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How to use Mobile App Onboarding

App onboarding is part of an effective marketing strategy for your app. 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 nothing.

What is App Onboarding?

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.

The core concept of app onboarding is:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Examples of Mobile App Onboarding

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.

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

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.

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.

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).

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!”

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.

Best App Onboarding Practices

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, and not additional workflows

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. 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. The user gets up to speed with the app, and you’ve also emphasised your app’s unique selling points.

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.

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.

Next Steps:

Use App onboarding as a marketing strategy. 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.

Long-term marketing focuses on increasing the life-time value (LTV) to 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, but you also lose the chance to interact with them in the future.


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