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How to Increase User Retention With Mobile App Onboarding


Having an effective mobile app onboarding experience is critical. Great user onboarding not only lowers abandonment rates, but can also help boost long-term success metrics like user retention and user lifetime value.


To boost retention, your apps needs to be cutting-edge and offer a seamless user experience, which involves design, customer delight, and adding a great deal of value. This post describes the best practices for creating an effective user onboarding experience that will turn initial downloads into highly engaged users.   

1. Build The Path of Least Resistance

User onboarding is about making it as easy as possible for the user to start using the app. The more complex it is for users to log in or sign-up, discover features, or navigate the app, the higher the rate of user abandonment. Therefore, you want to go with the path of least resistance.


Sometimes, this means a single sign-up screen. This is popular with social media and entertainment apps.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.46.21 PM



But this isn’t always the best route. There are different methods of user onboarding which depend on both the utility of the app, and whether the concept of the app is new:


Benefits-oriented onboarding: communicate the value of the app. What does the app do? What value will the app provide the user?


Slack keeps their mobile user onboarding concise when demonstrating the benefits that the product provides.


Source: Usability Geek


Function-oriented onboarding: you aren’t demonstrating the benefits, but the key functionalities. This is when you highlight specific functionalities that show the user actions they can take, how the functionality is used, and when it should be used. Don’t add too many functionalities or it will look too complicated for the user. Include around 3 or 4 at the most.


Progressive onboarding: educating users through guided interactions. Users want to discover the app on their own terms. This onboarding process is interactive, providing the user with instructions as they actually use the app. If your app has an intricate workflow, multiple sections, hidden functionalities, and/or gesture-driven interactions, then progressive onboarding is a great approach. 


Hybrid: a combination of two or all of the above


Regardless of the most appropriate user onboarding method, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for users to begin using the app.

2. Reduce Sign-up/Log In Fields

Long forms are a bad idea, especially on mobile where screen sizes are smaller. The ideal scenario is allowing users to sign-up or log in via a single field, like a social media account. However, some apps will require more information, for example, a service-based app that has a user base of existing customers.


In cases like these, you want to gather only information that is essential. If that is a lot of information, you can consider breaking the process into more than one screen. 

3. Follow The “One Screen, One Concept” Rule

People are able to absorb information more easily if that information is precise and focused. Onboarding screens should “chunk” information, using a single screen to describe a concept to avoid overloading the user with information.


This practice is particularly important for function-oriented and benefits-oriented onboarding, where the purpose is to demonstrate key app functionalities or communicate value.



AirBnB clearly communicates its benefits in a 4 screen user onboarding process.

4. Give Feedback Quickly

Feedback serves multiple purposes in onboarding, most commonly to indicate errors or successes in the validation process. It can also be used through animations that act as positive reinforcement for completing interactions.


In the case below, the feedback indicates to the user that their password fails to meet the criteria, and makes it easy for them to determine why. Error states should always be clear and contextual so the user knows what they’ve done wrong; this helps reduce failures and makes it easier for users to navigate the app.


Slack for iOS Upload

5. Use Guided Interaction to Drive Progress

Many apps that are a bit more complex use a progressive onboarding approach; essentially, a tutorial on how to use the app. The apps with the most successful progressive onboarding provide the user the fun of discovery – without impeding the experience – by using guided interaction.


Guided interaction is about engaging users in exploration, rather than telling them what to do. This concept is very popular in video games; instead of lengthy tutorials, users play through the actions in order to become familiar with the controls and environment.


Guided interaction is also important for apps with empty states, when users need to take an action in order for content to fill. Evernote, for example, requires that users add notes for the screens to populate. It also makes discovery an ongoing experience, with an Explore Evernote option available to users at any time.  




6. Use Animation Purposefully

There are 3 reasons to use animations in the onboarding process:


  • Draw attention to elements to help the user progress
  • Feedback (positive reinforcement for an action taken, for example)
  • Concept of space (presenting new content without user feeling they are “leaving” the screen)


Animation should always be used with one of these purposes in mind, and should be used sparingly. They should draw attention, but not irritate the user.


Examples of good practice include subtle animations that show something is undiscovered or the use of pagination dots to show progress.

7. Test, Test, & Test Again

User onboarding is first and foremost about the users themselves. Listening to and acting upon user reviews and feedback can help you identify points of friction in your onboarding process and improve them. Once you have enough data to discern patterns, try new things and test to see if users love or hate them.

Breaking Down Your Retention Rate to Identify Problems

Consider breaking your retention rate down into three sections. Doing this will help you identify why your users aren’t sticking with your app.  


1. Short-Term Retention (The first week of app usage) Do they use the product more than once? If they aren’t, it’s likely that they found it hard to use, or were confused by the onboarding process. 


Clearbridge’s UX/UI Designer Shelly Jameer explains, “Onboarding is important for retaining users because if users don’t understand how and why they are using an app, they simply won’t end up using it.”


2. Mid-Term Retention (4 weeks of app usage) Establish a pattern of usage. Are they using the app properly? Are there any barriers in the app that prevent users from achieving their goal?


3. Long-Term Retention (After one month of app usage) Are your users relying on your app as a valuable, indispensable tool? How is it a part of their life? 


One of the most effective ways to get users to rely on the product as an indispensable tool is simply to get them using it more than once with a seamless user onboarding process.

Convey Value Right Away

Are you demonstrating the value of your product right away? If the answer is “no”, you need to reassess your mobile app onboarding process. If a customer can understand the core value of your product immediately, then they are far more likely to continue using the app for an extended period of time. If they aren’t convinced that your app will make their life easier, and provide them with considerable value, your uninstall rates will skyrocket. 


Clearbridge Mobile’s UX/UI Designer, Shelly Jameer explains that effective user onboarding must convey value immediately, “Onboarding helps users understand the value an app can provide to them by showcasing the app’s key features, and how those features work. It gives users a quick glimpse of the purpose of an app, in order to show them that the app is worth their time.” She argues that you need to give users an excellent reason to stay, especially with heavy competition in the app market, housing products that have similar offerings. “Onboarding is a great way to show them that reason right from the start.”


Mobile app onboarding is imperative for activating users, encouraging engagement, and reducing abandonment rates.


The onboarding experience is something that needs to be given more attention if companies want to increase overall user retention. One of the biggest concerns for companies developing an app is retention rates. Acquisition and downloads are crucial, however, true mobile app success is measured by high retention rates because they show that users find continuous value using your app. The user should be the center of all onboarding decisions so make sure you are collecting feedback and modifying your onboarding process to suit the needs of your users. Following these best practices will help you create a highly effective onboarding process that will not only drive user engagement, but enhance the user experience.



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Dan Kosir

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