— 2 Nov 2016

User Onboarding Process: Top Strategies, Tips and Tactics

Maryna Dorash

This is a guest post by Hannah Levenson, the Content Marketing Manager at Appsee. A UX and mobile app enthusiast, she has a great affinity for discovering and sharing unique insights and resources with the mobile tech community. Hannah also loves photojournalism, classic rock, and pretending that she’s the only one with a “foodie” Instagram account. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLevenson

Mobile user onboarding is like flirting with a girl, or a boy. Everyone’s doing it, everyone *thinks* they know how it’s done, but in reality, a lot of potentially awesome experiences are lost because of poor practices.

Just as a lot of “cool” people start boring conversations with ‘You know how much a polar bear weighs?’ and get a cold stare back – a lot of developers with cool apps just throw in a hint system or a short tutorial and think to themselves ‘that oughta do it’.

It’s not gonna cut it- especially in today’s mobile-first world. User onboarding is a pivotal process in terms of determining the success of your app, yet a lot of developers make the following mistakes:

  • They underestimate the importance of an awesome first impression
  • They fail to realize that if a new user never returns, it’s probably because of a poor onboarding strategy
  • They treat each app the same way, ignoring the fact that they’re all unique and require a unique onboarding strategy
  • They fail to analyze and optimize their onboarding strategy

Instead of ‘tapping in the dark’, and ending up slamming your head against a wall, why not ask dating mobile user onboarding gurus how it’s done, and we’ll tell you. Here are the three best strategies for onboarding:

  1.       Value-oriented
  2.       Function-oriented
  3.       Progressive


We’ve listed the value-oriented strategy first because it is the one you should go for first – especially if your app is simple and straightforward. In short – it revolves around showing users what’s in it for them. Instead of focusing on what the app can do – you focus on what the app can do – for the user.

Going back to dating – it would be like telling a girl/boy you’d cook them dinner, love their dog as if it were your own, and take them to a Justin Bieber concert. Ok, maybe not the third thing, but you get my point.

When planning the onboarding process, remember that the user will ask “What’s in it for me?”, and then try to answer that question as short and direct as possible. Don’t overdo it, though. Nobody wants to go through dozens of slides praising all of the app’s amazing features. Go for key three to five features. Dedicate a slide to each one, and present them in a visually compelling way. Make sure the users need but a glance to understand what the slide says. The text must be easy to consume, must use the tone of the target audience and can even describe the emotional benefits of the features. Entertaining? Inspiring? Use these words only if you strongly believe your app *will* create such emotions.

Expensify, a mobile app for expense reports, is a great example of quality value-oriented onboarding. Right after installing the app, it will prompt the user with a couple of slides, showing all the different benefits.



This one is used when we can assume the user is already familiar with your app’s benefits, so instead of focusing on value, the focus is on unique features.

For example, your crush already has a dozen wooers. They can all cook, they’d all love her dog with all their hearts, and they all have Justin Bieber concert tickets in their back pocket (why am I so hung up on Biebs), but you have an awesome cookbook with recipes from the Tibetan heights, are a dog whisperer and your tickets are for the VIP zone. In that case – you are opting for function-oriented onboarding, as you offer the same benefits as other apps, but with unique features.

A good example of a function-oriented user onboarding strategy can be found on the Dolphin mobile browser. That browser stands out of the crowd with particular gestures which allow users easier navigation through the app. In Dolphin, users can open their favorite bookmarks by drawing a predefined gesture on the app itself. It could be a heart, or any other symbol of their choosing. It’s a unique function, and gives a little extra to the app, but also requires the app to explain the user how the feature should be used.


One of the usual beginner’s mistakes here is to list obvious functions. If you are creating a photo app, there’s no need to say that your app can create photos – list only what you believe (or know) is unique and will make your app stand out from the crowd. Don’t forget to be concise and precise. This is where you will get your five minutes – use them wisely and you’ll be in it for the long run.


A progressive mobile user onboarding strategy is used when the app has a lot to offer, so the user needs to spend a more time to fully understand and appreciate it. Just as the name explains, users need to make some progress within the app, and while they do, they will be introduced to new features and possibilities. At this stage, your crush already knows you’re handy in the kitchen, and are capable of emotionally bonding with a canine.

For example, shopping is a lengthy experience, and a shopping app has many features, from advanced searching for products, to different purchasing methods, wallets, item reviews, sharing and whatnot. All of these features are important, some are maybe unique to your app, and some are simply not available at the very start. In such a scenario, you’d go for a progressive onboarding strategy, so that the user is acquainted with different features at different stages of use, ergo – progressive. LinkedIn is a good example of an app with a solid progressive onboarding strategy. It guides the user through the entire profile setup process, making sure they are acquainted with all the various features it has to offer. After the profile setup is complete, it offers the user to join various groups, and ultimately – invite friends and family to the network. It is a great example how the app guides the users through multiple stages of app use.

Only when they reach the purchasing stage, should you hint that they can pay either via PayPal or have their mobile charged – but it will take some time before they get there.

It is also important to notice that progressive strategies can take the process beyond the first session. However, don’t overdo it, you don’t want to end up like MS Word’s Paperclip, the annoying little thing that didn’t know when to stop and ended up being a meme.

Example of progressive onboarding with Keep app. Source: uxarchive.com

Analyze and optimize

There is this mantra you should keep repeating day in – day out. Users are probably not going about your app the way you intended. They’re probably not using it 100 percent how it was designed, and that goes for the onboarding process, as well. You need to know if your new strategy is really having the desired effect – less quits, longer sessions, better retention.

That’s why it is important to analyze the success of your onboarding strategy and optimize accordingly. You can see whether your users are skipping through the hints, or are tapping at certain tips, thinking they will open a new window with additional information. With Appsee’s qualitative analytics tools, such as touch heatmaps or user session recordings, you can see exactly where your users are tapping, and if they’re experiencing any bugs or glitches in the process.

You can transform this data into key insights, which will, at the end of the day, help you optimize your onboarding strategies and bring more users, longer first sessions, and better overall retention.


In a world where everything is presented on a silver platter, and people get their fix (whichever it is) instantly, time is not the luxury mobile developers have. That’s why creating a memorable first impression can define the future of your app. The emotion you arouse in a user right from the start will most likely follow the user all the way to the end. It is up to you to make sure proper emotions are awoken, so that the journey may last for a long, long time.

Use one of the user onboarding strategies presented here, and make sure you constantly keep analyzing and optimizing them, in order to get more guests and ‘strays’ into your app, some of which are bound to stick around. At the end of the day, that’s what mobile user onboarding is all about – creating more satisfied, engaged users, that actually keep your app.

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Maryna Dorash
Maryna Dorash
Marketing Manager at SplitMetrics
Full-stack digital marketing specialist with a focus on driving growth through marketing analytics insights, marketing automation and paid user acquisition. Passionate about app marketing and mobile growth.
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