Iga Rogała
Product Design Lead
Reviewed by a tech expert

App user onboarding: what it isn't and why you need it

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A person is a lifelong learner. As a (still) young designer, I used to say that a product had to be intuitive enough to avoid the need for explanation bubbles, and that we  should first design it to only then do any onboarding screens, if we thought something required better explanation.

Are app onboarding screens all about balloons and tutorials, proving that the designers have blown it? The good news is that they haven't. The less good news is that, in principle, we should design the onboarding flow first and the product later or in parallel. A good onboarding experience translates in the long term into metrics such as user satisfaction and churn rate, so it's hard to ignore the issue, and one should understand it well.

What app user onboarding is not?

Part of the definition focuses on the user's first contact with the product, but onboarding is not just about the 'first time experience'. Onboarding is also sometimes associated with instructions on how to operate a particular part of an interface.

User onboarding is more than a product tour – an example of Typeform's product tour.

However, good onboarding is not a tutorial or a series of tooltips that the user can (and sometimes must) review before using the product.

What is (good) app user onboarding?

Onboarding is the bridge between acquiring new users and turning them into engaged customers.

The task of the product team is to prepare the product tour in such a way that the user not only gets to know the product as thoroughly as possible, but also cannot imagine life without it. Here’s how Appcues define it:

“The user onboarding experience spans from the moment someone starts to sign up for your product, to the first ‘Aha! moment’ – the moment they realize how your product is going to improve their life in one way or another – and beyond.”

A good example of rapid value onboarding is Pinterest, which asks for categories of interest during registration in order to display content of interest to the user in a moment.

The onboarding experience is multichannel and is based on the full customer journey – it includes tooltips in the product, a demo presented by someone from the sales department, as well as contact with a customer service agent.

Objectives of user onboarding

The app user onboarding process is therefore a series of activities aimed at:

  1. facilitating user interaction with the product;
  2. presenting of the value proposition;
  3. shortening of time-to-value (TTV).

Of course, we want to be user-friendly and helpful, and showcase the uniqueness of the product, and how much it can change someone's life. But let's not kid ourselves – our main goal is to increase the chance of turning first visits into a habit, in order to monetize user activity as quickly as possible. This is achieved by arming the user with the information necessary to use the product in a rewarding and self-sustaining way, and by presenting a value proposition.

The role of the product team is also to make sure that the user does not take too long to do all this, and to keep the user motivated by providing small wins if reaching the 'Aha! moment' is deferred.

Short vs long time-to-value

When designing a user onboarding flow, it is worth considering at the outset how quickly our product delivers value and, of course – shortens that journey.

Short time-to-value – Google’s PageSpeed Insights

An example of a product that quickly delivers value is Google’s PageSpeed Insights – simply type in the website address, click the ‘Analyse’ button, and you get a score of your site’s performance metrics broken down by desktop and mobile, along with tips on how to increase them.

In this type of product, onboarding isn’t that important and displaying, for example, several screens/tooltips that tell you about functionality will only postpone the discovery of the ‘Aha! moment’.

Long time-to-value – LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an example of a product where you have to wait a little longer to feel the value and do more. The onboarding process – registering, then setting up a profile, adding friends etc. – takes up the user's time. By the time they reach the 'Aha! moment', they already had way too many opportunities to get discouraged and abandon the user onboarding flow.

Adequate onboarding therefore becomes particularly important in SaaS products, or in platforms that require the creation of a profile and or/network of friends.

Benefits of (good) app user onboarding and impact on product metrics

The effort and cost of acquiring new users will come to haunt you, if they install your app only to leave it a short while later.

Well-designed and well-implemented customer onboarding flow has the following short-term benefits, as per Aquire:

  • increased user adaptation;
  • reduced time-to-value;
  • increased commitment;
  • increased user retention.

In the long term, onboarding is linked to the full customer journey and provides:

  • increased customer loyalty;
  • reduced customer churn;
  • increase in referrals; 
  • increased user satisfaction.

How to design onboarding flow for an existing product in 5 steps

If we have realized that our product perhaps needs onboarding or onboarding redesign then it is worth going through the following process:

Step 1: Product analysis

Ask yourself some questions. What is the 'Aha! moment' in my product? How do I currently support users in discovering it? How quickly do users actually discover it?

These are mere hypotheses, they provide a solid basis for further work.

Step 2: User interviews or user tests

This confrontation is necessary if it has not been done before. How do users define the value of your product? What IS an 'Aha! moment' for them? How quickly do they discover it? What discourages them in the discovery process?

This will perhaps give us a reformulation of previous hypotheses, as well as design guidelines.

Step 3: Design a new user onboarding flow

With new insights and hypotheses, a clickable prototype application can be designed with onboarding.

Step 4: Test the prototype with users

Testing will help refine the solution and iterate on the prototype without making costly changes to 'production-ready' products.

Step 5: Experiment on production

It is worth dividing the designed solution into smaller parts from which experiments will be created – for example A/B tests. For effective inference from A/B tests, however, it will be necessary to decide what we are actually going to measure – i.e. defining product metrics and perhaps plugging in an analytical tool like Mixpanel or Amplitude. Which, to be completely fair, is worth doing not only in the context of optimizing your user onboarding experience.

Ready to onboard your users?

Don't be afraid to experiment. If you pay attention to your user onboarding process, you will be able to minimize the risk of joining those who have failed to build a useful product. Make sure you keep this in mind when building yours.

If you need help with product design, check our offer and feel free to reach out to us at hi@rst.software and my team and I will happily assist you!

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