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Mobile App Onboarding – A Guide To Perfecting Your First Impression

Let’s compare these two scenarios:

  • You are invited to an office party your first day of work and you end up hanging out alone at the bar.
  • You are invited to an office party your first day of work. Joey from Human Resources waves at you as you enter and introduces you to everyone. She helps you break the ice with colleagues and you end up having a memorable first day.

Which scenario do you prefer? The second, right? That’s because situation “B” comes across as welcoming, enjoyable and free of awkwardness. Of course, you could have enjoyed a drink at the bar, but would it have been as involving and fun?


The expectation with mobile app onboarding is no different. When a user launches your app for the first time, they want an interaction that’s seamless, easy, enjoyable and free of awkwardness. The first impression, or ‘onboarding,’ is a make or break moment for app businesses.

In this guide we’ll discuss the various ways to make an impactful first impression:

  • Types of App User Onboarding
  • Role of psychology in creating an exceptional onboarding
  • Mobile app onboarding best practices and tips on optimizing it for the win.
  • How business can use data to further elevate this first impression.

Let’s get started

Section 1 – Types Of App User Onboarding

A good onboarding experience helps a user understand the need for the app. Additionally, it should help them achieve a goal without inconvenience or making them sift through screens, menus, and buttons. The onboarding flow should showcase the app’s most significant features and guide users on how to use them.

An app onboarding experience can be classified into one of three broad categories. 

Benefit-oriented onboarding

Unlike other onboarding methods, benefit-oriented onboarding is focussed solely on showing the user the value that they get out of the app, It works best for apps that have a straightforward purpose and do not have to highlight their use case in order to make sense for the user.

To leverage benefit-oriented onboarding, the best strategy is to showcase the most apt content in a limited number of slides. The messaging used to gain attention needs to be crisp and to the point, and in no way should make a user feel perplexed or angry about his decision.

A good example is the HootSuite app. This app allows users to update, schedule and monitor their social media content in three simple steps, highlighted in three introductory slides. Users see what the app does in an easy, succinct manner.

HootSuite Onboarding Flow


Function-oriented onboarding

This type of onboarding is especially suited for app businesses that want to highlight their core features, the ones that users will use first. If your app has many features,  this onboarding style is best for your business.

Here’s a quick video that shows how IFTTT app has used function-oriented onboarding to explain its features.

In order to achieve a favorable function-oriented onboarding, app businesses should highlight the most significant and the unique features. By incorporating unique walkthrough slide, adding gamification and gestures, app businesses can bring more value to their function-oriented onboarding.

Progressive onboarding

As the name suggests, progressive onboarding exposes app users to features in a progressive manner in a particular sequence. Users see features when they reach the appropriate time. This style of onboarding encourages users to learn best app usage, like in the case of the Feedly app. This app pops hints for the users as they move forward with their onboarding.

Feedly's Progressive Onboarding

A progressive onboarding flow is best suited for apps that have complex functionality. However, one should avoid going overboard with hints as it may impact the user’s overall experience.

In order to enhance an onboarding experience hard to forget businesses need to utilize user psychology. By understanding psychological triggers and their impact, businesses can learn how users could eventually use the app, what they might expect, and how they can be coaxed to act in a certain manner. All of these help build an impeccable onboarding experience.

Section 2 – The Role Of Psychology – How to Build an Onboarding Experience That Speaks to the User’s Mind

When app businesses think about the user experience, onboarding is high in the the list of things that need optimization. However while implementing/building strategies to better the experience, they tend to disregard the role of psychology.

Jane Portman, Author of Fundamental UI Design:

“You’d think the user cares about your pretty app, or about the tasks they’re performing in your app. But that’s not true. What a user really buys with any solution is a real-life situation where they feel good. Any user wants to feel successful, stress-free, and socially comfortable. Your app just facilitates the process—they’re buying into being successful as a result.

Any user onboarding is all about psychology: the early feeling of success and accomplishment will make the user come back. This feeling is a strong psychological bond that works much better than any email reminder.”

By infusing and designing an onboarding flow with psychological triggers in mind, app businesses can keep their users engaged. A few well-known cognitive biases can improve the onboarding process:


This cognitive bias or psychological trigger highlights our brain’s default reaction when presented with too many options. App onboarding that’s cluttered often triggers this, preventing users from continuing with the app.

App onboarding should be simple, straightforward and clutter free, and shouldn’t make a user swim through numerous tabs to achieve their goal. A flawed onboarding process pushes your users to abandon your app, largely due to information overload. A report published by Localytics states that 24% of users abandon an app after one use. The study also looked at the impact of a ‘proper onboarding’ on the app abandonment number and found that only 9% of users abandoned an app if they had a true onboarding experience.

Appcues, a user onboarding solution, found that an efficient onboarding experience improves the retention curve by 2.6x, and can contribute to 74% more revenue as compared to later stages in a user’s journey.

Ikea Effect

Users, in general, tend to place more value on a product that they’ve helped create or have engaged with. The IKEA principle, if applied to the onboarding flow, can lead to a pleasing app experience as it makes the user feel competent and part of something big. It also influences the user’s commitment by putting them to work.

How can app businesses infuse IKEA effect into their app onboarding flow? By providing the user with an engagement-filled experience. Beats Music is a great example of the IKEA effect in onboarding.

Beats Music-IKEA Effect


At each step of its onboarding flow, Beats app asks its user to make a choice in order to move forward. This may seem a simple strategy, but it can help businesses hit the sweet spot with the users. For a simple effort, they get a high value in the form a customized playlist.

Foot In The Door

This bias states that users will make a bigger commitment if they are geta smaller, inconsequential request. Social media apps, in general, are examples of foot in the door bias. The main purpose of these apps is to keep the users engaged by making them either post, comment or like content. The bigger value that users get after using these social apps is enough for them to share their email IDs as a part of their onboarding.

Here’s a quick look at the onboarding flow for Instagram. Users join the ‘Instagram world,’  a huge benefit, and so are willing to share email IDs and link their account with Facebook.

Instagram onboarding


Disposition effect

This cognitive bias is based on the theory that people base their decisions on perceived gains. In a nutshell, it means what they will gain from using the app.

An onboarding flow should instantly highlight the benefit that the app offers to its users. Lumosity app, for example, does that in the first screen with crisp copy that efficiently highlights its purpose. For users who are looking at learning through a mobile app, the first screen attracts them and quickly leads them to complete the onboarding action.

Disposition effect in play


Apart from the above mentioned psychological biases, user onboarding experiences should focus on triggering positive emotions in the user.

Let’s look at mobile app onboarding best practices.

Section 3 – Mobile App Onboarding Best Practices

In order to attain an optimum and well-received onboarding flow, app business can employ  a three-step strategy. This three-step strategy involves implementing an action plan before, during and after the onboarding flow.

Pre Onboarding Plan

Before businesses plan an optimum onboarding flow, they need to invest in understanding their users. This will help them clearly identify user goals and how the app can help achieve them. App businesses should know two things clearly – who are their users, and why they want to download their app.

By building well-defined user personas, app businesses can significantly improve their offering. Given that user personas are concrete, specific and detailed, they add authority to decisions pertaining to the onboarding process. A little time spent on the whiteboard can lead to a meaningful onboarding experience.

Building a persona for app users

Localytics has created an amazing piece on how to create actionable app buyer personas. You can read it here.

Having spent time understanding their ideal audience, app businesses should then seek to understand why people want to download their app. Des Traynor, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Intercom:

Rather than relying solely on emergent metrics and then forcing users to hit some business targets, modern onboarding focuses on the user and what they want to achieve.

This begins with continually asking newly signed up customers what they are hoping to achieve with your product, learning what the functional goals (e.g. organise my team’s tasks), the personal goals (e.g. let me feel in control), and the social goals (e.g.impress my boss) are, and ensuring each new sign up believes they are on a path to achieving them. This is what a successful onboarding does.

Having understood the user personas and what goals users expect from an app, let’s look at what should be the highlight of the ‘during onboarding’ section.

During Onboarding

Dissecting user personas and gathering insights by questioning users’ teams gives insights into what piques a user’s interest. The ‘during onboarding’ segment is all about putting these learnings into play. A few quick tips that can act as best practices during this stage are:

  • Before anything else, make the onboarding experience unique to your app.
  • Make the process of onboarding easy and quick. Social logins and use of buttons and navigations at the right places can help this process.
  • Bring intuitive and actionable navigation to the forefront.

  • Emphasize your app’s value proposition. If the app has complex features, use tips, like pop-ups and text, to add clarity.
  • Highlight the best features of your app, as identified by your research data.  Showcasing key features during onboarding encourages your user to take the next step.
  • Try innovative methods to keep a user hooked during the onboarding process. The Robin Hood app helps users complete a fake purchase which helps them visualize their goal.
Try innovative methods to keep a user hooked during the onboarding process.


  • Ask users for as much information as is needed, but don’t overwhelm them during onboarding.
  • Use app design elements that enhance onboarding, keeping in mind the small screen. This includes a selection of typography, readability, and clarity of the copy. Also, do not go overboard with text. Use illustrations and graphics to break up text pages.

Post Onboarding

Post onboarding is all about gathering insights to improve your onboarding process. This can be achieved by approaching new users as soon as possible. App businesses should realize that a few users will go the extra mile despite a  few onboarding glitches. Tapping these users when their struggle is still fresh in their minds can help get feedback. In the last section of this guide, we look at how app businesses can leverage data to improve their onboarding.

Section 4 – Joining The Dots – How Data Can Help Improve App Onboarding

Analyzing data is a valuable way of unearthing hidden gems in an onboarding flow, and is far superior to making changes based on gut feel. But before app businesses take the plunge, they have to know which metrics are important, and which are plain vanilla. This will enable them to have a focussed approach while they take an important decision pertaining to onboarding.

Some metrics, such as how many users completed the onboarding flow, are straightforward, and an upward trend is a good indicator of success. However, Some metrics involve segregating the data and building cohorts in order to gauge customer behavior and identify how one action relates to another. Such insights help in optimizing the flow, and also in building a flow that has users at the forefront.


Anghami – a leading Middle Eastern music streaming app, used data to improve its onboarding flow. Due to its immense popularity, Anghami had abundant data of existing users but was facing challenges when it came to new users. They wanted to offer users a tailored playlist from the start, as compared to random suggestions.

Salim Batlouni, Anghami Product Designer & Manager states:

In the case of onboarding, we added Amplitude events to each step: when a new user signs up, when they choose genres, and when they choose artists. Choosing artists mark the completion of onboarding.

He further adds:

I created a cohort on Amplitude for users who completed onboarding, and compared that cohort to all users in the retention tab. It turns out that users who chose their favorite genres and artists are 47% more likely to keep using the app in the long run.

This is how the pre-optimization onboarding screen looked like for Anghami

Anghami Onboarding Pre-testing

Anghami changed its onboarding flow by replacing their ‘personalize Anghami screen’ and by improving their ‘genre selection’ screen.

Anghami Onboarding Post testing

Batlouni says:

By looking at user behavior in Amplitude, we were able to quantify the value of onboarding, and make conclusions based on the user drop-off rate on each step of onboarding. We expect the design changes based on these conclusions to significantly affect user behavior, and hence increase retention.

Anghami is a clever example of how app businesses can use data to identify gaps and elevate their onboarding flow.

Summing It Up

Onboarding is the most crucial step in a user’s journey. It can negatively impact user engagement and retention if it isn’t executed well. By working on user personas, applying psychology, optimizing the flow, and evaluating the data, app businesses can ensure that their efforts at building an impeccable onboarding flow get recognized and that users continue to enjoy their app.

What has been your app onboarding win? What tests did you run to improve your app’s onboarding flow? Do share your thoughts in the comment below.


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