The Strategies Behind Onboarding

How the biggest consumer apps onboard new users

The onboarding sequence has defaulted to become the go-to spot for Dribbble designers to flex their UI muscles. And usually, that happens with an utter disregard for the effects that the five-ish screens that sit pre-launch can have on a product.

Onboarding isn't something that should be left in the dust. It's no secret that effective onboarding can drive growth and retention, even Facebook attributes it to be a major factor in their rise to 1 Billion users. But, Facebook's success is just the tip of the iceberg.

Major consumer apps all utilize a blend of experience, information, and conversion tactics that set users up for long-term product success. Does yours?

If you want to learn the strategies behind some of the biggest consumer apps onboarding flow, look no further. This article dives deep into activation, personalization, information, and how they are used in companies like Twitter, Pinterest, Duolingo, & more.

The art of the intro

Onboarding is a vague discipline when it comes to product design, but what is it? Onboarding is considered to be the sequence in which a user is made familiar with a product. This happens through a set of interactions, instructions, or information on what to expect with the product's experience. 

In the consumer space, it generally constitutes the few screens before the email sign-up. But for some use cases, explanations beyond the email sign-up are necessary to show the proper functionality of complex features. This is really difficult to do well on mobile, which is why Notion, and others, resort to saving their in-depth onboarding for the web.

The importance of onboarding

As you'll quickly see once we dive into the strategies, onboarding is one of the most important sequences within any product. 

As of this year, a whopping 25% of mobile apps are only used once. And if you look at the past ten years, we have made little to no progress improving this metric.

Not only are we not making progress in early abandonment, but also long-term retention. App retention rates took a steep decline back to 2012 numbers, with only 32% of users using apps 11+ times.

You might be wondering, "Why is this happening? Why do some apps see much more retention than others? How can I improve my abandonment and retention?"

And while there are many reasons why certain apps are finding success; clean, efficient, and effective onboarding is a few of them. So let's dive in and look at what's working.

Great onboarding isn’t easy

There are many reasons behind the lack of user retention within consumer apps, and poor onboarding is one of them. Great onboarding should do more than just make a good first impression, great onboarding should guide the user to the conclusion that the app they just downloaded, was made for them.

But how can onboarding guide users to that conclusion? Through sound strategies. Activation, personalization, information, and more all play into getting users hooked, so here’s how they work.

Activation

An activation metric is a measure of how many actions a user takes to receive value out of a product. Essentially, it is what a user has to do before they get value from the product.

Activation metrics grant you the ability to guide users to that value point faster, leading to better retention and more secure acquisition. Regardless of how good a product may be, if it is not acquiring users, the impact will always be limited.


"Ignore the benchmarks. Find the patterns in the stories of people who do get your product. Figure out what converted them and got them so excited to keep using your product every day or every week."Josh Elman


Onboarding does serve an educational purpose for most products, and weaving the right amount of information in your introduction can do wonders for guiding users to activation. The truth is that if a user doesn’t know how to use a product, optimizing for activation is useless.

How can you find your own activation metric?

An activation metric is not something that can be pulled out of thin air, or guessed. If your activation metric is wrong it will have a negative effect on your onboarding. So how do you find it?

Talk to your users. Ask your users what made them stay, probe deeper to uncover the insights and motivations that drive them to keep coming back to your product. 

Running analyses on usage numbers will only tell part of the story. There is no better way than getting the product in a user's hands and asking why they keep showing up.

The ‘Aha’ moment

Have you ever downloaded an app and within the first few minutes thought to yourself, "Wow, this is great."? That's the 'Aha' Moment. 

Defined, the 'Aha' Moment is when the user realizes the value of a product. The moment when they realize that this app is going to solve a problem or provide entertainment. This is what Facebook focused on to achieve growth, it's what Duolingo uses to teach languages, and so much more.


But how is this different from activation?

When comparing activation and the ‘Aha’ moment, it’s easy to notice their similarities. The reality is that they are separate concepts, one being measurable, the other being more subjective. The best way to explain this is through an example: 

Instagram’s activation metric could be posting three posts over the course of a month, but it doesn’t take users a month to understand Instagram’s value. Meaning, while the activation metric will take a month to formalize, the ‘Aha’ moment could be following 5 friends or exploring on the explore page, neither of which take a month to do. These two concepts work independently of each other.

Intercom’s research team does a great job explaining the differences between these concepts and can be visualized in a chart they made. This model does justice in showing the independence of these concepts. 


When guiding users to the 'Aha' moment in onboarding, there are pain points, or "Blockage Points" as David Skok says, that cause trouble for the user. 

These are email grabs, asking to change settings or turn on notifications. When a user gets to this point, if they haven't seen any value, the chances of them exiting are much higher. So the timeline for showing value just got shorter. 

It’s easy to get greedy by asking for information too early, this is why in most cases, an email grab is the last thing in the onboarding flow.

David Skok, a famous Venture Capitalist, is a huge proponent of putting the 'WOW!' first. He is noted saying that through A/B testing this approach, "my bet is that this approach will lead to a higher overall conversion rate". So, when actively trying to drive growth, wow first, sign-up second.

Personalization

Personalization is an overlooked facet of onboarding that when implemented correctly, can be a huge user retention asset. When users are presented with dynamic, personalized content early on, it puts them in the driver's seat of their experience.

Factoring personalization into onboarding makes the initial interactions with the home screen much more intuitive. When done right, can guide the user to activation or ‘Aha’ much faster. 

The strategy of great design

All of those insights, tactics, and strategies are useless if they aren’t properly designed in the product. Great design is often a result of great strategy, and finding that sweet spot is where real growth and traction can occur. 

If you’ve really nailed it, maybe even *product-market fit.*

But enough of the small talk, how can you design for strategy?

Designing for activation

Designing for activation is tricky. The last thing you want is to implement a long and extensive onboarding flow when it isn't necessary. The best apps are usually the most intuitive anyways.

Ideally, activation needs to be weaved into the story of the introduction. Duolingo does this perfectly. Their activation metric is probably getting a user to pick a language and complete a lesson or two, so they weaved that into their onboarding flow.

Before you are even done onboarding, you've already completed an entire lesson from your language of choice. They utilize their activation metric by letting users pick a language and start to learn, right away.

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet Away

We all know about Twitter and what makes it arguably the most interesting social platform. But can you think back to what got you hooked? 

Most times, we can't. It may be because our friends or co-workers are active and you want to keep up, or maybe it's because you wanted to share your thoughts easily. If you can remember one thing, maybe it's how you were prompted to follow some celebrities; that is an example of activation.

Twitter's activation metric may be following five users and sending three tweets. Right away, Twitter makes use of this by suggesting you follow some famous accounts and some topics you’re interested in.

Pin on Pinterest

Like Twitter, Pinterest is another popular platform in which value is found through activity. For Pinterest, that activity comes with pinning items, creating boards, & finding ideas.

Pinterest’s activation metric is when users save content weekly for four weeks minimum. So, as you guessed, that concept is designed into their onboarding flow. Pinterest takes it a step further by giving a thoughtful introduction to what you can do with what you find.  Because their activation metric is drawn out over time, they know they have to educate users on how it works in the onboarding flow.

A Facebook Friend

Another key way to uncover the right activation metric is simply by measuring what currently drives user success. Facebook is famous for doing this and uncovering their activation metric and driving user growth.

Early on at Facebook, the team wanted to drive growth (I think they did a pretty good job, with 2.6 Billion users). Chamath Palihapitiya, part-owner of the Warriors and early employee at Facebook said, "We just got really good at 3 simple principles: measuring, testing, and trying things."

One of the things they tried was simply looking at what was different between active users and abandoned users. They split users into two groups, active and inactive, and measured their interactions with the product early on. What they noticed was that active users had a minimum of 7 friends within 10 days of signing up.

Facebook realized this was their activation metric, so naturally, they started prompting new users to add friends. This was a key factor in the road to 1 Billion Users, & is still in place today on the road to 3 Billion.

Only one screen, a quick and easy prompt that leads to connect your contacts. This is one of the simpler asks, but most definitely still works.

Designing for the ‘Aha’ moment

How you design for the 'Aha' moment is by providing a blend of information & personalization to get the user to the activation metric. The 'Aha' moment can happen at any point within the product, but your goal as a designer, PM, or engineer is to make that point come as soon as possible. 

Venmo does a really good job utilizing social proof in their onboarding introduction by showing a reel of transactions that happened with Venmo. This shows the users that this app is secure (other people using it), and fast (a ton of transactions). Essentially pushing users to come to their own realization that, "Wow if I want to send money to someone, this is where I should do it".

While that is obviously the ideal route, it's not always easy to get the user to that point on the first try. Think back to an app that you have deleted and redownloaded, only to get hooked on the second, or third try with the app. We all do this. A few of mine were Spotify, Notion, & Todoist. All three took multiple tries to get me hooked, but now they are integral parts of my tech stack. 

In most cases, having users "bounce-back" isn't all bad news. Josh Elman, esteemed investor and product evangelist at Twitter, FB, and more, looks for bounce-backs, people he describes who "give it a try, delete it, and then come back again to be hooked". 

The key is to talk to those users, & ask what made them come back, what got them hooked. If you know what is driving users to bounce-back to your product, it’ll be much easier to turn that insight into an ‘Aha’ moment for next time.

Waze does a great job of incorporating the 'Aha' moment early on. Their onboarding flow provides the information necessary to show why users should use Waze over the other Map options. It takes them five screens to intro the value they provide.

Not to mention the super clean illustrations, this is one of my favorite ones. Again, in just five screens you are aware of the key pain points that Waze solves.

Designing for personalization

Implementing personalization in onboarding is done by giving users control of their in-app experience. Essentially, asking questions and making the user make choices that will impact their initial experience.

Headspace is a great example of getting users to value as soon as possible through personalization. Their onboarding flow forces you to pick goals and get clear on your reasons for meditation.

Within 5 minutes of opening the app, you'll have set your personalized goals, had a chance to start meditating, and have seen how easy it is with Headspace. This is also a case where onboarding goes into the app, Headspace masterfully weaves a nice introduction to the interface post-sign-up.

Zenly also does a really good job of incorporating personalization, among a ton of other things, into their onboarding. For a deeper look at Zenly, I wrote an article covering their whole experience.

Zenly focuses on connecting users with their friends, this sequence does exactly that. By letting users invite friends it personalizes their experience, getting them to the activation metric and 'Aha' moment much faster.


A product's ability to get users to reach the activation metric and the 'Aha' moment is a key factor when determining success. But getting there takes personalization.

This is why Pinterest lets users pick their interests before getting thrown into their card heavy Home Screen. This is why Twitter lets you follow users as a part of onboarding. In most cases, you can't guide a user to activation without some form of personalization.

Conclusion

When onboarding goes well it should be seamless, intuitive, and informative. Users should have a good understanding of what's to come within the app, how it works, and why they should be using it. 

But onboarding "going well", isn't enough in this competitive landscape. With consumers being able to pick and choose from hundreds of options for each of their problems, getting users to use your app is one thing, getting them to stay is another. 

In order to acquire and retain users, onboarding needs to be a highlighted, well-thought-out experience. 

Implementing tried and true tactics like activation, personalization, and more are assets that every designer, PM, or engineer needs to be aware of. 

Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance, CPO at Adobe, writes about how important the first mile of a product’s experience can be. I want to take that a step further and stress the importance of the first one-hundred yards.

Great onboarding should be intuitive and simple, neither of which is easy. These few screens deserve more than a few minutes of thought.

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