first time app user onboarding

At one point, they caught my interest enough to install but now are just gathering dust and taking up screen real estate. On top of that, there are roughly 10 more that I’ve used just two or three times. (Time for a little New Years’ clean & declutter, am I right?)

Chances are, you probably have at least a few apps on your phone that fit this bill. Today, 80-90% of downloaded apps get used once and then deleted. Product managers place a lot of energy and marketing dollars to get people to download their app, but that’s just the first half of the battle. Activating people to become engaged users is the next step and this is where the onboarding experience comes in.

Everything that happens after someone launches your app for the first time is downright imperative. This moment—the first-time user experience (FTUE)—is tied to key app success metrics like retention and can boost the lifetime value of a user by up to 500% (Source: Kahuna).

There’s no magic bullet or secret formula for an FTUE that’s guaranteed to be spectacular. Experimenting with different ideas and measuring results is part of what will help make that critical first impression great. Here are some tips for onboarding flows that product managers can test out on their apps…

1. Stay focused

First-time users might require guidance, but not information overload. Start with your value proposition (keep it simple!) and move on to basic functionality from there. Help people remain focused throughout the process and make sure you give them the ability to opt-out of the onboarding experience at any point along the way.

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Foursquare’s first-time user onboarding experience.

Foursquare opens the onboarding flow with a simple outline of the app’s value proposition and a “Get Started” call to action. As users continue through the onboarding flow, they have the option to opt-out by tapping “Skip”.

2. Show, don’t tell

Too much text during onboarding (or anywhere in an app, for that matter) can be a turnoff, especially since many people don’t learn this way. Try taking a “learn by doing” approach. Instead of text, focus on immersing users in an interactive app experience right off the bat. Interactivity allows users to complete the gestures they need to learn and then flow seamlessly into the app experience, to seek deeper engagement.

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Snapchat’s first-time user onboarding experience.

Snapchat’s first-time user onboarding does a great job of walking me through the app’s functionality, providing me with basic instruction and simultaneously letting me dive in and try it for myself. Looks like I’m getting the hang of it!

3. Remove friction from logins and account creation

Logins are tricky. They account for a significant amount of drop-off in app usage, losing up to 56% of users, but are pretty much essential for the majority of apps out there today. Optimizing the way users sign-up or create an account can make a huge difference in improving the activation and retention rates. The goal here is to collect users’ information as quickly and seamlessly as possible, moving them on to the next step before they become frustrated, distracted, or disengaged.

Experiment with various login options: social login vs. email login vs. no login at all, if that’s an option for your app. You can also experiment with timing. When is the best moment to ask a user to log-in? Is it at the beginning of the process? Or perhaps after X number of opens? (Related question: when is the best moment to ask for an app rating?)

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Instagram’s first-time user onboarding experience.

Instagram offers users three registration/login options. They also provide some helpful context on why it’s in a new user’s interest to provide personal information when creating an account for the first time. These onboarding steps focus on getting users to the next stage of the flow seamlessly, while also addressing key questions a new user might have when creating their account.

4. Indicate advancement in the flow

Rather than throwing people blindly into a seemingly endless tour of your app, make it feel manageable by indicating progress within each step. Try showing users the number of screens or steps remaining, and how far they have advanced thus far. Providing a “light at the end of the tunnel” will help to encourage them to continue through and complete the process.

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Left: Step 2 in Pocket’s 5 -step onboarding experience.
Right: Step 3 in the onboarding flow for Inbox.

During its onboarding flow, Pocket uses dots at the bottom of the screen to indicate my progress through the guided tour. So does Inbox by Gmail.

5. Be human

No more marketing mumbo jumbo! Talk to people using your app like they’re people, even a friend. Not a robot trying to sell them something.

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Human speak in Pocket’s first-time user experience.

Here’s another example from Pocket. The app’s onboarding guide speaks to me like a real person. Not a boring marketing bot or obnoxious used car salesman. Thanks, Pocket!

6. Make education an ongoing experience

Don’t try to convey every single bit of information a user can possibly know about your app in the onboarding process. Instead, start with the basics. As users continue to engage with your app, phase in new information about more advanced features and functionalities. Reinforce what users have already learned and encourage them to dive deeper into the app to learn more.

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A screen shot from the continual onboarding flow in Inbox.

Inbox by Gmail does a great job of reiterating how parts of the app work once you start using it. This extra reinforcement could be helpful to drive home directions to new users.

7. Listen to your users

Above all, listen to your users. Gaining an understanding your app’s users through quantitative methods (like testing and optimization) and qualitative research (like usability testing) will help you best understand what onboarding strategies are most effective for your unique app.

Designing the first experience people have with an app is an exercise in balance—you’re educating people about the app, reinforcing its value, all while maintaining a great user experience. If you make iOS A/B testing a priority instead of an afterthought while designing your FTUE, you will be able to identify the things that are affecting your success metrics. You might be surprised by the impact even the smallest changes can make.