How to Optimize App Onboarding to Maximize Customer Conversions

Josiah Humphrey
Jul 21, 2017 · 8 min read
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Originally published on

There are currently 2.8 million apps available for download on Google’s Play Store and another 2.2 million on Apple’s App Store.

Despite these numbers, research shows that nearly 85% of all smartphone usage is allocated to 5 apps or fewer; and almost 4 out 5 users never use an app again 72 hours after first installing it.

It’s true. Mobile app creation is clearly an extremely competitive market.

If you’re a startup founder hoping to design the next big app then you must retain your customers after they first experience your product.

In this article, I’ll discuss 6 app onboarding best practices to promote effective customer conversion and boost retention.

What is App Onboarding?

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App Onboarding can be understood as one key component of “user onboarding”.

Jackson Noel of provides the following helpful description of user onboarding:

User onboarding, thus, is all about converting a potential customer to a committed user –or better yet, to what Pulkit Agrawal calls a “proponent user”, i.e., a user who willingly celebrates and promotes your product for you.

The major objective of app onboarding is to gently guide users along the process of using your app to the point where they finally have their “Aha! Moment”, i.e., the moment when they truly recognize the value that your app provides to their lives and they then become dedicated users.

Given that the vast majority of users permanently abandon recently downloaded apps within 3 days of their installation, practicing effective app onboarding is crucial to building up your user base and retaining your customers.

Onboarding is also a fundamental component of your customer acquisition cost (CAC), i.e., the cost of converting a potential user into a paying customer. As I’ve pointed out in one my previous articles, when it comes to startups, a high CAC is often deadly.

In the absence of an efficient onboarding process, your startup must spend a lot more money on less direct/interactive marketing approaches in an effort to reach your critical mass of users.

Fortunately, as a startup operating in 2017 you’re well situated to learn from the mistakes made by other companies that have come before you.

For example, Dropbox, Facebook, and Twitter each discovered that having their new users complete one or more specific tasks was essential to converting them to long-term users. That one task…

  • … for Dropbox was to put at least 1 file into their new Dropbox folder,
  • … for Facebook was to become “friends” with at least 7 people within the first 10 days of signing up,
  • … for Twitter was to follow 10 people shortly after joining.

Effective app onboarding requires the right mix of educating users about how to use, and selling users on the value offered by, your app.

Here are 6 methods for optimizing your app onboarding in order to maximize your customer conversion and retention rates.

1. Reduce Friction

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By removing unnecessary obstacles in the sign-up process — such as:

  • excess copy,
  • lengthy text-based explanations,
  • unnecessary form fields,
  • and even frivolous features in the product itself — you can increase the likelihood that new users will complete the signup through to the end and then start enthusiastically using your app.
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As part of this step, Megan Marrs from the Localytics blog emphasizes 3 key points:

  1. Stick to the basics by not forcing users to swipe through screen after screen before finally getting to use your app.
  2. Avoid text-heavy explanations and opt instead for app screenshots and illustrations.
  3. Don’t overwhelm your users: present only one feature explanation per screen.

To these I will add: minimize the number of clicks and other actions that users must perform between the initial download of your app and the arrival of the “Aha! Moment”.

2. Provide a Clear Indication of Progress

Research studies show that people like using progress indicators and that technology users in specific experience greater satisfaction and demonstrate higher engagement levels when asked to work on tasks in which progress indicators are provided.

Presenting users with a clear idea of how many steps it takes to complete a task can thus significantly reduce user abandonment and thereby encourage the arrival of the “Aha! Moment”.

Progress indicators in mobile apps typically take the shape of little circles or parallax images representing how much of a task has been completed and how much remains to be done:

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Example from Dropbox app

This is something with which we can all relate in our everyday lives.

Whether it’s the number of exams required in a college course or the number of steps involved in constructing a desk from IKEA, we’re much more likely to see something through to the end if we know exactly how long it’ll take to complete.

3. Use Social Sign-Ups

One very effective and easy way to simplify the onboarding process is to incorporate social network sign-ups (and sign-ins) and use them in place of comprehensive registration (and login) fields.

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Dribbble shot by Bart Ebbekink

One-click social sign-ups are becoming more and more popular these days, making it extremely easy for users to register for your app or website without actually having to fill out any of their personal information.

As social sign-ups remove barriers to registration, they are also an example of strategy #1 above, i.e., reducing friction.

In addition to added speed, social sign-ups are valuable because they make it far easier for your users to connect to their social contacts.

This increases the chance that users will help their friends/colleagues migrate over to your app.

Depending on your app’s permissions, social sign-ups may also allow you as a company to target and interact with users’ social contacts much more easily.

Examples of top startups that have incorporated the social sign-up option include Airbnb, Medium, Quora, Uber, and Vimeo.

You can easily learn more about the technical procedures for instituting social sign-ups by checking out these developer guidelines provided by Facebook, Google, or Twitter.

4. Offer Incentives

Another effective method for converting your potential customers into long-term users involves adding incentives — i.e., freebies — to your app onboarding process.

In essence, you incentivize people who download and install your app to keep using it regularly by offering them something valuable for free merely for completing simple but important tasks.

For instance:

  • Dropbox allows free users to accumulate more free space by completing its official getting started guide, referring other people to sign up for the service, installing Dropbox on multiple computers, and so on:
  • Evernote operates a double-sided referral system in which users can accumulate points for additional storage or free premium services for referring others:
  • Lyft and Uber both incentivize current users to have their friends/colleagues sign up for the services by utilizing dual-reward referral systems
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Dropbox’s 250mb freebie offer uses both incentives (i.e., free space for completing specific tasks) and what we might call “gamification” (i.e., incorporating game-like elements into the finishing of a set of tasks, thus capitalizing on the human drive to overcome “obstacles”, amass accomplishments, and be recognized for our “triumphs”).

5. Provide Use Cases

Another great strategy for successfully guiding new users along to the “Aha! Moment” is to create and offer use cases, i.e., practical examples showing others using the app and receiving substantial benefits from doing so.

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Above is an example of a simple yet effective use of use cases by Evernote.

Try incorporating images, video tutorials, and even short audio clips into your app onboarding process in order to demonstrate the basics of using your app and the immense value associated with doing so.

Your use cases are a particularly important medium through which to convincingly establish the value of your app, especially since these examples represent an opportunity for you to clearly show why anybody would want to use your app over the long-term.

As Megan Marrs from the Localytics blog emphasizes:

6. Use Brief Yet Helpful Tutorials

Finally, users often greatly appreciate apps that offer brief, uncomplicated, and straight-to-the-point tutorials that easily show them how to use the core features of the app.

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Many different examples of this technique can be found.

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Gmail, for instance, offers interactive tutorials that “spring into action” as a new user moves about his/her Inbox and starts exploring different features.

Dropbox uses a similar system to help acclimate new users to the platform.

Thanks for reading.

I hope these 6 methods will help you optimize your app onboarding and maximize your customer conversion and retention rates……..

Rock on!

Originally published at

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