Mobile app onboarding

Lewis Wake
Thursday 15 October 2020

App onboarding is the process of getting users familiar with a new interface, by using dedicated flows and user interface elements that are not part of the regular app interface.

They explain and detail how to interact with the app and complete any necessary setup.

Does my app need onboarding?

Ideally, you should only use app onboarding when absolutely necessary. Not every app requires a onboarding process for it to be used.

There is a higher interaction cost. Users must deploy efforts mentally and physically before they can even use the app.

There is also a potential memory strain. Don’t make users remember how an app works. Just make the user interface as intuitive as possible for a task to be completed.

Onboarding tutorials don’t always improve user performance and satisfaction.

Test the app with users with and without onboarding. Is it even necessary to spend time on creating a process if it is unrequired?

Example of app onboard

When is app onboarding necessary?

You should use an onboarding process when you need user information for the app to function, such as creating an account or confirming identity.

If the app is tailored for the user then information is essential upfront for user satisfaction. Diet apps are a good example of this. They ask upfront for measurements and intended goals to make the app a personal trainer.

If the app is really complicated then onboarding may be a good work around to explain why it strays from conventional user interface patterns. This is a last resort though, make sure your app is as user friendly as possible.

Onboard for weight app example
Select Weight by Dejan Markovic

Types of onboarding components

There are three common types of onboarding components.

Feature promotion components

Feature promotion components educate users about what the app can do. They can often be perceived as marketing.

Don’t use feature promotion components when you first launch an app publicly. Users rarely download an app for no reason. They will know already what their intended use of it is.

Instead, use app store screenshots for feature promotion. Don’t do both though, that’s overkill.

Use feature promotion components at a later date when new features are added. This can be helpful to existing users when new processes are available to improve their experience.

Example of feature promotion onboard
MyLocali — How it works by Maria Shanina from Plainwhite

Customisation components

Customisation components are helpful if you require user data to customise the user experience. Only ask for the essentials, don’t ask for everything.

Never ask for visual design customisation of an app on first use. A user will not know the context of how an app will look if they have never used it before. Save visual design customisation for later.

It is important to keep this process brief. Explain why you require their data and how it will be used.

If you can’t explain why gathering that data is beneficial on first use then it should be gathered later once the user can understand why it is necessary.

Example of customisation onboard
Eventum Walkthrough by Shaun ❱

Instructional components

Instructional components teach users how to use the interface of an app. They should not be used to supplement poor design.

Interactive walkthroughs are a good form of instructional onboarding. Like tutorial levels in video games, they enable the user to learn by doing in a low-stakes environment.

It is important to consider whether your app needs to be explained how it can be used. Don’t use instructional overlays for standard user interfaces and icons as this wastes a user’s time. Save instructions for what your app does completely different from the standard.

Instructional app example


Keep onboarding as simple as possible.

For most mobile apps, this means putting users directly into the interface, to learn through action rather than explanation.

On the other hand, complex apps with unique interaction patterns or those that want user information, to tailor the user experience, may benefit from onboarding flows.

With onboarding focus on what users need, to have a successfully experience with the app. Highlight what is new or unfamiliar and keep instructions brief and unobtrusive.

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