What is onboarding and why is it important?

Onboarding is the process of creating a successful and loyal user by explaining the core value and the basic actions behind your product. It is a progressive process that involves research, testing, and optimization. The first experience a user has with your app determines if he/she is going to use it again or not. The onboarding flow should showcase the app’s most important features and guide users on how to use them. You need to consider new users, inactive users, and existing users as different users need different onboarding flows.

The statistics show that 1 of 4 people abandon an app after a single use. What makes onboarding so crucial to the success of your app is that it will increase retention, and retention is what you need in order to grow your business. If you have bad onboarding your user acquisition efforts go down the drain.

On a very high level there are three main goals of a successful onboarding process:

  • Shorten the amount of time and effort required to find the product’s core value. Get users to experience your product’s core value before they lose patience or get distracted.
  • Create excitement/motivation/momentum
  • Educate the user on a new approach

Some use cases:

Onboarding is essential when you have an app that supports interaction methods that most users would not have been exposed to on a regular basis. Gesture-driven apps are a good example of this.

Apps that have an empty state by default that the user has to populate with content. Onboarding will guide the users so they know they are doing the right thing.

If the mobile app is part of a suite of products (web and desktop) and the app does not have all of the functionality of the other versions, onboarding can help existing users understand how the mobile app fits into the suite of products.

For apps that rely on personal information, onboarding is great to collect and store this information by guiding the user step by step.

Types of app user onboarding

Benefit-oriented onboarding

It focuses on showing the user the value they get out of the app. It is best for apps with a straightforward purpose. Be sure to showcase the benefits before the login or registration.

Identify three or four key benefits that will have the most impact on your target audience and focus on them. The benefit should be clear, well targeted and succinct. Keep the writing style and the visual elements consistent across your slides.

Use a separate slide for each benefit with a focused message in every slide.

Progressive onboarding

Exposes app users to features in a progressive way following a particular sequence. This process is interactive and gives instructions to the users as they use the app. Users learn by doing. It is best for apps with complex functionality.

The user sees features when they reach the appropriate time, and gets information about certain functionality aspects of the app when those functions are used or initiated.

Remember not to clutter the screen with too much information. Let the user navigate the app in their own time.

Function-oriented onboarding

It focuses on functionality. It showcases key functions of the app and how to get started with them. Best with apps that are task-oriented and/or complex to use.

It’s important to be concise, so stick to about 3 slides with one function per slide. Focus on essential functions that will enable users to successfully start using your app. Make sure that users can go back and review a previous function’s slide and avoid explaining obvious functionality.

The function-oriented onboarding works best when it is done before the user is asked to sign up.

Account-focused onboarding

Walks the user through the account/profile creation process, including finding and adding friends or interests.

Common onboarding mistakes

  • Assuming everyone needs an onboarding tutorial
  • Asking too much or irrelevant information upfront
  • Not providing a  clear value proposition to sign up
  • “Abandoning” your users after registration
  • Not focusing on the first crucial in-app action
  • Using an identical flow for iOS and Android

Onboarding best practices

Know your customers

Create a seamless user experience centered around buyer personas (who signs up for your product) and jobs-to-be-done (why are they signing up).

By creating a different onboarding flow for each one of your buyer personas, you will make the process feel more personalized to the user.

Canvas is a good example of persona-based onboarding. Once users have signed up, they are presented with three options (Work, Personal, Education) as an answer to the question ‘what would you like to use Canvas for?’. Each option is followed by a specific onboarding experience.

Basecamp is a good example of job-to-be-done onboarding. Basecamp asks its users what jobs they need to do, and takes them to a specific template for that job. The experience is customer-centric and ties back to the messaging of why they signed up for the app.

Learn more about this
Applying Jobs-to-Be-Done to User Onboarding, with Ryan Singer!
Everything You Need to Know to Create Actionable App Buyer Personas

Identify your Aha! moment

The Aha! moment is the moment the user starts getting value from your product. The user recognizes that your product is a must have experience that will improve their lives.

If you want your users to stay around, get them to the Aha! moment fast.

How to identify the Aha! Moment

In order to identify your aha moment, you need to use qualitative and quantitative data.

Start by working backwards from your product data. Find your best customers and work backwards to figure out what actions they took early on.

With the help of an analytical tool, you can create specific segments of your users (behavioral cohorts). Behavioral cohorts can be for example, “users who only spend 2 minutes on the app”, or “users who sent more than 10 texts within their first 7 days of using the app”. These cohorts will help you to understand what’s sticky and what’s not. It will also help you identify your red flag metrics (those things that don’t lead to stickiness).

Get feedback from your customers

Reach your best users to get qualitative feedback that supplements what you have already learned from your data.

Get feedback also from other users, users that have churned or users that use your app from time to time. You can use tools like NPS or Sean Ellis’s survey.

Read more about how to find the aha moment for your app
This Is How You Find Your App’s Aha! Moment
The Growth Marketer’s Guide to Aha! Moments
How to conduct Aha-moment (aka Magic moment) analysis without knowledge of statistics or data science!

Map out & benchmark the user journey

According to Brian Balfour, there are three stages of retention you need to plan for in your user journey:

  • Stage 1. Week one retention (Inspiring the “Aha” moment). For some apps, it might be “Day one retention”, “Month one retention”. It is your users’ first experience and it’s about how you get your users to experience the core value as quickly as possible.
  • Stage 2. Mid-term retention (Encouraging habit building). You need to get users to create habits around that core value.
  • Stage 3. Long-term retention (Keeping the spark alive). It’s about how you get your users to experience the core value as often as possible.

Map user journeys for every stage of the user lifecycle. You need to design a path guiding them through the features that help them achieve their goal. You have to define the stage, define goals for each stage, and set the right prompts to help users achieve each goal. Once you have those, plot your map keeping users on track.

Stage 1. Clear the path for aha moments. Your job is to remove barriers and make sure the user stays on course. In order to be able to eliminate barriers, you need to identify them first. User testing will allow you to do that.

Some best practices: Avoid email confirmation steps and answer questions as soon as their arise (using a chat app for example)

Stage 2. Build the habit. The goal is to turn the product from a “once in a while” tool into an “everyday” tool. You can use email, tooltips or push notifications to give users a nudge. Sometimes to keep users coming back you’ll need to use a reward.

Resources for creating habit-forming products
Hooked‘ by Nir Eyal
Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics‘ by Stephen Wendel
Best articles on creating habit-forming products
How Habits Are Sabotaging Your Conversions (and How to Fix It)
How to build habit-forming products. Part 1: Habit loop
How to build habit-forming products. Part 2: Building on the loop
How to build habit-forming products. Part 3: Closing the loop

Stage 3. Re-engage to get back on track. You want to make sure that your older users are still there. There are a lot of strategies to bring inactive users back. Test different strategies to see what works.

Read more
How to Bring Inactive Users Back from the Dead

Test out your UX patterns

Start by asking yourself “How can users get the most value out of this workflow while investing the least amount of time?”, the answer will help you decide which UI workflow pattern to use.

You want the user to complete the onboarding flow and learn about your product. Some ways to do this:

Walkthroughs. Try not to use more than 5 steps in the product tour.

Tooltips. Action-driven tooltips can be very effective in the early stages of onboarding, especially for more technical workflows or account activation across multiple pages.

Progress bars and checklists. We care about completing tasks. Progress bars and checklists tap into this psychological principle (the Zeigarnik effect- we are more likely to remember things we haven’t done than things we have). A progress bar remains us that we have been given a task, and we feel as we should complete it.

Checklists are more often used for long-term onboarding items, and they are never the primary content for a user onboarding flow.

Coach marks.  They consist of a dark gradient marked up with arrows and text that explain complicated UI with a few tips. They help users to understand how to interact with the app’s user interface.  Try limit coach marks to three per page.

Modals and sliders. They combine aspects of coach marks and progress bars. Great during onboarding when a user is exploring a new feature of the app.

Some notes on user psychology applied to onboarding

Principle of commitment and consistency

We use consistency to make decisions. Consistency puts our decision-making process on auto pilot. We want to act consistently with our self-image, a self-image that has been shaped by actions we’ve taken in the past. The key to consistency is commitment. A powerful technique in user onboarding is to get users to make commitments.

Start by asking your users for a small commitment. In some products, this can be offering a free trial.  Later on, you will ask them to make bigger commitments.

This is also known as foot-in-the-door technique.

The Goal-Gradient Effect

The user is more likely to achieve a goal after he/she has made progress against that goal. Elements like a progress bar that from the beginning has an x% already completed can be very helpful when onboarding new users.

The Choice Paradox

When we are presented with too many options, we tend to overanalyze and the decision or the action is never taken. It is also known as paralysis by analysis or analysis paralysis.

You’ll get better results if you give fewer options to the user during the onboarding process. App onboarding should be simple and clutter free.

The Ikea effect

In general, users tend to assign more value to a product that they’ve helped create or have engaged with.
To employ the Ikea effect in your onboarding process, provide sample data, pre-filled defaults, and editable templates and use email triggers, prompts, and guidance to get people to interact with that content.

Resources on Onboarding
Mobile App Onboarding – A Guide To Perfecting Your First Impression
Don’t Get Funnel Vision: How to Preboard Your Customers To Success
6 User Onboarding Flow Examples (With Critiques)
How Great User Onboarding Helps These Messaging Apps Grow to 1 Billion Users
The User Onboarding Academy
A Roadmap To Building A Delightful Onboarding Experience For Mobile App Users
The Best Practices for User Onboarding
The Secret to Successful Customer Onboarding
Why retention is king of growth strategy
Cognitive bias. User psychology

Onboarding Examples
10 apps with best user onboarding flow
User Onboarding Best Practices From 3 Popular Mobile Apps
10 Great Examples of Customer Onboarding That You Can Learn From
The 4 Best Mobile User Onboarding Flows We’ve Seen So Far

Onboarding Tools
Inline Manual

More on Mobile Marketing
Foundations of a cross-platform marketing strategy – Mobile marketing
How to design effective user acquisition campaigns – Mobile marketing
How to increase user engagement – Mobile marketing
Mobile pricing and monetization – Mobile marketing