You only get one first impression. This statement rings true in real life, but even more so in the mobile app world. In order to get the most out of that first impression, you need to improve your mobile app onboarding by making the process as simple, self-explanatory, and pleasant as possible. This will, in turn, improve user retention and lead to more success for you! 

While this is easier said than done, we cannot undermine the importance of mobile app onboarding and user retention. But first, let us explore what we mean by mobile app onboarding.

The concept of mobile app onboarding is actually rather simple. Consider this analogy. Think of your app as a boat, and yourself as the captain/shipowner. Now, seeing that you constructed this boat, you surely have no problem seeing the benefits and great quality of your ship. 

However, to the average Joe roaming the docks (AKA the app store), they’re not quite sure how simple the whole process of buying a ticket for your boat is, or how luxurious the rooms are. So, you start to think of creative and straightforward ways to onboard customers onto your ship. 

In this scenario, effective onboarding might involve putting out signs pointing to the ticket booth (maybe with the keywords “cash only”, so as not to waste credit card holders’ time). In contrast, competition is much stronger in the mobile app world and users are more wary of technical distress. 

App developers tend to think of the most logical way to design an app, or the most time efficient. However, this doesn’t always translate into an easy-to-use or even pleasant experience for the user. Consequently, the user is left confused on what they can do, and in some cases, what they have to do in order to benefit from the app.

According to, apps lose an average of ~77% of their users within the first 3 days after installing; but when looking at the top-rated apps, this rate is significantly lower. So, let’s dig in to how we can avoid this using best practices.

1. Set Big Objectives for Your App

You might think this step is obvious, but people tend to forget the importance of setting a clear objective. It is vital to keep your goal(s) in mind throughout the onboarding process, otherwise, one may lose focus of what it is they are trying to achieve. This could lead to way too many extra features that confuse the user or cause you to completely miss the point of your own app! 

Moreover, when setting your goals, for your app or business, it’s always important to THINK BIG! As the famous author and consultant Jim Collins puts it in his Wallstreet Journal Bestseller, Built To Last, you need to establish Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG). 

Netflix, Microsoft and other giants all went through this process of crafting nearly impossible goals to the average individual. But your app is not average, it’s genius, it’s big and has tons of potential, so treat it accordingly. 

Aiming for 1,000,000 users in 3 months takes no less the same amount of effort than does aiming for only 500,000 users in 3 months. The only difference is the amount of action and strategies you will deploy towards activating and acquiring those users. You might not reach 1,000,000 users, but maybe 800,000. Either way, it’s better to come up short on a Big Goal than short on an average goal.

What would you rather, 350,000 or 800,000 users in 3 months? THINK BIG.

2. Create an Interactive Guide

As much as your know-it-all cousin likes to brag about their lightning-quick learning abilities, most people need to be walked through an app rather thoroughly. While this seems to contradict our first point, there is a difference between an in-depth intro and a superfluous one. The key here is to actively guide the user through the steps, preferably even getting them to use the app’s features during a demo. 

3. Make Your Sign-up Steps Easy

For such a diverse group of users on the app store, the most effective way to ensure a pleasant experience for everyone is to minimize the amount of buttons, forms, dropdown menus, etc. for a person to go through. If the user doesn’t understand what they’re being asked, they’re more likely to give up then try to understand.

Nevertheless, for the necessary inputs that are required, there are many ways to simplify them: 

  • Implement smart features. Autocomplete is a popular one. Have the user enter their address, but then fill in the country, ZIP code, etc. for them.
  • Dynamically validate fields. Users tend to get very annoyed when they are told to overlook their form again due to an error, after having already completed it. Try validating fields as they are being entered.
  • Clearly (but minimally) specify required fields, and don’t include too many non-required ones.
  • Give clear and concise feedback on errors. (See how clear and concise that was?)

4. Require as Little Personal Data and “Permissions” as Possible

An article by the PEW Research Center states that “79% of adults assert they are very or somewhat concerned about how companies are using the data they collect about them”. 

While you may have the users’ best interests at heart in asking for their information, be wary that 8 out of 10 of them are skeptical. This is especially true since the 2018 election scandal between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of Facebook users’ personal data from it’s website and Facebook App to use for political advertising. 

To ensure your users’ safety and trust with their sensitive information, illustrate the following:

  • Include a Privacy Policy link on any and all landing pages
  • Make it clear to them what information is being collected and why

To avoid any personal data infringements, follow the motto Data Rights are Human Rights.

However, remember there are quite a few people like your cousin with their super quick learning abilities who will very easily get bored and quit the app out of frustration; therefore, it is best practice to implement the option to skip through some introductory parts.

5. Develop a Great User Interface (UI) & User Experience (UX) Design

A friendly user interface design is the prime factor of a successful app, but the user experience is equally important. Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, UX and UI design experts, give a perfect illustration on the importance of these aspects: 

“It’s important to distinguish the total user experience from the user interface (UI), even though the UI is obviously an extremely important part of the design. As an example, consider a website with movie reviews. Even if the UI for finding a film is perfect, the UX will be poor for a user who wants information about a small independent release if the underlying database only contains movies from the major studios.” 

Find the balance between a good interface and good user experience. Take for example Pitch, the online platform helping teams deliver stronger presentations:

6. Optimize and Iterate: Test-> Analyze-> Adjust -> Launch 

Mobile app onboarding is first and foremost about the users, and unless you have direct access to all potential users, there is no way of knowing their preferences or displeasures with the app if you don’t try out your ideas, listen to feedback, and adjust accordingly.

This point cannot be stressed enough. Anything you think you know for certain, can be proven completely wrong with a couple negative reviews or emphasized with some very positive ones. It’s up to you to cater to the users’ needs. More app testing leads to more growth!

This is similar to the Lean Methodology, the process of optimizing the people, resources, energy and effort of your organizations:

The launch funnel is simple. The more internal testing your team does on the interface designs, the user experiences, the call to actions displays, the content etc. the more successful you will be since you will know what your target audience values through your Analysis of the data.

In the Analysis phase, most companies and developers tend to focus on the what is working first before fixing the miscellaneous red flags. NO!

To hack your app’s growth, fix the red flags first, no matter how small, then optimize the positives. It is the minor adjustments that can grow your revenue 2x.

Finally, once you’ve assessed your app’s fit (design, content etc.), you will be ready to launch successfully. 

Final Thought: Your app doesn’t speak for itself… onboarding does!

Similar to how marketing is about systematically communicating your value to people who can buy, onboarding is the bridge between your app and the end user. The more interactive, easy and pleasurable you make users’ onboarding experience, the more value they will see in your app. The onboarding process is the step at which you communicate how valuable your app can be to the end user.

The onboarding improvement process can be tedious – this is no secret – and you will never be able to please everyone, but it is important to determine the best way for your app to be as enticing and pleasant as possible for it to enjoy the success it deserves.

In the end, you want as many people to use your app as possible, so test, analyze, adjust, and repeat this process as much as you can; there is no other way to find out what people do and do not enjoy from your app. Additionally, following the best practices discussed above will ensure this process moves as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

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