Apr 20, 2016
User onboarding is the process of setting up first-time users to be successful with your product.
When users first install an app, what do they notice?
All they know is how they feel about the app and what they’re able to do within just a few minutes or even seconds of opening it.
If you don’t excite them, inject value, and create hooks to re-engage them, they’re going to drop off, uninstall, and get on with their lives.
If you don’t nail onboarding, your developers may as well have been drinking beers instead of building those features that no one saw.”
-Nancy Hua, CEO of Apptimize
Let’s take an example: In 2012, Viddy was coveted in the press as “Instagram for video.” Raising over $36 million at a $300 million valuation, the media attention and Facebook campaign caused downloads to soar. They also had the most powerful and feature-filled product on the market. Yet today, few users would even recognize the name. So what happened?
While the MAU count drastically increased, the number of users engaging on the app on a daily basis barely saw a blip. Users just didn’t get why they should use the app.
They didn’t see the value they’d get out of it.
They didn’t get onboarded effectively.
This isn’t an uncommon problem, but it’s definitely one that separates top apps from the rest of the pack. The average app loses 71% of its users just one day after a download. After 30 days, that number jumps to 90%. Within 90 days, most apps have lost 96%.
What every mobile team quickly learns is that having a great product and marketing strategy alone aren’t enough to grow and sustain a mobile app.
The app stores are overcrowded and mobile users are dropping off like flies just moments after install. Apps have to clearly demonstrate their value and drive the core actions and retention behaviors if they want to survive.
While the average app loses 71% of it’s users after one day of use, the top apps do much better.
Top 10 apps only lose 25% of their users after one day.
Top 50 apps: 35%.
So how is it that top apps are able to retain so many more users?
“The best way to bend the retention curve is to target the first few days of usage, and in particular the first visit. That way, users set up themselves up for success.”
– Andrew Chen, Supply Growth, Uber
That’s why we set out to create the most in-depth and comprehensive guide on mobile user onboarding available.
We’ve jam packed it full of actionable methods and ideas you can start applying to your app today to activate and engage first time users and transform them into devoted users.
User Onboarding is the process of setting up first-time users to be successful with your product.
For mobile apps, that means the experience from the first time they open their app, up until they become an engaged, invested, and successful user.
“My thought on mobile v.s. Web has always been akin to ‘poetry v.s. Prose.’ It has to be a really compressed, elegant experience….Ideally the web experience can be held to the same high regard, but it seems like there’s a little more room for error.”
-Samuel Hulick, Creator of UserOnboard
User onboarding goes beyond Tutorial Screens and Tool Tips. As we’ve seen Vevo, tutorial screens (a near-ubiquitous onboarding technique) don’t work for every app. In our experiments with them, we found that removing their mobile user onboarding screens actually increased key conversions by ~10%.
Removing Tutorial Screens Increased Key Conversions for Vevo by 10%.
As Austin Knight so eloquently stated, what works for other apps doesn’t necessarily apply to your own. Oftentimes we spend hours reading up on what other companies are doing and trying to learn from their tests, but we have to keep in mind that each app’s users and value are unique, so blindly applying best practices and making assumptions can hurt you long term.
So what we want to find specifically is what user onboarding process works for YOUR app—not what works for someone else. That starts by finding your app’s Aha! Moment.
Start by finding your app’s Aha! Moment, your North Star.
Definition: Aha! Moment – “a set of actions that separates customers who find value in your product from those who don’t,” says Benn Stancil of Mode Analytics.
For many growth teams, the Aha! Moment is their guiding light, highlighting the actions that users need to take to dramatically increase the chances of retaining. We can clearly see that not only have these companies clearly defined their Aha! Moments, they also focus on driving users toward these behaviors in the apps.
We can see that in Facebook’s user onboarding, they push users to connect with as many friends as possible by adding contacts through email, filling out profile information, and adding an easily recognizable picture
For Netflix, having a user find something to watch within 60-90 seconds makes a humongous difference as to whether they’ll retain or not. As a result, they’ve done extensive testing on their personalization system to show each user one of tens of thousands of possible “rows.” For more into the topic, they’ve written in depth about their personalization engine on the Netflix Techblog.
Characteristics of Aha! Moments:
Once you have an Aha! Moment, you can formulate a testing strategy to drive user behavior to complete these actions. If done correctly, these new users will be much more likely to retain than users who don’t.
Once you’ve determined the core actions that drive retention is to start driving users toward this behavior. Now, you can start running experiments to draw attention to these actions and get users to complete the actions.
Since Twitter’s Aha! Moment is all about users following other users, they take every opportunity they can to drive users toward this behavior in their user onboarding flow
As soon as you create an account, they ask about your interests, then auto-select popular users to follow. Users actually have to manually unfollow these auto-populated channels.Right after that, they prompt new users to add their contacts to find others they may know already on Twitter.
Notice that Twitter specifically doesn’t focus on other actions such as filling out a user description, adding a profile, or any other feature. This ensures that they’re completing the core actions FIRST, and are therefore more likely to retain.
A simple experiment you can run is just changing the copy of your onboarding, hiding other functionality (to draw attention to the one you want), or adding a modal or tooltip to highlight a specific action. Let’s take an example.
If I knew that the Aha! Moment for messaging app Kik was engaging with the new chat button X times, I could easily highlight the create a message button on the home screen by changing the copy, color, or even positioning of the button to draw more attention and more clicks. In the example above, I’ve simply used Apptimize to quickly change the background color, copy, and text color to make it more obvious what the next step is.
Even a simple change such as this can have a significant impact on user behavior, if you’re driving to the right actions. Additionally, if you use a tool like Apptimize, you can make these changes instantly using a visual editor and even run an experiment to see the actual effects on user behavior.
Running experiments such as these allow you to test out how a new change will (or wont) drive the user behaviors you want. But in order to drive the right behaviors and make key changes in our app, we have to examine what drives user behavior, and how we can translate that into specific updates to our apps.
The goal is to drive users to take the Aha! Moment actions. To do this, let’s take a look at what drivers user behaviors using BJ Fogg’s Behavioral Model.
There are 3 elements that must be present for an action to occur:
B = Behavior – The desired action that you wish to occur.
M = Motivation– Demonstrating value to users
A = Ability – Make a behavior simpler to complete
T = Trigger– Cues for users to take a specific action
The main idea is this:
That means, to increase the likelihood of a user taking a specific action, we have to increase motivation and ability, and provide a trigger at the right moment.
In order for users to complete a desired action (subscribe to 3 channels), they need to have enough motivation to complete the action. This means that your app has to convince users that the effort required is worth the value they will receive in return.
For a deeper dive into increasing motivation, we’ve created a convenient PDF that breaks down specific examples and case studies and gives you actionable ideas on methods for increasing motivation.
In our case study, Glassdoor shares their experiments on in-app CTAs.
The second part of this equation is increasing user ability or making it as easy as possible to complete the desired action.
Think of it like conversion rate optimization (CRO), but focused on key actions rather than conversions.
Some simple solutions are to streamline your mobile login process using techniques such as password reveals, integrations (such as 1password), or email verifications. A great way to reveal friction is to conduct user tests through a service such as UserTesting.com.
Cognitive Load – Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.
One great example of this is the hamburger menu. It’s a commonly confused UI icon, and can be improved or replaced by far superior navigational patterns. Read more about the shortcomings of hamburger menus and superior alternatives here.
With a simple change such as changing the hamburger menu to an easily understandable “Menu” icon like above, you can greatly decrease the cognitive load on your users, and help them make better decisions.
As it turns out, your willpower is like a muscle. And similar to the muscles in your body, willpower can get fatigued when you use it over and over again.
Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.
In the example above, we can see that there are a LOT of options to choose from, which confuses users by not giving them obvious cues what they should do next.
Triggers are cues or reminders that prompt users to take a specified action.
The last component of driving user behaviors is to create triggers. Remember, triggers are only effective if users already have sufficient motivation and ability to complete the action.
There are 2 categories of triggers as defined by Nir Eyal and Jason Hreha: external and internal.
External triggers are external cues or reminders for a user to complete a desired action.
These can often take the forms we recognize as advertisement or marketing techniques such as: Push notifications, app icons, modals, CTAs, emails, etc.
In-app external triggers such as CTAs should be easily accessible for users. As we talked about previously, this greatly increases the ability of users to complete their tasks. If you’re going to use modals as a trigger (which take over the screen), use them sparingly when users stray away from the core tasks needed.
Outside of an app, you have a few different options to prompt users to open your app including push notifications, email, text, and QR codes. Push can be a great way to engage if paired with the correct messaging. However, they are a supplement for onboarding and retention, not the main meal.
Some recommendations for external trigger providers:
And of course utilizing the red dot icon always helps grab attention.
External triggers alone won’t drive retention. That’s why it’s important to utilize the plethora of techniques in this guide to make sure your triggers succeed.
Internal triggers “manifest automatically in the mind. They are reminders that are user generated without prompting. Oftentimes, these triggers are closely tied to emotions or habits, and once set up, are far more compelling than their external cousins.
An example of this would be the compulsion users often feel to check Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter when they’re bored. These habits have been closely tied to emotion so that users create their own triggers and take action.
For a full primer on triggers and why they’re effective, check out our in-depth article:
A Primer on Driving Retention with Triggers
“What works for us does not necessarily work for you. The one thing you should not do is assume you know something.” – Sergei Sorokin, Product Manager @ Yahoo! Growth
As we mentioned before, blindly following best practices is a surefire way to a mediocre product. That’s why creating an iterative testing strategy is so vital.
A/B testing helps support this methodology by allowing you to cheaply validate any changes or new features in your app, before deploying to your entire userbase.
This allows you to make iterative improvements that compound for massive growth, similar to what we’ve seen at Yahoo! Mail.
Even the effects of small, simple tests can really add up.
So now that you’ve gotten a strong foundation for what user onboarding is (and how to apply it to mobile apps), it’s time to take action. You want to first figure out what your app’s Aha! Moment is, then create experiments to drive users toward that moment.
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