App Onboarding: Best Practices for Mobile Apps

Written by Reinder de Vries on April 29 2020 in App Marketing

App Onboarding: Best Practices for Mobile Apps

App onboarding helps users discover the value of your app. It’s an approach to help users get started with your app, by showing them the most important tasks, UIs and concepts of your app.

In this article, we’re going to discuss how you can design an effective mobile onboarding workflow for your app. Here’s what we’ll get into:

  • Do’s and don’ts for app onboarding
  • Why you shouldn’t explain how your app works
  • Core principles of onboarding, such as avoiding an “empty” app
  • 5 ready-made categories of app onboarding, that you can choose from
  • How app onboarding fits in your app’s marketing strategy

Ready? Let’s go.

  1. App Onboarding 101
  2. Examples of Mobile App Onboarding
  3. Best Practices for App Onboarding
  4. App Onboarding As A Marketing Strategy
  5. Further Reading

App Onboarding 101

“Mind your step!”

At the airport, that’s what you hear when walking to your gate. The moving sidewalk takes you from point A to B, and it’s faster than walking. Signs and cues remind you to be careful on the escalator.

When you get onto the “horizontal escalator”, a friendly voice reminds you to take care and watch your step. It makes sure you don’t fall, and get faster to your destination.

App onboarding is similar to the “Mind your step!” and visual cues of the horizontal escalator at airports. They don’t explain how the escalator works, but they make sure you get on safely and effectively. The onboarding flow in your app should do the same.

The core concept of app onboarding is:

  • Purpose: Make sure that users understand the purpose of your app, so they can benefit from them. It helps to explain the core of your app, such as podcasts in a podcasting app, or playlists in a music app.
  • Avoid Empty App: Don’t drop users in an “empty” app to avoid confusion. Help them kickstart the content inside the app, such as making a first to-do item or subscribing to their first podcast.
  • Required Steps: Complete a required workflow or action, if needed. This includes connecting external devices, like a smartwatch, import settings from another app, or simply to create and log into their new account.
  • Connection: Get a chance to make a connection. The best mobile onboarding flows have a personality, through branding, design and coloring, that helps users be at ease with a new app.

App onboarding usually takes place when a user starts your app for the first time. It’s common to provide the option to skip onboarding, and return to it later.

In the general sense, “onboarding” also includes the first few interactions (or hours, days, weeks) of new users with your app. Onboarding can also extend to other media, such as email, direct messaging, and offline interactions.

Let’s discuss a few examples of effective app onboarding.

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Examples of Mobile App Onboarding

App onboarding works just like that moving sidewalk in the airport. Your app takes users from A to B: the app solves a problem, and it helps users to benefit from your app. What’s the app for? How can I best use it? Onboarding helps answer those questions for your app’s users.

An effective onboarding strategy ensures that your users are able to take advantage of your app. It’s not just about welcoming them in the app – it’s about putting the user in a position where they can fulfill a need, as soon and comfortable as possible.

App Onboarding Tutorial example

You’ve got a few typical categories of app onboarding flows that you can use, including:

  1. In-app tutorial or guide
    This onboarding principle is quite common: when a user installs your app for the first time, you show 4-6 User Interfaces (UI) of short texts and images explaining the app’s most important features.
  2. Wizard or step-by-step UI
    If your app requires initial setting up, like creating an account or linking external hardware, it’s smart to use a wizard or step-by-step UI. It guides the user through required steps, and prepares the app for use.
  3. Onboarding email sequence and/or direct messaging
    App onboarding can also take place outside your app, such as with email and direct messaging. You can use a well-timed email sequence to help users make the most of your app, such as explaining the most important features of your app. It’s smart to follow the appropriate flow, such as starting with adding a first podcast, then discovering more podcasts, and then explaining how to download podcasts for offline listening (for a hypothetical podcast app).
  4. In-app contextual guides
    Contextual guides are awesome, but they’re technically complex to build. A contextual guide is similar to a tooltip that hover over buttons or other UI in the app. Users are directed to different features of the app, as the app helps them navigate the UI. Imagine for a to-do list app, that the app highlights the Add to-do item button when they first start the app, with a bit of text: “Tap here to create your first to-do!”
  5. FAQs, Knowledge Bases, Videos
    Onboarding also includes directions for how users can find more information about your app. You can direct them to your knowledge base or FAQ, or provide more in-depth videos with how-to’s for your app. You also get a change to introduce your team or the company behind the app, and make a connection with your users. Directing the user to an FAQ or Support page is especially helpful, because you can prevent future frustration by telling the user how to get customer support before they need it.

It’s especially important to design an airtight onboarding flow, if the user needs to take required steps before the app can be used.

Imagine needing to pair a smartwatch with your app. If the user would skip onboarding, they would need to take additional steps to use the app with a smartwatch. The chance that your users give up increases at this point, so it’s paramount to design a good onboarding flow.

If possible, give the user the alternative to skip onboarding and return to it at a later point. You can also build automatic checks that prompt the user with something like: “Hey, looks like you haven’t linked a smartwatch. Do you want to continue with onboarding now?”

Want to see a few good examples of app onboarding? Check out this board on Pinterest:

Onboarding on Pinterest.

Best Practices for App Onboarding

Every app is different, and every app solves a different problem. The onboarding of your application obviously highly depends on the kind of app you’re creating. A few best practices apply, though!

  • Keep It Simple
    The worst User Interface (UI) is the one that needs explaining. When your UI is so complicated that you need tell people how to use it, you’re definitely doing it wrong. The first step in designing onboarding is creating a well-designed app. Let the user focus on solving their own problems with your app. When you’ve created a complicated UI, your user now has two problems: not being able to solve their initial problem, and not being able to figure out your UI. This surely drives people away from your app!
  • Don’t overdo it: focus on onboarding, not on building a wiki
    Don’t provide too much information up front. Users have just downloaded your app, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with everything your app can do.
    It’s cool to build a complete wiki about the stuff your app does, however, it’s not efficient. Your users don’t have time to dig through all of your app’s features. Instead, focus on the essentials. What are the minimal, optimal actions your user needs to take, before they can start to work with your app? (You can always build a separate wiki or FAQ, of course!)
  • Highlight benefits, not features
    This is an important aspect of app marketing: don’t focus on features, but highlight benefits. Instead of saying “1 GB of MP3 storage”, show us “1000 songs in your pocket”. Your app users don’t care that creating to-do’s is super easy! Ease-of-use is important, but it has no meaning. What matters to the user is is productivity and ticking off tasks. Organize your onboarding around the benefits of your app, and you hit two birds with one stone. The user gets up to speed with the app, and you’ve also emphasised your app’s unique selling points (USP).

Don’t make the mistake of needing onboarding to explain how your app works. It’s about onboarding the user, not about explaining your app. If your app needs explaining, you’ve got a UI/UX problem. A red flag for onboarding flows that explains too much, is if you’re only talking to the user in the onboarding flow, and don’t help them take action. It’s the difference between needing to explain how to add a first podcast in an app, and providing onboarding UI to add that first podcast. See the difference?

App Onboarding As A Marketing Strategy

App onboarding is part of an effective marketing strategy for your app. Surprised? Maybe you thought your onboarding tutorial was a necessary evil, because no one understood how your app worked!

Good app onboarding ultimately benefits your app business. Here’s why: it’s cheaper to retain a customer, than to acquire a new one. The cost of acquisition is much higher than the cost of keeping your users happy. If you botched app onboarding, and a user abandons your app, the effort to acquire that user has been for naught.

Long-term marketing focuses on increasing the life-time value (LTV) of your customers. You benefit from the relationship with your users, and ensure that you can repeatedly sell one or more products. The retention rate of your app – your app’s ability to keep users engaged – is greatly influenced by your mobile onboarding process.

The only way you’re keeping a user happy, in the first place, is if your user receives value from your app. If they can’t figure out how to get started with your app, you’ve lost them now, but you also lost the chance to interact with them in the future. Make that first impression count!

Further Reading

In this article, we’ve looked at app onboarding. We’ve discussed examples, best practices, and core concepts of mobile app onboarding. Awesome!

Interested in learning more? Check out the following articles:

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Reinder de Vries

Hi, I'm Reinder.
I help developers play with code.

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Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is a professional iOS developer. He teaches app developers how to build their own apps at LearnAppMaking.com. Since 2009 he has developed a few dozen apps for iOS, worked for global brands and lead development at several startups. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

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