A Beginner’s Guide to Mobile User Onboarding

A Beginner’s Guide to Mobile User Onboarding

Since the release of the original iPhone really kicked off the smartphone craze in 2007, the mobile user experience bar has been raised substantially.

This might be why, of the (roughly) 2.5 million apps out there, approximately 30% are only ever used once. If you don’t want your app to join this 750,000-strong band of one-time wonders, it’s worth learning more about better mobile user onboarding.

When your customers download your app and press that icon for the first time, expectations are high. It needs to look good, be super simple to use, and provide some serious value that’s easy to get.

There’s a lot of competition in the mobile space. That little app icon of yours sits on the device home screen alongside countless others, all vying for attention. It’s estimated that 86% of mobile user’s time is spent in apps rather than browsing the web. This is a big market, and that is precisely why mobile user onboarding is so critical.

Creating effective mobile user instructions is a very elusive process. But with a little guidance, you can gently coach your users to get hooked onto the value your app provides.

1. Create a guided tutorial

A guided tutorial is a great way to carefully lead users through your user interface (UI). But it’s a process that can quickly get out of hand. For example, including too many instructions sends the wrong message to your user. It says:

“This app is complicated to use, poorly designed, and needs lots of instruction”

Hardly the right message…

One UI designer, Max Rudberg wrote an article titled “”If You See a UI Walkthrough, They Blew It”, and while the bombastic statement is largely a cunning piece of content marketing to get a lot of attention (which worked), the sentiment isn’t entirely without merit.

If you decide to take this approach, it’s still important to keep things as minimalistic as possible. Here’s a checklist to keep you on track.

  • If you use gamification or some kind of points or awards system, offer your user these as a prize for completing the tutorial
  • Entice your user to follow the tutorial by helping them achieve a predetermined goal, something that helps them get whatever value your app provides. We’ll go over this in more detail later…
  • Include as few steps as possible to introduce the key features of the app, and keep the text used for each stage as lean as you can.
Who does this well?

Pinterest has a great guided tutorial that carefully leads users through the user interface. It focuses on one single feature at a time, introducing each one with a single step. It doesn’t overwhelm the user by going too fast. By the time they’ve finished, all the key features have been introduced.

pinterest onboarding

2. Offer a set up wizard

Many of the newer apps provide a comprehensive and intricate feature list. Because every user is has different , offering a customized set up can be important. A Setup Wizard is the way to do it.

Create onscreen tutorials without coding. Start your 14 days Free trial

A key benefit of this approach is that it lets you turn what can otherwise be a tedious process of completing forms that feels like applying for a new driver’s license into something more visually appealing and fun. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • As with guided tutorials, it is important not to go overboard. Design your Setup Wizard with essential settings only, introducing one at a time, and provide an option at the end to fill in the finer points if the user chooses.
  • Provide an option to skip the Setup Wizard so that users don’t get the feeling of being forced into something. We recommend that you grey out the “Skip tutorial” button to make it slightly less appealing and offer a quick message to show where the settings can be found for later.
  • Offer a “quest checklist” or some type of progress bar to show where they are in the setup process. This tip can be applied to many of the strategies in this guide. Show users how far they’ve come, and how much farther they have to go.
Who does this well?

Flipboard has a great setup process. After the initial opening page, it pitches the app as the user’s “personal magazine”, and then allows them to select the categories they’re interested in to let them get fired up before continuing.

There’s text at the top that says “Almost there!” to let users know they’re almost to the end. They also use placeholder field text, which is another proven method of encouraging people to fill in data such as name, email address and password.

flipboard onboarding

3. Use placeholder content

If your app involves organising or accessing some kind of content, whether it’s your user’s own, or publicly available, highlight content storage areas in your UI with a visual cue.

When users first land on these pages, they can seem a little sparse and uninspiring. And that’s where placeholder content comes in:

  • Any page where there isn’t any content yet should either include an explanation that this is where user content can be stored.
  • Alternatively, include some kind of overlay or instruction on the page background layer with an arrow pointing towards the button that allows users to upload, download or otherwise add their content.
  • Use this in addition to your other mobile user building practices such as the guided tutorial or Setup Wizard
Who does this well?

Evernote does a lot of things well, but considering that the application is all about storing various types of content, it makes great use of placeholders. After the initial onboarding process is complete, your personal folders have placeholders to show you how it will look with your own content in place. The content itself contains further instruction and tips on using them correctly.

evernote onboarding

4. Create short, focused tips

If your application has features that require a little explaining, a pop-up window containing a tip or overview of each of those features and how they work is a great way to instruct a new user.

Tips can be included in the interface either at the beginning, or at the point when the user reaches the feature. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Once a tip is opened up, users should be given the option to go to a subsequent, more detailed tip, or to close the tip window, via appropriately labelled buttons.
  • Focusing one thing at a time is a consistent theme in mobile user onboarding. Do not try to show all your functionality – focus on main value which should be based on user’s expectations from the service. And make them achieve is fast.
  • Never force users into going through chains of tips. In one study conducted by Nielsen Norman Group, it was found to be a surefire way to confuse and frustrate your users.
Who does this well?

Path’s mobile messaging app, Path Talk, offers great examples of focused tips in action. The tips offer a benefit-oriented call to action, they stick to one thing at a time and give an option for users to skip them if they choose to go straight into exploring the app. As mentioned previously, the “skip” button’s color is faint compared to the rest of the screen, but is there so that users aren’t forced into something they don’t want to do.

Path talk onboarding

5. Make an effective fullscreen overlay

Fullscreen overlays are popular among UI designers right now, and with good reason. When used properly, they can be a stylish and effective way to explain your interface and guide your users through the onboarding process.

We keep mentioning the idea of avoiding information overload by focusing on one thing at a time. In a study on instructional overlays by NNG, there’s a good example of how NOT to do this from iPad app, Morningstar. Here’s a screenshot:

onscreen onboarding

  • It’s important to use a different style of design and fonts so people can clearly see that they’re looking at a fullscreen overlay, rather than your actual UI. Consider using a natural, handwriting-like font, but not too much at once…
  • Use visual aids to keep tips scannable or a logo or icon to more quickly convey a concept. Visual aids such as these have a proven track record of retaining user’s attention.
Who does this well?

YouTube is a pretty straightforward service. Lately, however, it has a lot of functions and features. When making the Android version, the YouTube team did a great job of using focused fullscreen overlays with one simple feature at a time, as opposed to what we saw in the screenshot above.

YouTube onboarding

6. Guide users to a quantifiable result

We said we’d discuss this in more detail later, and here it is. The idea of guiding your users towards a predetermined quantifiable result is a principle we discuss regularly on the myTips blog for one reason: it’s an incredibly effective onboarding strategy, and a key reason why myTips is so effective.

Whether you choose to use a guided tutorial, short focused tips, or fullscreen overlays, as the most effective onboarding method for your particular UI, begin by deciding on a key value proposition for your app and make that the goal of your onboarding strategy.

  • Let people know up front that they’re working towards this goal. Use a simple, value-orientated headline to convey the point.
  • Remind them in the text as they go through the onboarding process that the value is coming soon. Consider congratulating them for reaching the halfway point, or for other milestones in the process
Who does this well?

Duolingo is a great example of an app that keeps users working towards their goals. This language learning mobile software uses this strategy throughout, but it’s especially diligent with applying it at the beginning when a new user signs up. Once those first goals are achieved, it’s practically impossible not to get addicted to the app and keep coming back for more…

Duolingo onboarding


Mobile user onboarding is a tricky business. Explaining a user interface must always be done in the simplest possible way. But due to fleeting attention spans and high expectations of mobile users, it’s critical to get it right in mobile apps, or you’ll become part of the group of 750,000 apps mentioned above…

Many of the best practices here will put you in good shape for improving your activation rates and Life Time Value, but it’s also important to highlight the common principles that stand out. The key, as you’ve seen, is simplicity.

Always focus on one thing at a time, create benefit-driven headlines, lead your users towards a valuable goal, and let them know where they are in the onboarding process.

Whatever type of app you have, and whichever onboarding strategies you choose to implement, keeping these key principles in focus will result in a solid onboarding process.

Create Free Product Walkthough

Sign up for the MyTips Free trial here: MyTips.co