Mobile app user onboarding: everything you need to know

12 min read
June 1, 2022

First impressions matter. That’s true in life, as with mobile apps.

You only have three days to get users to continue using your app. After that, as much as 77% of users leave, according to growth guru Andrew Chen.

Three days might seem like a long time. But in app retention, that’s mere seconds.

Fortunately, a well-executed onboarding sequence can help improve that grim statistic.

In this article, we’ll discuss how.

What is mobile app user onboarding?

Onboarding is the welcome section of the app that greets first-time users. It has one goal: to get them using (and benefitting) from your app as fast as possible.

To do this, onboarding focuses on three key areas.

The first is education. This is perhaps the most well-known and most important role of onboarding.

Without proper education, the chances are high that users will feel lost in your app – a surefire recipe for abandonment.

The level of education in your onboarding will depend on your app’s nature. Apps with unique features or unfamiliar UI will benefit from a more involved tutorial-style onboarding.

For example, the YNAB app features a proprietary budgeting method that warrants a more detailed explanation and guidance during onboarding:

Source: YNAB

But not every app needs an onboarding process to be as involved as this. Most of the time, it’s enough to just educate users about the benefits they can get from using the app.

This is where a simple benefits-oriented onboarding sequence is helpful:

User onboarding examples Babbel

Source: Just in Mind

We’ll talk about this and other onboarding strategies in a later section.

The next focus of onboarding is setting up. For example, certain apps might require an account, and onboarding is where users can create them.

A good approach is to offer multiple ways to register, such as through existing social media profiles or a mobile number.

Lyft App Sign Up with Phone Number

Source: UP Labs

The last focus is to personalize the user experience.

Onboarding is the perfect time to ask for permissions (such as turning on notifications or the camera) or information to tailor the app experience.

For example, Quora asks for a user’s interest so that it can deliver appropriate content to them.

quora user onboarding

Source: Appcues

While onboarding should cover all these areas ideally, that’s not always the case.

For example, a weather app might not need to cover education because using one is pretty trivial.

Indeed, knowing when to use onboarding is a critical decision, so let’s discuss that next.

When does a mobile app need user onboarding?

Our quick answer to this question is: all the time.

We think that every app can benefit from onboarding, no matter how simple.

Indeed, we believe the better question is: how involved does my onboarding need to be?

Nailing the right complexity level is important because otherwise, it will do more harm than good. The proof is in a study conducted by Clutch:

clutch infographic

Source: Clutch

As you can see from the chart above, mere seconds can often double the chances that a user will drop out of your app.

A good rule of thumb is that the more complex or unique your app is, the more involved the onboarding process.

Here are some scenarios where that’s the case.

One is if your app uses unique gestures or UI elements. For example, the alarm app Rise has a minimalist UI that relies on unique gestures instead of traditional UI elements.

Thus, the onboarding needs to make that clear:

The Rise alarm clock app uses function oriented onboarding to showcase unique gesture based commands

Source: Apptentive

Another example is the Todoist app.

While the concept of to-do list apps isn’t new, Todoist has a different way of doing things than other apps of its kind, which requires a good explanation.

todoist screenshot

Source: Todoist

Of course, if user data is an absolute requirement for your app to work, then onboarding is non-negotiable.

This is most common in fintech apps, since they often require a user’s financial details.

In these cases, setting up security protocols and authentication might require a more involved onboarding sequence.

Mobile Onboarding FinTech

Source: Simform

Unique to trading apps is the need to screen users for compliance purposes during onboarding

For instance, eToro’s onboarding sequence includes a trading knowledge assessment quiz designed to gauge the user’s trading experience.

This helps novice users avoid expensive trading mistakes by only giving access to features they’re ready for.

eToro Trading Knowledge Assessmnet Question

Source: Trade the Day

If you still can’t decide on the level of onboarding you need, always go back to this definition:

“Onboarding should minimize the time users need to learn an app.”

If a splash screen with a few paragraphs will do the job, stick with that.

Why is onboarding important?

Onboarding is one of the key strategies for improving app retention and engagement, especially during the crucial first weeks.

Having the right approach is vital because app developers are up against these daunting statistics:

mobile app onboarding 1

Source: DECODE

Most of the 80% that drop is due to frustration and confusion. That’s guaranteed to happen if users go into your app blind with zero pre-education.

Onboarding avoids this scenario by arming users with knowledge. Coupled with great UX, it can ensure that users can always find their way around.

But more than education, onboarding can also help engage your users by clearly defining why they need your app.

If users can look forward to the potential benefits, they’ll be more excited to use it.

Lesley Park at Framed summed it up best:

“If a customer doesn’t understand the context of your app, can’t immediately see its benefits, or has a bad initial experience (slow loading times, clunky interface, etc.), you’ve likely squandered your only chance from the get-go.”

No wonder Upland saw a 50% increase in retention rates after implementing solid onboarding.

Onboarding also allows apps to set up features that can improve UX.

For instance, push notifications can create trust and retention among your users. But the problem is that most people are wary of them because they can be easily overdone.

In fact, getting annoying notifications is the number one reason people uninstall apps.

As a result, getting the user’s permission can be a crucial yet challenging step.

But by laying out the benefits of push notifications during onboarding, you can have a much better chance at opt-in.

push notifications

Source: Telerik

If we were to summarize the importance of onboarding in a single sentence, it’s this:

It helps users reach their a-ha! moment—the time when they instantly recognize the value of your app. And once they do, these people are much more likely to stay.

Different apps have different metrics for a-ha! moments, as you can see here:

aha moments for tech companies

Source: Parsa.VC

But one thing’s for certain—onboarding was critical in helping these tech companies reach them. No doubt it will for your app, too.

Main strategies for onboarding mobile app users

There are three main approaches to your onboarding flows.

The first is benefits-oriented onboarding. Here, the focus is on the value that your app can give to users.

And, as we’ve covered above, helping people reach their a-ha! moment can deliver better engagement and retention.

This onboarding approach is common for health and finance apps or any app that involves habit formation. That’s because it’s a great way to build motivation.

Just look at how the Fastic app highlights the health benefits everywhere in their onboarding flow:

Source: Fastic

Another example is the YNAB app. The unique thing here is that the app doesn’t state the benefits explicitly. Instead, they use testimonials, giving the approach an air of authenticity.

YNAB screenshot

Source: YNAB

The second onboarding strategy is features-oriented onboarding. This is similar to the benefits approach but with more emphasis on the app’s functionality.

It’s best for apps with a unique or advanced feature set as a selling point.

Most features-oriented onboarding feature a mini-tutorial that guides the user on how to use the app. Here’s an example from the social media management app Hootsuite.

Notice how each onboarding screen is focused on a particular functionality.

onboarding screens

Source: The User Onboarding Journal

The last strategy is progressive onboarding. Also called an interactive walkthrough, this involves using pop-up dialogs and other elements at key moments.

For example, in Evernote’s case, helpful tooltips appear when users go to a screen for the first time.

emphasize whats important

Source: Evernote

The biggest benefit of progressive onboarding is that it doesn’t overwhelm your user. Thus, it’s fantastic for apps with unique features, a complicated UI, or complex functions.

Most importantly, progressive onboarding minimizes roadblocks that prevent people from using your app right away. This is called gradual engagement.

Luke Wroblewski, Product Director at Google, explains why it’s important:

“With gradual engagement, we can communicate what our mobile apps do and why people should care by actually allowing people to interact with them right away. We can capitalize on all the hard work it takes to get a download instead of turning 75% of our potential audience away with sign-up requirements.”

However, that doesn’t mean that all apps should use progressive onboarding. Like any development decision, your chosen strategy depends on the unique needs of your app.

After all, a calculator app shouldn’t need an interactive walkthrough.

Common components of mobile app onboarding flows

No two onboarding sequences are the same. However, they do share some common components. Here are three that you’ll encounter.

The first is instruction, the component responsible for teaching users how to use your app.

This is almost always a part of onboarding because education is vital for retention and, in some cases, responsible usage.

For instance, Robinhood Learning is fundamental for onboarding in the app. It educates users on how to minimize financial risks with the Robinhood app.

robinhood learning

Source: Ilonah Pelaez

Related to instruction is feature promotion or the part of your onboarding that highlights the capability or benefits of your app.

However, in this case, instead of educating how to use the app, it describes why.

For example, Slack’s onboarding lists down the app’s key features and how it can help the user.

Onboarding UI of Slack Mobile App

Source: UX Booth

The last component is customization, where users can tailor-fit their app experience.

For instance, Twitter’s onboarding also asks for your interests, so it can suggest relevant accounts to follow.

Twitter onboarding

Source: UX Booth

However, it’s important not to overwhelm users with too many customization options. Instead, only include what’s necessary to get the app up and running.

For example, asking for their bank details might be urgent, but tweaking UI colors might be best left for later.

Remember, onboarding is all about getting your users in-app in the quickest time possible.

What are the best practices for onboarding mobile app users?

Here are some tips and tricks to help improve your onboarding flows.

Focus only on the core features

If your app has multiple features and benefits, it’s best to focus only on a maximum of three during onboarding.

These should be the ones that can best represent the essence of your app.

A good example is, with its short yet focused on core features: screenshot

Source: UXCam

Limiting to only the core features won’t overwhelm your user. Plus, it gives better focus to the idea you’re trying to convey.

Maximize empty states

Empty screens and lists on an app can be quite depressing for new users, so minimizing their effects is crucial.

A great way is to do this is by populating empty states with demo content, like what the Xero app did here:

Give users sample data to manipulate and learn how your app works.

Source: Smashing Magazine

At the very least, you should place helpful and encouraging copy in place of empty states. Here’s the approach with the BBC app:

BBC news screenshot

Source: Alex Mathew | Linkedin

Maximizing empty states this way is a minor touch, but it can have a sizable impact on a user’s psychology.

Delay sign-ups if possible

Asking users to sign up right away might be logical, but it can be detrimental during onboarding.

That’s because it’s an involved process that might scare some new users, as this statistic makes plain:

funnel drop off report

Source: OpenView

In the chart above, notice how the sign-up page greatly reduced the number of users.

To prevent this, it’s best to allow users to experience your app before signing up. For instance, eToro users are free to browse through the app.

They only need to register before making their first trade.

eToro screenshot

Source: eToro

Sometimes, consider if your app might be better without accounts at all. Still, even if you prefer to have them, delaying them for later is often much more beneficial.

Make onboarding optional

Onboarding is vital, but ironically, you should also make it optional for users.

The truth is that not everyone might need hand-holding. Expert users, for example, might feel insulted or annoyed.

Thus, you should always include a Skip button that lets users end your onboarding sequence.

justwine app

Source: Apptimize

But you should also provide the option to go back to your onboarding. Users might not feel like going through it now, but they might in the future.

It also gives people the chance to review your onboarding if they missed out on something.

Deliver what you promised

Onboarding should excite your users and prime them for action. However, it shouldn’t be at the expense of transparency and honesty.

Ensure you commit to any promises you made during onboarding. Not doing so is a surefire way to lose users.

Want to know more about onboarding?

We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in this article.

The truth is onboarding is a mammoth undertaking, more so than most developers give it credit for. It, therefore, deserves the same time and attention as the rest of your app.

If you’re interested to learn more about onboarding, you can check out more best practices here.

Written by

Mario Zderic

Co-founder and CTO

Mario makes every project run smoothly. A firm believer that people are DECODE’s most vital resource, he naturally grew into the role of People Operations Manager. Now, his encyclopaedic knowledge of every DECODEr’s role, and his expertise in all things tech, powers him to manage his huge range of responsibilities as COO. Part developer, and seemingly part therapist, Mario is always calm under pressure, which helps to maintain the office’s stress-free vibe. In fact, sitting and thinking is his main hobby. What’s more Zen than that?

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