All aboard! The essential guide to mobile app onboarding for 2022 (and beyond)

By Einav Mor-Samuels
App onboarding essential guide (Featured square)

According to a 2021 study, average consumers have 40 apps installed on their phone, but are spending nearly 90% of their time on only 18 apps.

This means that about 22 apps are just sitting there, collecting digital dust. And that, more often than not, is because of a flawed or broken app onboarding process.

A comprehensive app onboarding experience can make the difference between apps with staying power versus those that end up trashed. In this guide, we’re going to break down the components of a well-designed onboarding experience, and its power to educate, inspire, and champion its users, encourage engagement and ultimately lead to user retention.

What is mobile app onboarding, and why is it important?

In a nutshell, mobile app onboarding is a series of steps new users take before they begin to use an app. The process can include educating new users, collecting consenting user information, and guiding users to register for an account. 

After downloading, app onboarding is the first introduction a user has to your app. Think of it as an audition, where you need to prove your app’s value and usefulness in solving users’ challenges.

The ultimate goal you need to keep in mind, is that when users launch your app for the first time, the onboarding process should deliver value as quickly and as uniquely as possible to help users get to their “aha moment.”

The laid back, the fast, and the value-oriented – or the three types of mobile onboarding

Ideally, a new user’s relationship with your app should begin with onboarding and end with them becoming a loyal evangelist for your brand. But no two users and their experiences are alike, and often different apps require different levels of onboarding oversight before users can get comfortable.

Because of that, when designing your app’s onboarding experience, consider your user, their journey, and expectations, and choose wisely from the following three formats:

1 – The progressive approach

A progressive onboarding process allows users to explore the app and access new information as they navigate, with the main objective of enabling users to learn by doing. 

This type of onboarding is great for apps with an intricate workflow, hidden or unique functionalities, many sections, or gesture-driven interactions. 

InVision is a great example for a progressive onboarding process that previews the next step or the next related feature for users — but does so without overwhelming them — and leaves users in complete control as they navigate through the stages of their onboarding.

InVision app onboarding
Source: InVision

2 – The functional approach

In this onboarding format, an app immediately shows new users the app’s core functions and how to use them. More specifically, function-oriented onboarding shows users where to start and how to execute common actions. Think visual tours with specific instructions.

For example, the Mockup app does an awesome job of showcasing its key functionalities in only three simple slides.

Mockup app onboarding
Source: Mockup

3 – Benefits-oriented approach

Benefits-oriented onboarding is a process that demonstrates the value of an app before anything else. It centers on what the app can do instead of how to use it. 

For example, permission requests that a user can opt-out or in for, like receiving push notifications or allowing device location to be accessed by the app.

Evernote is a note-taking app that is all about accentuating added value. It shows users their app’s benefits right off the bat while also allowing them to choose how to proceed on their onboarding journey, providing users with both education and freedom of choice as they onboard.

Evernote app onboarding
Source: Evernote

App engagement and user retention: The definitive guide

Learn more

How it’s done right – app onboarding best practices for 2022

While your precise approach to app onboarding can vary depending on your app’s complexity and users’ needs, there are still some universal truths all developers can and should follow:

1 – Get the data you need upfront

Plenty of apps are only as useful as the data their users provide. A weather app can’t warn you of an approaching thunderstorm if you haven’t shared your location.

Nike doesn’t just let its app users browse; it makes them “members”. Directly after installing the app, users are prompted to provide their email address, and are then immediately met with the irresistible message: “Now let’s make you a Nike Member“, making users feel like they’re part of an exclusive club.

Nike does not allow users to access any part of their app without signing up, but they also don’t introduce unnecessary friction by asking for too much information at once. 

By getting the data they need to provide a personalized experience, Nike has reduced the likelihood of users downloading the app, browsing for a few minutes, and then trashing it, which is most mobile marketers’ worst nightmare.

Nike app onboarding
Source: Nike

2 – Allow users to skip

Despite expecting a smooth and frictionless onboarding, most users don’t want to have their hands held throughout the process — especially if they’re tech-savvy or your app is fairly self-explanatory. 

In that case, allowing users to jump right in and explore the app themselves is a great way to get them excited instead of feeling chaperoned.

Music video streaming app Vevo gives its music-loving potential users this option — allowing them to skip irrelevant onboarding parts, jump right in and enjoy. A great example of a progressive, user-focused approach.

Vevo app onboarding
Source: Vevo

3 – Immediately highlight core features

The best way to grab users’ attention is to showcase your app’s core functionalities as soon as they launch it. At the same time, be sure to resist the urge to throw every single feature at them all at once, or they’ll feel overwhelmed. 

Instead, focus on the functions that most directly solve your users’ problem, and trust that they’ll discover all your other bells and whistles in their own time.

eBay offers an excellent example of an app that instantly highlights its core features, encourages users to self-navigate (even before creating an account), while keeping things simple once users are ready to take the plunge and register. 

eBay understands that users are there to shop, so doesn’t stand in their way or bore them with a long tutorial on how the bidding process works. Instead, users are met with an easy-to-understand dashboard that allows them to search for whatever it is they are looking for, quickly and intuitively.

eBay app onboarding
Source: eBay

4 – Engage on multiple channels

Instead of limiting onboarding to in-app engagement — seek to engage new users on various channels with the aim to bring them back to the app. Think entertaining push notifications, special offers via SMS, new features announcements on social media, and enticing emails.

Weaving multiple channels together for the onboarding process can enhance the users’ experience and lure them back to your app. Personalizing messages based on what users’ recent progress or status, like a reminder to complete registration, could be the final nudge they need to complete their onboarding process.

Online retailer SHEIN optimizes the power of push notifications as soon as  their app is installed — offering them a chance to save money on the spot, and ensuring that new users don’t have the opportunity to stray too far. 

Shein app onboarding - push notifications
Source: SHEIN

5 – Be transparent about data

App users are becoming increasingly skeptical about data-hungry brands, so be transparent throughout your onboarding about what data you need and why. 

Excluding non-consenting iOS14+ users, where no user level data is available for measurement, attribution or optimization, you’re already obligated to ask permission to access private info like GPS or a phone camera. But don’t pressure users into giving up permission without explaining how it will help them have a better mobile experience.

Grubhub, the food delivery app, understands this very well. Their app allows you to enter your address manually as you onboard (and every time you use the app after), or they gently nudge you to enable your location when in the app for easier use. At the same time, Grubhub is mindful to explain why to their new users.

Grubhub app onboarding
Source: Grubhub

6 – Show progress and celebrate milestones 🎉

At its worst, onboarding feels like a tedious slog with no clear endpoint. When users feel like they’ll be onboarding forever before they even get to use the app, their attention starts to wander. 

To mitigate this common problem, consider including a progress bar that shows a users’ onboarding progress. And after a user has taken an essential step, like creating a profile, uploading a photo, or even curating a playlist, why not drop some confetti or offer a joyful on-screen “ta-da” to keep users motivated and engaged.

The bad and the ugly – Common mistakes in mobile app onboarding

If done right, onboarding has the potential to boost your app’s engagement and user retention rates. However, the following don’ts can stand between your app and that sought after engagement success.

1 – Design overload

Mobile app onboarding is one instance where keeping your app’s design simple is a best practice. The UI in your onboarding journey should seek to avoid confusing or frustrating potential new users. 

Even if you’re deliberately subverting traditional UI expectations, your app’s success should not get lost in over-eager creativity.

Let’s say you own a food delivery app. Aim to limit your onboarding to asking users for their location and type of food they’re looking for, rather than bombarding them with all the potential filter categories they can search. 

A new user is more interested in what’s readily available to them rather than how to find your editor’s obscure restaurant picks or how many cuisine categories your site will offer.

Spotify, for example, is packed full of features yet has an onboarding process that is as simple as creating a username and password, and only then do users see the immense possibilities that are available for them. 

2 – Not beta testing

If a user is confused during the onboarding process, chances are they will uninstall your app faster than a speeding bullet. One way to make sure that your onboarding instructions are clear and explicitly demonstrate how to navigate your app — is with beta testing.

It’s a proven method for designers to understand their users, their experience, and, ultimately, what can help prevent retention. 

Bottom line is, do not let unclear instructions stand between your app and your users. Fresh sets of eyes are the best way to gather the valuable data that app designers need in order to retain their hard-earned users.

Key takeaways

TL;DR: Here’s  what you need to do to create the optimal onboarding process for your app:

  1. Mobile app onboarding is crucial to high engagement rates and long-term user retention.
  2. Different apps require different levels of onboarding oversight. Therefore, when designing your app’s onboarding experience, consider your user and their journey before deciding on an onboarding type.
  3. Simplicity, giving users freedom during the onboarding process, cross-channel engagement, explicit instructions, and celebrating progress — are best practices for a winning onboarding strategy.
  4. Getting carried away with your own creativity and desire to showcase all the cool things about your app — can overwhelm your users during the highly delicate onboarding process. So choose your highlighted features wisely.
  5. Experiment with your app to ensure your new users are met with clear instructions and are not overwhelmed by your app’s bells and whistles.

Einav Mor-Samuels

With extensive experience in digital marketing, Einav is a Content Writer at AppsFlyer. Over the course of the past 15 years, she has gained ample experience in the mobile marketing landscape, researching market trends, and offering tailored solutions to customers' digital problems. Einav fuels her content with data-driven insights, making even the most complex of topics accessible and clear.

Ready to start making good choices?