Your app’s first impression matters the most and draws a fine line between retention and abandonment. It defines the aha moment of your app and in most cases, decides how long a user is going to be with you. 

For a user, using a new app is just like meeting a person for the first time. They will not really know how your app works and what it does. In such a situation, an app onboarding process can be the handshake you initiate, giving users the confidence to interact more with your app.

What Is Mobile App Onboarding?

App onboarding is a method of letting your users get to know what your app is about and its features. It is one of the most crucial yet overlooked campaigns that can increase an app’s retention rate by 50%

The main objective of an onboarding process is to help users get familiarised with the functionalities of your app, leaving no room for confusion. This is particularly important for apps that have sophisticated features. Otherwise, users will have a hard time understanding how and when to use each feature.

UX designers borrowed this term from the glossary of human resource management, and it is essentially the same – showing new users around how things work within your app, systematically. The effectiveness of app onboarding is critical because if the users don’t understand your app, they are not likely to ever use it, not to mention the fact that 21% of users will use your app once and never return.

Why You Should Develop App Onboarding

Every great product requires a user manual to unlock its full experience, and the app onboarding process is one that does it visually and interactively, with the least amount of time possible (ideally less than one minute to be precise). And yes, it is crucial that you be as concise as possible. Otherwise, you will be a killjoy, dampening the user’s excitement to try out the app.

If your app’s user interface is highly self-explanatory, for example, as the flappy bird game, and requires minimal instructions to start with, then the onboarding process can be considered an option. For anything beyond that, an onboarding app tour is a sheer necessity to inform, engage and retain users in the long run.

If your app has any of the following, then an onboarding campaign is a matter of retention and abandonment.

  • A concept that has minimal usage and requires assistance to start with.
  • A workflow, which will be hard for a first-timer to comprehend. 
  • An interface that requires users to input values to start, like a health app onboarding process asking for weight and height.
  • A different form of interaction outside the conventional method of tap and swipe input, for example, like in an augmented reality app.

Likewise, for existing users, an extended onboarding campaign is an excellent way to communicate any new features your app brings with the latest update.

However, there’s more to app onboarding than just informing users about your app and how it works. It is also about helping the users to find the value of your app. By the end of the onboarding process, a user must be able to comprehend how and when your app can help them.

The opt-in push notification of the Trip.com app.

Furthermore, in most apps, it is during the onboarding process that users decide whether to opt-in for multi-channel messages such as emails, text messages and most importantly, push notifications. While push notifications are enabled by default in Android devices, it is a choice for iPhone users. This is one of the reasons why the iPhone and Android users behave differently

If a user opts out of notifications, you won’t be able to update them with crucial notifications, unless you successfully perform a re-permission campaign. This makes onboarding a critical process, especially in iOS apps.

To understand how app onboarding helps in improving user retention and loyalty, here’s an analogy for you to consider. 

Suppose you are learning to cycle. The initial days will be a struggle as you will fail to gain proper balance. This might tire you out initially. But the more your practise, the better your balance will be and more enjoyable the activity becomes. 

The same can be applied to your users. The closer they are to a goal, the more effort they will put in. This is called the goal gradient effect and can keep the users motivated. 

In the case of mobile apps, keeping users motivated with small successes is crucial to retain them, and an onboarding process can be the first step towards it. This is the primary reason why most apps, especially games, keep the first win easily achievable. 

Another reason why you should have an app onboarding session is that users expect to have one. They expect you to personalise the experience, inform them of the key features that make you stand apart from your competitors, and explain how the app can make their lives easier.

What Is an Onboarding Flow?

The onboarding flow decides how the onboarding process proceeds. Depending on the nature of your app, the type of users you expect, and the revenue model you follow, an app onboarding flow can be of the following types.

1. Benefits-Oriented Onboarding

As the name suggests, this type of app onboarding focuses on communicating specific benefits or values of your app to users, instead of directly showing how the app works. 

The Fitbit app follows the benefit-oriented approach.

This approach is particularly useful for apps that require users to signup before using them. By highlighting key values instead of features, users will be able to comprehend how the app can make their lives easier.

2. Features-Oriented Onboarding

In this onboarding flow, more emphasis is placed on the features an app offers, instead of the values associated with it. This approach is particularly useful for apps that have complex functionalities in it.

The Xero app follows the features-oriented approach.

By clearly explaining to the users what the app can do for them, the expectations set will be precise, and there will be minimal confusion. As a best practice, focusing more on visuals rather than texts will make things easier for the users.

3. Action-Oriented Onboarding

Action-oriented onboarding, also known as the progressive approach, means the user will see new onboarding information as they navigate through the app. This is almost like learning on-the-go as users receive more information about a feature when they interact with them.

Here’s an example of the Temple Run app that follows the action-oriented approach for app onboarding.

The Temple Run app follows the action-oriented approach.

4. Interactive Onboarding

With the interactive approach, you can gamify the onboarding process and tempt users to try out different features of your app. You can also incentivise this approach and make it a rewarding experience for the users.

The Evernote app follows the interactive onboarding approach.

To give users the feeling that there is someone to assist them through the onboarding process, you can introduce them to a fictional character, like the Duolingo owl, who will direct users to take actions. 

You can also equip app onboarding with a progress bar, which will help users understand their level of completion. Such a progress bar will keep users motivated to try out all features of the app, which in turn will help in retaining the users as they are exposed to key features your app offers. 

However, in any type of onboarding flow, showing entire functionalities of your app isn’t a recommended practice as there must be sufficient opportunities for users to explore your app on their own.

5. Account Setup Onboarding

This onboarding flow focuses on getting new users through account registration before they can use the app. This approach is specifically befitting for apps that require contact information to proceed or follows a subscription-based revenue model.

Whatsapp follows the account setup onboarding process. Image Credit: appcues.com

Since this type of onboarding requires users to input information, make sure you don’t overdo the process by bombarding them with endless input fields. Otherwise, the users will be mentally tired and may feel demotivated to proceed.

Two of the most famous examples are the Whatsapp onboarding screens and the Netflix app onboarding.

6. Combination of Multiple Onboarding Methods

Most apps combine multiple onboarding flows to make sure their users become accustomed to the app and at the same time, performs the registration. 

The Flink app follows a combination of multiple onboarding approaches. Image Credit: smashingmagazine.com

App Onboarding Best Practices

With hundreds of alternatives to try out, users are never hesitant to uninstall an app that fails to impress them. The first impression a user gets from your app is the onboarding process, and its importance can’t be stressed enough.

Once your app gets installed, the clock starts ticking to impress the users to stay. Otherwise, yours will be among the 3 out of 10 apps that get uninstalled within 30 days. Here are some best practices for optimizing the app onboarding experience.

1. Simplify the Process

72% of users expect the app onboarding process to be completed in less than 60 seconds. So by making the onboarding process as concise as possible, you impress them with the element of time. 

Of course, the onboarding process must be a visually pleasing and fun experience as 44% of users download an app for the fun part particularly. Make sure you highlight the core features of the app, the key value it offers and only ask vital personal information and permissions – all under 60 seconds.

The onboarding process of the Trip.com app.

2. Make It Quick and Painless

For some apps, 60 seconds will not be enough to explain the app in its entirety. In that case, it is better if you can explain just the key features and leave the rest to contextual assistance (discussed later) or break down the onboarding campaign as a multi-day process. 

Likewise, explaining multiple functionalities on a single app screen can make things worse for the user. Also, relying more on texts to convey the features will be overwhelming for the users. They will be lost and tired, and in the worst-case scenario, they may never return and leave a negative app store review.

To make app onboarding a painless experience, you can introduce one feature per screen and use onboarding UI elements such as tooltips, modals, hotspots, slideouts and checklists to organise the process.

3. Introduce Multiple Personas

Users will have different reasons to download your app. For example, in a fitness app like MyFitnessPal, users can choose their fitness goals during the onboarding process, and the app’s content will be streamlined accordingly. This will help users interact with only the relevant content by making the UI clutter-free.

The Brilliant app lets you choose the type of user profile.

4. Personalise the Content

Just like offering multiple personas to choose from, you can use the onboarding process to personalise the app content. This will also help in depicting the value of your app and give more meaning to the onboarding process.

Here’s how the Flipboard app does it.

The Flipboard app personalizes content for you during the onboarding process.

5. Make It Aesthetically Pleasing

A lifeless and non-interactive app onboarding session will force users to abandon the app as a whole. To make it as intriguing as possible, make use of eye-catching animations and attractive transition sounds. You can also gamify the process to lead and impress the users, for example, like the Duolingo app onboarding.

6. Ask Only the Essential Information and Permissions

For 76% of users, the safety of their personal information is important, and 82% of users want clear reasons for each information request. If your app is a messaging platform like Whatsapp, then yes, contact information is essential for registration. If users can start using the app with minimal details like name and age, then it is advisable to stick to just that initially.

Similarly, an app will require several system permissions, for example, access to location or camera, for its functionalities to perform correctly. If that’s the case, make sure you don’t ask for all at once. Let the users interact with each element, and if it requires special permissions, prompt them then.

The Trip.com app prompts users for permission when they click on specific features.

As users may feel uncomfortable with too many permission requests, you can highlight how each request will help them use the app better. Here’s an example from the Skype Qik app.

The Skype Qik app explains the reason behind each permission prompt. Image Credit: localytics.com

7. Make It Skippable

If an existing user installs your app, then the onboarding process isn’t a necessity. Similarly, many users might find it a bit difficult to sit through the app onboarding process, especially if they are keen to explore the functionalities by themselves.

Make the onboarding campaigns a skippable one. This will also help users who know how the app works and is in a hurry to access a feature, even though most apps separate users as “already existing” and “new” to skip the tour automatically.

The Foursquare app allows users to skip the onboarding process.

Adding to that, users will find it beneficial if you place the “skip” button throughout the app onboarding process. 

8. Showcase the Crucial Features Immediately

Even if you are following a feature-oriented onboarding approach, you must make sure the users comprehend the benefits offered. This is because every user downloads an app for a purpose, and the onboarding process must be something that reassures them that your app is a perfect choice.

The 500px app starts its onboarding process by exhibiting key features.

However, make sure you don’t dump all the features at once. It will only make them confused. To improve engagement rates, you can systematically inform the users about specific features that will enhance their user experience using push notifications or in-app messages.

9. Avoid the Obvious Features

With nearly half of the world population using smartphones, icons such as camera, social share buttons, exit, and hamburger menu are ubiquitous and won’t require additional explanation. This will help in reducing the time taken to complete the onboarding process.

10. Offer Contextual Assistance

Just like the action-oriented onboarding approach, users will appreciate your guidance at the time of using specific features of the app. This will also make sure the user never feels lost while using the app. 

Contextual hint offered in the YouTube app. Image Credit: nngroup.com

With an average attention span of eight seconds, users are more likely to forget the features if you explain them all at once at the beginning of the app onboarding process. Instead, inform the users about the core features first, and then guide them with contextual hints.

11. Onboard Before Signup

The best way to educate the users about the features of your app is by letting them get a taste of it, just like a test drive. For that, start the onboarding process by allowing them to use the app for a while and then subtly introduce the signup process. This will help users understand whether your app is worth their time and interests.

Along with this, users must be given easy methods to sign up, such as using Google, Facebook or Github.

Here’s an example of an app onboarding by Duolingo. The app starts directly with a lesson and does a fair job in exhibiting its value proposition. Only after the first lesson, the users are prompted to sign up.

The Duolingo app allows users to try the app before signing up.

12. Appreciate Users for Each Step Completed

Humans are attracted to rewards, even if it is a small one. It is a positive form of feedback that helps users to understand that they are on the right track. Rewards are especially crucial for first-time users as it helps in maintaining their enthusiasm. 

Rewards offered by the Duolingo app while completing app onboarding.

If users achieve their first success within a short time, they will be motivated to explore what’s next. So, it is critical that your onboarding process is designed to help users achieve their first success quickly. The Duolingo app rewards users with in-app points called XPS.

13. Offer Sample Data

The Xero app offers users sample data to try out the app.

For apps that require a user’s input to function, offering sample data to play with will help them get a hang of the app and see if it’s worth their time. This is particularly useful for users who are reluctant to enter personal data in the very first session.

14. Give Access to Hints

The hints section of the Beats Music app. Image Credit: smashingmagazine.com

For gesture-driven apps, memorising what each gesture does will be a tiresome task for first-time users. To make them comfortable, try including a permanent section in the app that allows users to access the list of hints anytime they want.

15. Show a Progress Bar

Just like incentivising the app onboarding campaign, you can use a progress bar to inform users about their status of account completion. Here’s an example of the progress bar in the 12min app.

The 12min uses a progress bar to track the onboarding process.

16. Utilise the Empty States

Empty states refer to the screens shown to the user when they haven’t performed any activity or included any content. As a result, the specific feature has nothing to display. While the absence of content will mean blank screens, you can use them to educate and prompt users to take action. 

Here’s an example of how 500px app uses empty states to encourage users to explore the app.

The empty states screen of the 500px app.

17. Utilise Multiple Channels

The Strava app uses emails to send users crucial information.

Using multiple communication channels can enrich the onboarding experience and encourage users to engage more. You can send push notifications or emails to let users know they have more fun things to do after completing the onboarding process.

18. Don’t Set the Expectation Bar Too High

Being emotional beings, users won’t tolerate any fake promise you make. To avoid underselling, many apps may include features on their onboarding copies that are not present in the app.

If you fail to keep the promises you make during onboarding, you are disappointing the users and pushing them to uninstall your app. While preparing catchy slogans for the onboarding process, make sure your app lives up to them.

19. Use a CTA Towards the End

After app onboarding, users may be confused about what to do next. They may quit the app out of habit or be distracted by other apps. This can harm your engagement rates and will make it difficult to regain their attention.

The best thing to do is to include a CTA button towards the end that prompts users to continue using the app. For example, for a food delivery app, the CTA can be something like “make your first order now”. Here’s an example of CTA in the MyFitnessPal app.

The onboarding process of the MyFitnessPal app ends with a CTA.

20. A/B Test, Analyse and Tweak

Just like every other element of your app, the onboarding process will work the best if you A/B test and continually tweak it. This is because the app users belong to different demographics, and their tolerance levels will significantly vary.

Some of them will be interested to know all the features in-depth before starting, while others are keener to learn on the go. So, it is crucial that you A/B test your app onboarding campaigns to find the most appealing one and tweak it accordingly. Also, you can utilise feedback prompts to hear directly from your users what the onboarding process meant to them.

Additionally, users may face difficulties to complete the onboarding process. This can be anything starting from networking to device compatibility issues. You can analyse such mishaps using an application performance monitoring (APM) tool and make sure they have a smooth app onboarding experience.

Best App Onboarding Examples

1. Strava

2. Trello

3. Brilliant

4. Calm

5. Feedly

6. Flipboard

7. Foursquare

8. Expensify

9. Headspace

10. Tumblr

Put Yourself in the User’s Shoes

Once you have the right type of app onboarding process in place, you will surely witness improved numbers in retention and engagement rates. However, you can’t stop there. 

To make the user experience an enriching one, try including a video tutorial section that users can access anytime and rely on for assistance. Besides, you can send weekly emails that consist of the tips and tricks to use your app effectively.

Try to incentivise your onboarding campaign so that users feel appreciated for their efforts to know your app and feel motivated to learn even more. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers. See your app with a layman’s eye, explain only the essential features and make the onboarding process fun and worthwhile for users.

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