Digital Health

The ultimate guide to mobile app onboarding

29th July 2015

Developing killer mobile apps is tough. Attracting users and retaining them can seem like a minefield. One of the best ways to retain mobile users is to create an onboarding strategy. All of the best apps now leverage sophisticated onboarding strategies to engage users in a meaningful way and stimulate ongoing retention. Mobile app onboarding screens are akin to a virtual ‘walkthrough’ of your app, enabling users to quickly understand what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Onboarding is a one-shot-trick. It’s about introducing your mobile product in the best possible light, clearly demonstrating it’s benefits and what it does as succinctly as possible. You will probably only get one opportunity to get this right. If you fail to engage new app users at the first attempt, they’ll find a competing mobile product that does a better job and the opportunity will be gone. It’s very unusual to get a second attempt at winning them over – so it’s essential you get it right first time.

Mobile app onboarding is about setting expectations early. Your app users first experience will set the bar in terms of expectations and your job is to delight and over perform. This guide is intended for software development managers, product designers, managers and developers. It’s intended to outline how you can establish if your mobile app requires an onboarding strategy and if so, what you can do about it.

Establishing if your mobile app needs onboarding

Some apps will benefit more from an onboarding strategy than others. There’s a common argument between app developers and designers that if your app requires a sophisticated onboarding mechanism that it’s not been built properly in the first instance. After all, mobile app onboarding is about optimising the UI of your app in order to simplify the learning process for users. The fact is – there is some truth to this idea – bad apps cannot be salvaged through onboarding. But if you’re a brand or business developing an app, it’s well worth considering very carefully whether or not you require an onboarding strategy.

Some designers and developers hate rules. But when it comes to app onboarding, rules are awesome. Rules actually prevent developers from trying to reinvent the wheel and do stuff that’s been proven not to work in the past. This is why standard icon sets exist. Familiarity is so important in terms of developing a coherent and fluid app experience for your users. The more familiarity and consistency you can create in terms of the look and feel of your app, the more likely that your app will be a success.

Different apps will appeal to different people and require separate layouts and customised functionality. Here are some real-world examples where your app might benefit from adopting an onboarding process:

Onboarding for data harvesting

If your app functions in order to harvest personal details such as name, email address etc for marketing purposes then this would potentially justify using an onboarding strategy. Health and fitness apps are a great example of this as they often require lots of sensitive personal information about weight, size, dietary habits, so it’s important these products are easy and hassle free to use at first glance.

Also, if an app is empty when users first experience it and it’s case of collating content on order to make it function effectively, then it’s important to point users in the right direction.

Mobile onboarding for complex business apps

Many modern mobile apps act as an extension to an existing piece of desktop or web based software. Where a singular app works across multiple devices using a single-sign-on, it may be beneficial to use onboarding to explain how the mobile app works. In many cases, a mobile app will have stripped back functionality when compared to it’s desktop counterpart. This means you may have to work a little harder to point users in the right direction.

As an example, with some enterprise apps, the desktop version of the software will enable users to edit, delete (amongst other things) and possess extensive functionality. Mobile apps tend to be less sophisticated in terms of performing tasks and may only enable a user to view an article or share it with a co-worker. Where enterprise mobile apps are concerned, functionality tends to be more complex (user management, security etc) and tends to justify the use of an onboarding strategy.

Onboarding for apps with unusual gestures

Most mobile app users are subject to the same gestures and types of interactions on a daily basis. Swiping, pinching and zooming have become second nature in the mobile connected world. So if you’re launching an app that requires unfamiliar gesture controls, it may be time to start thinking about onboarding your users to minimise abandonment rates.

Many developers try to create innovative experiences by creating unusual UI layouts in order to set them apart from competitors. This may lead users to your app in the first instance, but it’s unlikely to retain them if features are not properly signposted.

One great example of this is the weather app Solar. It’s similar to other weather apps in terms of what it does and how it works. But the way in which it’s presented to the user makes the layout feel natural and intuitive.

If your app doesn’t conform to any of the above use cases, you may still benefit from onboarding.
How to onboard mobile app users

There are three commonly used techniques when it comes to onboarding mobile app users: progressive onboarding, feature onboarding and benefits onboarding.

Progressive onboarding

The best way to teach someone something is to let them experience it for themselves. This is the premise of progressive oriented mobile app onboarding. Progressive onboarding gives the user a walkthrough of the app and presents information on what to do in real-time. This means that your app users are only instructed to do certain things when in specific areas of the app.

The greater the complexity of the app, particularly if it relates to finance or granular detail of some description, the more likely the case that it will benefit from progressive onboarding. If the overall workflow of the app is quite complex, it’s a good idea to present signposts in a logical manner that explain how to use detailed features. Make sure you provide enough detail and enable the user to progress at their own pace.

But be careful not to overload the user, excessive hints and walls of text can be really off putting and actually discourage people from returning for a second visit. It’s also important to give users a sense of achievement when using your app. It’s hard to do this when every single detail is explained. In some cases it’s best to leave users to work things out for themselves as overloading detail and signposts can be equally off putting.

This particular type of onboarding is particularly effective for apps that use hidden or unfamiliar gestures.

Feature onboarding

Feature onboarding should focus on the key functionality within the app. You have to start off by clearly outlining what the key functionality of the app is. You then have to explain when and how to use it. This may sound simple but there are a few fundamental things to keep in mind.

Again, we’ve said it before, but don’t state the alarmingly obvious. Navigating backwards on a website or inside a mobile app has always been done by clicking/tapping an arrow that points to the left hand side. Explaining this to the user could appear to be condescending and wastes valuable time them having to investigate the sign post. You have to assume that your users have a certain degree of intelligence and treat them accordingly when it comes to feature onboarding.

If you’re using slides to explain your features, never use any more than three in a single tutorial and explain a maximum of one feature per slide.

Benefits onboarding

Much like you would expect, this approach involves leading app users through your onboarding process by focusing on the benefits of using your product. Focus on explaining to the user what the benefits are of using your app, how the app will enhance their lives and when they can use it most effectively. For some reason, people love consuming content in bunches of three, so only ever focus on trying to convey three very concise benefits.

Similar to the feature onboarding situation with slides, always focus on presenting benefits clearly and try and stick to one per screen as a rule. make sure that you’ve distilled the app down into its core benefits and focus on using the ones that add the maximum amount of value to your users experience. Focus on being consistent in your language and presentation and keep things simple – less is sometimes more when it comes to UX.

The best onboarding tools for mobile

If you’re in the market for a mobile app onboarding platform, we’ve taken the time to identify the best in the industry. If you’re unsure how to get started, you can think about contacting an agency to help kick-start your mobile app onboarding program.

The bottom line on mobile app onboarding

There are a multitude of ways in which you can approach mobile app onboarding for your company. You can use a single strategy and pursue it relentlessly. You can use a combination of techniques. You can focus on a specific technique and augment it with a slightly different approach. Another technique is using video explanations to educate users about how to use your app and it’s benefits. Adopting the right approach depends on a variety of factors, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ silver bullet that will work for all companies. You have to start with the end in mind, develop a firm understanding of your business requirements and goals and work backwards from that point. Once you’ve defined what it is you’re trying to do, you’ll be able to develop a killer mobile app onboarding strategy that helps retain and delight users.

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