What is onboarding?
In a nutshell, onboarding is introducing and educating someone about a product or feature. In mobile apps, this is typically achieved using one or more user interfaces with strategic content design.
If you're not familiar with content design, Aisling Moran, Lead Content Designer at Thriva describes it as:
Content design is to answer a user need and present it to them in the best way possible.
Good onboarding balances education and guidance in a way that helps people achieve something — it's contextual, relevant, timely, and actionable.
Unfortunately, for a lot of companies, onboarding is a nice-to-have that doesn't get scoped as part of feature builds. If you're lucky enough to include onboarding as part of your product work — there are some tried and tested principals which can ensure you get the most out of it.
Principals of good onboarding
Onboarding for dummies — or experts!
Offer onboarding that reflects a persons skill level. Let them choose and guide them accordingly. Beginners are often more successful when guided through a sample. Savvier people will get more benefit from being gently guided through creating something from scratch.
Don’t force it. Let people opt-in and out as they go. You want to be there to help, but you don’t need to micromanage everything.
Keep it contextual
Don’t try to educate people about everything at once. Expose guidance when needed and in-context. For example; if you point out a share button during a tour — wait until a person clicks it before guiding them through the sharing experience. This could be straight away, or it could be a day later, onboard when they’re ready.
Break it down
It’s easier to educate people in small bursts rather than long flows. Where possible, break down workflows into micro-tasks. Smaller tasks are easier to “win” and give people a better sense of achievement.
Avoid long tours
Think about the last product tour you experienced — you probably read the first 1 or 2, and skipped the rest. If you have to use tooltips, try and keep them under 4 and number them so people know how many steps there are.
Onboarding is never done
Much like most product development, onboarding should be constantly evolved to optimise it's effectiveness. Test it, chat to happy people, chat with sad or mad people, understand what's working and what's not. Use your learnings and refine!
Show, don't tell
We're all guilty of skimming and skipping over text, particularly if it's long. And content design is about more than just words. So where possible, use images, GIFs, videos, or even interactive demos to show someone how things work — it's much more engaging.
Some best-in-class examples
When someone first downloads your app, it can be easy to overwhelm them with information. Shop (by Shopify) have done a great job of breaking down their content into bite-sized relevant chunks. The intro carousel uncovers some of the most critical product value, the sign-in screen tackles trust and security, and the notification primer ensures people understand the value of push notifications before opting in.
A classic approach to onboarding on the web is to isolate and highlight key user interface elements when someone first enters the product. While it's not seen too often on mobile, Things have used the pattern to gently educate and guide their people on how to get the most out of their app. They even took home gold in the 2017 Apple Design Awards.
"Things 3 sets the standard for how apps should be designed and developed"
TikTok / Shazam / Jour
Sometimes a product is so simple it only takes one interaction to see the magic. Content rich platforms like TikTok pioneered swipe-up content consumption and a simple illustrative animation is all it takes to get people hooked.
Similarly, when you first use Shazam (Acquired by Apple) you'll find their beautifully simple prompt within seconds of opening the app — the time taken for a person to see product value is practically zero.
Even when the task isn't so simple, there are clever ways to guide people in bitesized ways. Take Jour (acquired by Alan) for example — they use welcoming language, a dash of social proof, and a single button to entice you into writing your first journal. And it doesn't stop there, once you're ready to start writing they gently encourage people with thought provoking prompts — a brilliant example of helping people through difficult tasks.
Monzo / Revolut
One of the most critical points of a persons journey is signup — especially for products in the financial space. Talk to anyone who has worked on growth at a hotshot neobank and they'll tell you how much experimentation, iteration, and testing goes on to optimise the conversion funnel. That's why you'll see products like Monzo and Revolut front-load value in constantly changing carousels during signup. You might even notice that the content correlates perfectly with trends in the economy or the security scandals of their competitors.
A modern spin on onboarding is embracing patterns in social media — like stories. Product marketers at companies like Coinbase are using video and motion graphics to showcase new features, offer education, and prompt actions. As much as #designtwitter jokes about every company copying stories, content rich experiences like this have a proven track record of engaging people.
Empty states don't have to be empty. This space is exists with the sole purpose of being populated — so why not use it to help people do just that. Cash App has an entire tab which is empty until a person orders their card. Nothing fancy, just a simple carousel showcasing the fun card, what you can do with it, and a single call to action to get it. Much like carousels in sign up, this is the perfect place to experiment with content to drive conversion.
As you can see — onboarding isn't rocket science, it simple a mix of using tried and tested patterns, and experimenting with content until it resonates with people.
That's why we're building Unflow. We want to empower product teams to rapidly ship mobile experiences like onboarding, and iterate on it as quickly as they do on the web.
Interested in a demo? Drop us a line and we'll show you what we've built.