tolerate legacy tools that have been around for years and years. Good aesthetics are no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Micro animations, illustrations, and a vibrant identity are no longer nice-to-haves. To delight is as important as to deliver value.

Here's an example of microanimations from a recent SaaS project we did.


We know things are chaotic. You’ve had some design help here, and some there. Some changes you had to implement yourself. While this is natural, it certainly doesn’t help either you or the user.

Inconsistent design patterns are one of the easiest ways to confuse users. Things such as icons, naming and UX writing conventions, layout patterns, and whatnot need to be consistent. Because intuitive design is what follows. Things are only intuitive if we have similar experiences in the past which we can extrapolate on the new encounters with your product.

Example of an ordered design system | Screenshot taken from our Web SaaS project Club Ready

Users aside, design inconsistencies do a disservice to you as well. Messy design files will only get messier with time. That’s why you should, if you haven’t already, maintain order.

UX Writing

Before you roll your eyes, let us just tell you this. UX Writing isn’t common sense. It may seem to be that, but it’s not.

Just look at any piece of software, SaaS or otherwise, and you will see mostly text. It accounts for a good chunk of the human-device communication. Don’t let it become an afterthought.

In a messy new SaaS tool environment, typically it’s the developers who handle a large chunk of the UX copy for things like errors. And that’s how you get things like “error 890: bad gateway”. Needless to say, this message is not very helpful.


We’ve saved the best for last. As cliche as it may sound, most of the advice in this article boils down to empathy. Empathy to find a problem worth solving, and offering an adequate solution. Empathy to listen and evaluate your product. Empathy to be user-centric.

This isn’t just a buzzword, mind you. It’s an underlying principle that should govern your product decision. Put users first, and you are already ahead of many competitors.


UX for SaaS is tough. However, with a few UX basics in mind, the task becomes that much more manageable. Whether you have a launched product or just thinking of building one, the tips should give you a solid foundation.

And if you’re still struggling, we’re always here to help. Drop us a line or schedule a call anytime.

Xilo – SaaS Product Redesign

Discover how we redesigned XILO, a quoting and sales automation platform

Preview of the case

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