Every Step Costs You 20% of Users

In a consumer mobile app, every step you add to your onboarding flow will cost you about 20% of users.

Here’s typical consumer app funnel. It applies to apps that do messaging (like WhatsApp), but also posting content (like Twitter, Instagram, or Medium):

These numbers come from an iOS app called DrawChat that I worked on in 2012, and your mileage may vary. With DrawChat, we saw a 10–30% dropoff per step in the onboarding flow:

  1. Download to open: By tracking the ratio of link clicks to App Store downloads, we found that 90% of people that land on the App Store page will install the app. Of those people, only 90% would actually open the app for the first time. My guess is that network connections are so slow that users get distracted by something else as the app is downloading, and forget about your app.
  2. Sign-up is an even bigger hurdle than the previous steps: The way DrawChat signup verified your number via SMS which will got us completion rates around 70%. A startup I’ve talked to has seen completion rates as low as 50% with forced Facebook logins, while another one allows signing up with different methods (username/password, Facebook, LinkedIn) claims completion rates of 90%. Another friend reported a 45% completion rate when using OAuth with Google logins. Exact specifics may vary depending on what permissions you ask for.
  3. Content consumption and creation: This is the point at which most social and news apps will let users consume content and get value, but getting active on chat apps also require you to message someone which may lead to an additional dropoff. Depending on the amount of creativity demanded from your user, you might see another 20–50% end their journey at this point.

Depending on the length of your funnel, you end up with anywhere between 10 and 30% of the downloads actually resulting in users contributing to your ecosystem by creating and sharing new content.

What to do? Make your use cases as accessible and frictionless as possible, and gently guide your users down your desired path:

  1. Consider building a mobile web experience. The mobile web has come a long way and these days supports many features previously available only to apps: Location, push notifications, and payments are all possible without demanding that users download anything.
  2. Consider building a logged-out experience. The canonical example here is how Twitter lets you view user profiles and tweets on the web without having signed up. Content creation requires users to sign up. Think whether this can apply to content in your app as well.
  3. Make signup simple and unobtrusive. If your social graph requires that you create a username, suggest one for them. If they need to follow or connect with others to get value from the app, suggest people to follow that closely match their interests.
  4. Make content creation easy. Come up with the simplest possible sharing experience that’s easy to understand. Instagram’s and Snapchat’s quick flow from snapping a photo and sharing are the gold standard here.

The economic model of social apps is that they are free, and monetized with targeted advertising. Monetizing with ads means that you typically can’t spend much money to acquire a user, so you’ll need to rely on viral growth to get your app to spread. Because of the shape of the graph, you need to get the average user to share with 3–5 friends for your viral coefficient to go above 1. This is a tough number to achieve, and that’s why successful social and communications apps are so rare.

A quick and unobtrusive onboarding flow will increase your product’s likelihood of success.