Why Your Mobile App Needs a Killer Onboarding Flow

So, you’ve figured out how to get users to sign up for your mobile app. Now how do you get them oriented and on the road to becoming an engaged and active user?  The answer: make a spectacular first impression on new users with a killer onboarding flow. Onboarding is the process of turning a first-time user into a repeat customer during the user’s first interaction with your product.

But why an onboarding process at all? Apps should be designed to be easy-to-use and intuitive, it says so in every mobile design guideline document. Users can figure it out. Can’t they? Research has shown that 22% of downloaded apps are only used once. On top of that, user attentions spans are shorter than ever. You have maybe a minute to make your case. This is why an exceptional first time experience is crucial for the viability of any app.

Think of onboarding in the same way  as meeting someone new. You want to make a great first impression. The same is true with mobile apps. If your app has a smooth onboarding process that carefully familiarize users with your product, they are overwhelmingly more likely to come back.

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked into many different mobile onboarding flows and I’d like to share with you my insights. In the paragraphs below, I’ve broken down the key parts of the onboarding process using examples of apps I believe are doing it right.This is certainly just a start, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.


The most frequent example of user onboarding is a first launch tutorial to walk your users through the app’s features and functionality. But this is only one of the approaches to grab users attention. Other strategies include a learn as you go approach, interactive demos, and empty states.  Regardless of approach, there are 4 things your onboarding flow must do in order to give yourself the best chance of converting  your new user.

1. Explain the value proposition

This is your shot to excite your users right out of the gate, so capitalize on that first impression. Boil down the app to it’s core concept, explaining in a handful of screens the value you’ve created. Forget everything else. Right now it doesn’t matter. There will be future opportunities to more deeply engage your user.

Example: Uber

mobile onboarding - Uber

Uber does a phenomenal job boiling down their service to 4 main points. By the end of the 4 screens you know exactly the experience Uber is offering you.

2.  Explain functionalities

If you are introducing the user to a new concept, tell your users what they can do with your app. Explain important app features, but be concise and try to make it fun!

Example: Dropbox

mobile onboarding - Dropbox

Let’s be honest: online file storage, though extremely useful, is a boring topic. A animation-filled onboarding flow like Dropbox’s page tutorial really grabs new users in a fun way.

3.   Explain interactively 

Put learning into context and provide users with feedback. They will better understand and remember how things work. Clearly teach your users the core functionality, but limit content per screen/panel.

Example: Weather Cube

mobile onboarding - WeatherCube

If you haven’t heard of Weather Cube, I highly recommend giving it a shot. It’s a revolutionary app that relies on gestures to get around to different screens. Without a great tutorial to teach new users the gesture-based interface, first time users would most likely become frustrated and abandon the app. 

4. Create early value for new users

For a new user to become an active one, they must find value right out of the gates. The chasm that exists between a user signing-up and them becoming an active user can be bridged by focusing on providing early value to your user base. App onboarding experiences designed with early value in mind will dramatically increase the probability of keeping new users engaged.

Example: Feedly

mobile onboarding - Feedly

Feedly, a news aggregator app, provides users early value 2 different ways. A “Getting started”  screen displays a list popular topics and websites to start populating your feedly feed. Alternatively, you can sign in through google or social networks to populate your feed. This is an especially cool feature for disgruntled Google Reader users like me.


What I’m calling “continued onboarding” are tactics to keep your user moving in the process of using your app. LinkedIn, for instance, has clear call outs at the top of your profile, most often asking you a question to add more information to your profile and encouraging you to “endorse” your connections. The incentive is getting an “all-star” 100% complete profile, a continued setup approach.

Empty States is another approach to continued onboarding, which subtly and sometimes delightfully let users know they need to do something. They’re a great opportunity to use that empty real estate that exists when users haven’t taken any action to your advantage. Don’t stop at “You don’t have any friends yet.” Tack on “So get out there and make some!” (for example).

Examples: Todoist (left) & Drop (right)

mobile onboarding - todoist

mobile onboarding - drop

What are some of the best onboarding experiences you have seen? What do you think is important in building effective onboarding experiences? Let us know in the comments section below!

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