App Onboarding: Effective Strategies To Get Users On Board

Written by Reinder de Vries on October 6 2015 in App Marketing

App Onboarding: Effective Strategies To Get Users On Board

Mind your step!
That’s what you hear when walking to your gate, at the airport. The moving sidewalk takes you from point A to B, and it’s faster than walking.

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.

Its onboarding is effective, right? Safe and effortless. OK, hold that thought!

App Onboarding Is Like A Moving Sidewalk

App onboarding works just like that moving sidewalk. Your app takes users from A to B: the app solves a problem, and it gets users to benefit from your solution.

An effective onboarding strategy makes sure your users get the maximum benefit from your product: it ensures no one trips and falls, and keeps arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Your app can use a number of strategies, 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 pages of text and images explaining the app’s most important features.
  2. Using a wizard or step-by-step UI
    If an app needs a setup point, like creating an account or setting configurations, a wizard or step-by-step UI is often used. It guides the user through a number of required steps, and ensures that the app is set up from a content and configuration standpoint. The UI often includes validation of input, ensuring that the stuff that’s put in is correct.
  3. Sending emails and/or direct messaging
    User onboarding also takes place outside the app. Often, you can’t directly communicate with your users through your app. You have to rely on other channels too, like push notifications and ordinary email. To educate your users on a new or existing feature, you send out an email explaining the feature to them. It includes a deeplink into the app, so they can switch directly to your app from the email.
  4. In-app contextual guides
    This is less common, because it’s incredible complex to build. Instead of showing all the guides at once, you give contextual tips to the user based on the current UI. Example: Say your user is creating a new to-do. In the top-right corner you highlight the “assign a color to this to-do item” button, and when the user taps that a little gizmo pops out explaining the feature in 1 line of text.
  5. FAQs, Knowledge Bases, Videos
    Many apps include a FAQ on the website, and although it isn’t strictly onboarding, your users will check the FAQ when they’re stuck. Several apps mistake their onboarding process with writing a good FAQ, but they don’t realize their onboarding process has already failed when the user is looking for answers.

How To: Best Practices For Onboarding

Every app is different, and each app solves a different problem. Your onboarding process highly depends on the solution your app offers.

In any case, these best practices apply:

  • Keep it simple
    The worst user interface designs is the one that needs explaining. When your UI is so complicated that you need to educate your app user on its use, you’re definitely doing it wrong. The first step for effective onboarding is making sure that your design is easy to follow, so the user can focus on solving a problem with your app. When you’ve created a complex UI, your user now has 2 problems: not being able to solve their initial problem, and not being able to figure out your UI. Keep it simple.
  • Don’t overdo it: focus on onboarding, not on building a wiki
    It sure is cool to build an entire wiki about the stuff your app does, so your users can benefit from the app the most. However, it is not efficient: your users don’t have time to dig through all of your app’s features. Instead, focus on the actual onboarding: what is the minimum of things your user needs to know, before they can start to work with your app? Consider chopping your onboarding up in onboarding-per-feature.
  • Highlight benefits, not features
    This is the pinnacle of effective app marketing, and the rule of thumb suits onboarding too: don’t focus on features, highlight benefits. Your app users don’t care that your game has 1000 levels, and that creating to-do’s is super easy! A 1000 levels and ease-of-use is important, but it has no meaning. What matters to the user is killing time with your game, or being productive with task management. Organize your onboarding around the benefits of your app, and you’ll hit 2 birds with 1 stone: you haven’t only got your user up to speed with the app, but also emphasised your app’s unique selling point (USP).

App Onboarding As An Effective Marketing Strategy

A shocker, right? You figured your onboarding tutorial was a necessary evil, because no one understood your app!

Well, it’s not. Onboarding is part of an effective marketing strategy. Understand this: it’s cheaper to retain a current customer, than to acquire a new one. The cost of acquisition is much higher than the cost of keeping your customer happy.

How do you keep your customers? Well, first you have to understand that the weakest link in your business is the determining factor of success for your business. It’s true for good (or bad) customer service, winning hearts with marketing, and even for effective onboarding: you lose customers if they don’t benefit from your app!

Long-term marketing focuses on increasing the life-time value (LTV) of your customers. You capitalize on your relationship with your users, and ensure that you can repeatedly sell one or more products. The only way that’s gonna happen is if your customer repeatedly receives value and benefit of your products. When they can’t figure out how to get started with your app, you might have lost them forever.

The retention rate of your app, your business’ ability to keep users engaged, is greatly influenced by your onboarding process. If you fail to make the initial valuable contact with your customers, they won’t use your app because they don’t know its value.

Effective onboarding is part of an effective marketing strategy!

Effective Onboarding Examples

Check out these onboarding examples on Pinterest!

Image by Good Eye Might (CC BY 2.0).

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 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.