4 ways to use gamification for mobile app onboarding

11 min read
June 9, 2022

Onboarding is one of the most crucial techniques for improving app retention and engagement.

Why? It’s your best weapon to counter today’s harrowing app retention statistics.

Just consider that the average app loses 77% of its users in the first three days.

After three months, almost 95% are gone, according to Silicon Valley veterans Andrew Chen and Andreessen Horowitz.

But creating an effective onboarding sequence presents its own challenges and issues, and therefore very few succeed in it.

However, by incorporating game elements, you can make your onboarding much more engaging and rewarding for your users.

Here are some gamification tactics you can incorporate.

Create levels

Leveling-up is a classic way of recording a player’s progression throughout the game and is often seen in role-playing games (RPGs).

It’s also used as a shorthand for measuring a player’s power—the higher the level, the more powerful that player’s character is.

Leveling up is one of the main reasons games are so addicting.

When players level up, they also get more in-game abilities or achievement trophies. This incentivizes them to play further and earn more rewards.

It can make the game much more satisfying to play, not to mention it creates a sense of pride and achievement.

leveling up game example screenshot

Source: Josh Bycer

Your app’s onboarding might not be as long as a game, but you can still apply some aspects of gamification.

Specifically, you can use it to encourage users to perform specific tasks or explore your app during onboarding.

For instance, Evernote has a leveling system called Goals. Here, users can earn tokens whenever they perform in-app actions, such as creating tasks or adding tags.

Once they’ve collected a sufficient number of tokens, they can progress to the next level.


Source: Evernote

One good thing Evernote did here is that they named every level. For instance, a user at level 1 is called an Adventurer, and a Tagger at level 2.

While this doesn’t do anything in-app, it helps tie that level to the person’s identity.

And according to the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, people are more motivated to take action if it is in line with who they believe they are.

If a user believes he or she is creative, they would be more motivated to reach the Creative Brain level in Evernote.

The result is that they would be more invested in using the app to achieve that goal.

You can also use levels to bring out a user’s competitive side. A fantastic example here is the onboarding of the navigation app Waze.

Like Evernote, the app uses a leveling system where people can progress by completing tasks and earning points. The goal here is to introduce people to Waze’s many features.

scoreboard screenshot

Source: The Manifest | Medium

But to progress to the higher levels, you need to have one of the highest points compared to other users in your region. In other words, it’s a leveling system and scoreboard rolled into one.

For example, if you want to achieve the rank of Waze Warrior, you’ll need to be in the top 10% of scorers in your city or state.

And you can easily lose your ranking if you don’t maintain your points.

waze levels screenshot

Source: RD Forum

A sense of competition and the knowledge that you can lose your levels is an effective motivator.

Waze also did a good job transitioning its leveling system from an onboarding tool to an engagement strategy.

Not to mention that when you level up in Waze, you also get more influential on the platform. This added reward further motivates the user.

Indeed, rewards are an extremely powerful motivator that can make your onboarding much more effective.

Provide in-app rewards

Rewards are a vital part of gamification. You can even say that people generally act only if they get something in return.

This observation is based on a psychological concept called the incentive theory of motivation.

incentive theory

Source: Very Well Mind

In most cases, the reward doesn’t even have to be tangible.

Think back to Evernote’s onboarding. Progressing through levels there gave no physical reward, save for pride and achievement. This is called an internal or intrinsic reward.

The easiest way to implement intrinsic rewards is through badges. In many apps, you can earn badges whenever you complete a task or reach a milestone.

It’s nothing more than a bragging right, but it can be a great motivator nonetheless.

Of course, getting an actual extrinsic reward is still highly effective.

The Notion platform has a great example of this that you can adopt. It has a checklist of beginner tasks the user can do.

Every time they complete an item, they get credits. These can then be used to pay for the monthly fee of a Pro subscription plan.

credit balance

Source: Notion

Checklists are especially powerful because they help break down the task into more manageable chunks.

Listing the corresponding reward amount beside each task further increases motivation to do it.

What Notion did above is essentially offering an extension of a free trial. The SaaS platform Customerly also does something similar.

extend your free tiral

Source: Customerly.io | Pinterest

Because Customerly’s users are mostly business owners, a free trial extension is a very attractive reward. Chances are, they’ll be more than willing to complete all the tasks to get it.

Virtual incentives are effective, but physical rewards are even better.

One example is the Starbucks app. The app gives stars for every task completed to encourage users to go through its onboarding.

These stars can then be redeemed for food and drink rewards.

starbucks app

Source: The Manifest | Medium

Incentives are also great for encouraging users to sign up for an account. That’s because it’s a demanding task that can cause user friction.

Look at how the travel app Ixigo offers free credit just for creating an account on their platform.

gamification examples onboarding app development

Source: Strivecloud.io

However, be sure that you’re using in-app rewards correctly—as a bridge to drive lasting habits.

The Starbucks app does this well because the rewards it gives can encourage users to stick with it.

As gamification expert Yu-kai Chou points out:

“It is better to attract people into an experience using extrinsic rewards then transition their interest through intrinsic rewards.”

Therefore, you shouldn’t rely solely on extrinsic rewards. Not only are intrinsic rewards more powerful, but they’re also cheaper.

reward users the right way

Source: Medium

Thus, the most effective time to offer extrinsic rewards is during app onboarding. It’s a great way to start your relationship with the user on the right footing.

Use progress bars

Progress bars might seem like a simple gamification element. However, they can be surprisingly effective at driving users to complete your onboarding.

Most users opt out of onboarding either because it’s complicated or takes too long. This infographic by Clutch drives that point home:

clutch infographic 1

Source: Clutch

But progress bars can help apps overcome this problem making it seem like your onboarding is shorter than it is.

It does this by breaking it down into manageable chunks, then giving a visual representation of the journey.

An image showing progress through an app

Source: Joshua Sortino

Progress bars also trigger a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect.

Named after psychiatrist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, the concept states that people tend to remember unfinished tasks more than completed ones.

Thus, when a person doesn’t finish something, it creates a mental tension that won’t go away until that task is completed.

zeigarnik effect

Source: Emily Caruso

A partial progress bar is simply a visual reminder that an onboarding sequence is incomplete. For most people, it’s enough motivation for them to finish it.

Let’s look at some examples. Here’s the progress bar used for the professional social media app Linkedin.

gamification examples product manager

Source: Strivecloud.io

If you’ve ever created a Linkedin account, you know how tedious it could be.

Uploading photos, adding credentials, and writing a lengthy profile summary are time-consuming tasks that can easily discourage users.

That’s why we believe a progress bar is essential here. It accomplishes three things.

First, it gives the users a goal to aim for. Labeling it as Profile Strength is also a good move.

After all, it implies that having a strong profile will increase your chances of getting hired or networking with other users.

Second, it breaks down the process into manageable chunks. Also, notice that it presents users with the next task to minimize confusion and procrastination.

Lastly, it triggers the Zeigarnik Effect. Chances are, people won’t finish their Linkedin profile in one sitting.

But that progress bar will remind them of their unfinished business every time they log in, urging them to complete it eventually.

Progress bars also force you to compartmentalize your onboarding, thus making it easier for users to complete. Duolingo offers a good example.

Source: Duolingo

If you look at the onboarding sequence of Duolingo as a whole, it’s pretty extensive. Depending on the options you choose, they even have a quiz in the middle.

But it doesn’t seem so long once you use it, thanks to strategic chunking and the presence of a progress bar.

The same is true of the Fastic app.

Source: Fastic

If space permits, it’s even better to label each section of the progress bar so the user knows where they are in the process.

This allows for transparency, fosters trust, and eliminates confusion.

Onboarding Progress Bar

Source: David Walker | Dribbble

Indeed, progress bars are the quickest and safest way to implement gamification into your onboarding. If you only had to pick one element, this one should be it.

Make onboarding interactive

The best onboarding sequences are ones that involve the user. You can do this through interactive elements that encourage participation versus passive information consumption.

But what’s the reason behind this?

A study by the National Training Laboratory reveals that humans only retain 10% of what they read.

But when they practice it, retention shoots up to 75%. You can see this clearly in the Learning Pyramid Model.

learning pyramid model

Source: Education Corner

This is why learning how to play the guitar or writing a poem isn’t possible simply by reading about it. You need to practice by doing.

The best way to apply this to onboarding is with a progressive approach. For example, Google’s PhotoScan app has helpful tooltips that guide users as they’re scanning their photos.

Photo scan within Google Photos app onboarding

Source: UX Booth

No doubt that explaining this using text would’ve been tedious and confusing. Video might seem like a good alternative, but nothing beats having users perform the action you’re trying to teach.

Or consider this unique take by mobile security app Lookout. Instead of the usual video demo or text explanation, it uses an interactive quiz instead to illustrate the app’s features.

iPod screenshot

Source: The Manifest | Medium

Quizzes are also an effective way to gather user data in an engaging way. People love taking quizzes. Thus, it’s a good way to ease the users’ reluctance to share information.

One good example is eToro’s trading knowledge assessment.

trading knowledge assessment

Source: Trade the Day

Interactive onboarding is especially effective for apps that deal with complicated topics, such as financial apps.

The Wealthfront Investing app’s onboarding is a perfect example of the power of interactivity.

Like eToro above, it also uses a quiz to gather information and customize an investing plan for the user. But it went one step further and added real-time elements, such as this:


Source: Really Good UX

In the above example, you can use the slider to play around with your target savings, and the chart will adjust accordingly.

The process is engaging and makes you feel that you’re playing a game. Not only that, but it also makes onboarding more personalized.

Indeed, onboarding doesn’t have to be boring and static.

By making it interactive, you stand a better chance of getting users to complete it. It also leaves the impression that the rest of your app will be just as engaging.

Gamification isn’t just for onboarding

We’ve talked about the benefits of onboarding and how you can successfully implement it in your onboarding. But why stop there?

The best way to maximize gamification is to make it a core strategy of your app. That can help you attract new users, retain existing ones, and even improve your monetization efforts.

App success is never guaranteed. But gamification can improve your odds.

Written by

Ante Baus


Ante is a true expert. Another graduate from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s been a DECODEr from the very beginning. Ante is an experienced software engineer with an admirably wide knowledge of tech. But his superpower lies in iOS development, having gained valuable experience on projects in the fintech and telco industries. Ante is a man of many hobbies, but his top three are fishing, hunting, and again, fishing. He is also the state champ in curling, and represents Croatia on the national team. Impressive, right?

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