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New App? Embrace These 10 Best Practices for User Onboarding

June 17, 2020
Kevin Donahue
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You might be wondering exactly what “user onboarding best practices” means in the context of digital marketing. Well, let’s break it down.

“User” means the person who will be interacting with your new digital product, mobile app or online tool. “Onboarding” is how you introduce your product to a new customer, often including a tutorial or process to teach them how to use it quickly and successfully. 

User onboarding also can mean helping your existing customer learn how to use a new mobile app based on your current product that they use on another platform, such as a desktop computer. 

We’ll walk you through 10 different industry best practices for user onboarding to help you create the absolute best possible user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) experience for your customers. 

A Crucial First Impression

Setting the correct expectation of your product from the very start is a delicate and important process. This is your chance at a first impression to target your ideal consumer. As you might be able to guess, spending the required time to get it right is critical. If you throw together some mindless instructions, your customer is bound to get frustrated and leave. 

Let’s walk through what it takes to get your users onboarded in a way that will impress them and keep them coming back for more.

1. Do Your UX Research

The first and most critical part of building a successful user onboarding experience is doing your UX research. Every product should have a clearly defined “why” behind it. If you haven’t already, create your ideal customer’s persona and journey map to understand the emotions and motivation behind why someone would need your new product. 

Who exactly is going to be using your new product? Be sure to think of specifics such as:

  • Are they a parent? 
  • Do they drive a car? 
  • What kind of car? 
  • What’s their favorite food? 
  • Do they value time over money?

On top of that, dig into exactly what they might be thinking and feeling. Perhaps they just visited their doctor and are at-risk for diabetes and are feeling pretty down about their health at the moment. Bring those thoughts and feelings into your product to create that customer connection. 

Next, mapping out the user journey is essential to your onboarding experience. It may even be helpful to sketch it out. First, take your persona from above and ask what their motivation is for your specific app or product. Perhaps your app is focused on food education. What is your persona’s motivation? To lose weight? Disease prevention? To teach their kids? 

It’s crucial to understand where your persona goes to seek help, what actions they take and what kind of struggles they come across along the way. If you are able to do real-time research and gather data on the kind of user your app is targeting, this is the best way to understand if your product is making the impact you intend. 

Discovering exactly who your target user will be down to the most intricate detail and mapping out their full journey will give you the best start to creating the most successful user experience possible.

Determine your top priorities to get your users onboarded.

2. Determine Your Top Priorities

After you have your research nailed down, it’s time to determine your top priorities to get your users onboarded. Once a consumer decides to download and open your app for the first time, you don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information right away. Choose 3-5 critical points you need to get across immediately for them to be able to use the product successfully.

Set clear expectations and, when applicable, a direct call-to-action (CTA) button. Your goal should be for your customer to understand what your new app does for them within 5 seconds, and get them to sign up and start using it immediately. If it takes longer than that to get the gist of your product, you may need to rethink your structure a bit. However, the first 5 seconds of onboarding is just an introduction. If your app has more features that need explaining, those can always pop up later as the user works their way through. 

3. Choose a Communication Method

Now that you have your top priorities, how will you communicate them effectively? 

There are multiple methods that will get your message across, you just need to determine which one will best tap into the mind of your consumer, grab their attention and keep them engaged.

From a short video to animated illustrations, or even a little game, there are so many ways to communicate your product information. But which one will most quickly explain how to use your app the best? Perhaps a short demo with “hot spots” to show people where to tap, or an inset screen with a progress bar or checkboxes the user can tap as they go along. 

There’s no end to the examples you can find, and sometimes even a combination of these methods is what works the best. 

4. Create a Standout UI Design 

The onboarding UI screen design is your chance to make your brand come to life and create the best first impression while keeping the principles of user interface design in mind. You want to be sure your designs are clear, concise and keep the user in control. Organize the hierarchy of your content carefully so the user isn’t confused by what they should look at first.

Consider custom illustrations or artwork that will make your app stand out and give a clear visual to the user as to how to use your product. With some research on the latest digital design trends, you can determine a visual style that makes sense in today’s market while keeping your target demographic in mind.

For Example

Let’s say you determine that animated illustrations would best explain how to use your app. Now, how playful should they appear? Is your app for kids? If so, perhaps they should be bubbly and character-based. Or is your app more geared towards working professionals? In this case, maybe the illustrations should be more technical and serious. 

Whatever the method, ensure the style is geared toward your product’s persona and will support your brand identity.

5. Supporting Text Treatments

You may be excited about the visuals that you are planning to use for your user onboarding, but don’t forget about the text treatment. What you say, how you say it and the style of the text is a huge part of user onboarding, but it isn’t everything. You can honestly expect a large percentage of people to never read a single word from your tutorials. This is why the visuals carry a lot of weight. 

A few things to consider:

  • Plan to treat the fonts you use as another design element. 
  • The text should match the screen design and brand style you have established and should integrate effortlessly. 
  • Perhaps the text itself animates to point out the most important points of the onboarding process. 

Whatever you decide to say, be sure to keep it short, sweet and personable because most people will glance at it and mostly just engage with the images. 

6. Watch Your Tone

Not everyone will read every single word during the onboarding process, but you can guarantee a certain tone will come across in the language you use. Based on your ideal customer, think about how you want your company’s voice to come across to them. You want to sound positive and encourage new learning, but you may want to include a hint of humor to sound more personable.

Establishing an emotional connection is key — this will always encourage more engagement with your digital tool. So what tone of voice can you take in that very first intro screen to connect with the user? 

7. Be the Best Tour Guide

Think of the onboarding tutorial for your digital product as a tour for your user. You need to become the best tour guide possible. 

Consider a friendly character to walk the user through your tutorial to make the experience much more personable and fun. 

One more thing to keep in mind: It is vital that you don’t frustrate the user so much that they never end up using your product. Be sure to include an escape route from the onboarding wizard with a small “X” or “exit” somewhere clearly visible. The best practice for this process is to explain where they can find the onboarding instructions again once they exit out just in case they need to access them again.

Be sure to include an escape route from the onboarding wizard with a small “X” or “exit” somewhere clearly visible.

8. Continuous Onboarding

The initial tutorial for your app is just the beginning. As the user comes across a new tool or feature within the app, there should be a brief pop-up video, demo or short explanation. 

You’ll want to take advantage of any blank space in your app where the user needs to create a list or fill information in. This is your chance to add another branded element with instruction.  For example, in an event-based app where the user has just signed up and there are no events listed yet, perhaps you decide to include a short explanation next to an icon and a CTA button to “create a new event.” This will teach the user exactly where they should click next.

9. Limit Barriers

Keeping the user engaged with your product is critical. Limit any barriers as fast as you can because you don’t want anything to get in the way of a positive onboarding experience. This includes before, during and after the initial tutorial. Ensure the user feels the urgent need to use your product before entering a name and email to sign up for anything. 

Asking for an account creation too soon can be a huge turnoff for a customer. The best practice for an app that requires a login is to place that input form as far away from the initial tutorial as possible. Get the user to understand why they can’t live without your product first and then ask for their personal information.

10. Monitor, Test and Provide Support

You’ve had your first wave of sign-ups for your new app, but your work isn’t done. That’s because there will always be something to monitor, test or provide additional support for. 

Ensure you have an easily accessible frequently-asked-questions section or a place that a user can get their questions answered. Will you be able to offer live chat support? If not, at least have a customer service email or phone number someone can call if they are struggling and need help. 

You’ll need to measure your app's success, too. Carefully track what happens with each customer that signs up for your new product. Do they make it through onboarding or get stuck on something and leave? Test what barriers there are to the user and ask for their feedback so you can constantly improve your new digital product.

Go Forth and Create

There are a number of crucial steps to ensure a smooth onboarding experience for your customers. 

Being able to define a clear customer persona, then taking that UX research and integrating it into your new app or digital tool successfully says a lot about you and your brand. This is how you’ll gain the trust of your customers and keep them engaged with your product for years to come.  

Now you can take what you’ve learned here about the top 10 user onboarding best practices and go forth with confidence in crafting your own successful onboarding experience for your customers. 


Kevin Donahue

Strategizing and planning visual identities is what Kevin's all about. In collaboration with our team of designers and artists, he executes creative plans that elevate brands and resonate with audiences. Kevin feels strongest about helping clients identify their needs and carrying out their vision. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the banjo and working on his startup.

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