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Loyalty & Retention

3 Mobile Onboarding Tactics to Make the Best First Impression

Hannah Levenson  //  February 25, 2016  //  8 min read

The average app loses roughly 77% of its customers after only three days of use. Furthermore, over a 3+ month timeline, the vast majority of apps lose almost their entire user base.

However, there is a powerful outlier to challenge this data: The highest-ranking mobile apps retain users phenomenally well, and they all focus on retaining customers from the very first visit.
It’s for this reason that refined customer onboarding strategies have emerged as a major talking point in the mobile app industry.

Acquiring customers is obviously an important first step, but it’s only the beginning of an even lengthier and more complicated process. Retaining people who have a strong tendency to abandon most mobile apps should now be the most overarching goal. The truth is that most customers who install your mobile app are what we like to call your prized “guests” until they feel like they’re at home. If you can win over your customers’ emotions and satisfy their needs early on, you can significantly increase the chances that they will not only keep your app, but also use it often.

This is where successful onboarding comes into play. Onboarding is like the seed that you’ll use to plant the foundation for long-term retention.

To help you craft an amazing onboarding process of your own, below are three essential types of onboarding tactics leveraged by many of the best mobile app brands in the world. Using one of the following onboarding strategies, or a combination of the three, will enhance your overall in user experience and substantially bolster your user retention rate.

You only have one chance to make a good first impression—onboard correctly to make it count.

Onboarding Tactic #1: Value-Oriented Onboarding

“Benefits, not features” is one of the golden rules of app marketing, and it’s also the primary focus of our first type of onboarding: value-oriented onboarding.

The underlying psychology here is that we as humans are inherently selfish, and immediately think, “OK, so what’s in it for me?” We think this with many of our human interactions, and especially from the moment we install and open a new mobile app.

The good news is that marketers can use this little psychological trick to your app’s advantage by simply giving customers the absolute greatest benefit focused onboarding experience that you can deliver.
If your mobile app is pretty straightforward without any complex functions or unique gestures, then value-oriented onboarding could be the best choice for you. During your planning and ideation phase you will want to ask yourself, “How much inspiring and/or alluring value can I demonstrate to new customers without being overwhelming?” This will help you outline the core value proposition(s) you want to drive home.

In terms of the length for this type of onboarding, you should aim to use three or four succinct and precise introductory slides. These slides will be used to clearly define the biggest benefits of your app with relative diction and compelling visuals/icons. To make sure your customers understand the major takeaways, you should aim to dedicate one concept per slide. Regarding the actual text, make sure it is legible, concise, and possesses a tone that relates to your target market. It is also good practice to not only dictate the physical advantages, but also the emotional benefits.

An example of effective mobile app onboarding, courtesy of Frontback

The Frontback app clearly displays the benefits it has to offer through its value-oriented onboarding sequence.
Value-oriented onboarding works best when you can present highly-relevant benefits that genuinely fulfill the unique needs of your target market. For instance, in the onboarding sequence shown above, Frontback knows very well that it’s targeting young adult adventure-seekers and everyday “smartphone photographers” who want to experience a new way of taking pictures (by using their front and back-facing cameras simultaneously). It’s for this reason that Frontback lists its major value takeaways for new customers in a manner that would appeal to their target market.

On a similar note, it’s important that you don’t use value-oriented onboarding as an excuse to promise big benefits without actually delivering them. It can be convenient for any app to say something like “Be inspired, be entertained,” as shown above in Frontback’s onboarding sequence, but does your app actually have the potential to elicit those feelings? Make sure that your app lives up to any bold benefits that you claim, otherwise your value-oriented onboarding process could totally backfire. Also, it’s best to avoid listing irrelevant or small-scale benefits that don’t give your customers exactly what they’re looking for.

Lastly, make sure to present your app’s benefits before asking users to register or log in. In the case of Frontback, it has a “Create Your Account” button, but does not instantly prompt customers to register on the first screen. Some apps even require their customers to log in or register before they can access the onboarding section. This is a big no-no because it can make the customer feel constrained and annoyed. When customers understand your app’s benefits first, they’re much more likely to want to register for your app or tap-through a social login button. Simply put, your customers immediately want to know what they are getting from your app, not what your app requires of them.

Onboarding Tactic #2: Function-Oriented Onboarding

If your app’s benefits are easily presumable, and your app also contains unique features, technical functionalities or specialized gesture controls, the usage of function-oriented onboarding is likely your best choice making an effective first impression while boosting your retention.

For example, SquareSpace Portfolio is a useful companion app that allows SquareSpace website owners to showcase their photo galleries on-the-go. The app’s benefits are quite clear, but its gestures are highly-specific, and thus require function-oriented onboarding.

Function-oriented onboarding introduces gestures specific to the SquareSpace app

Pinching to go back is a fairly unique gesture, as is swiping from the bottom of the screen to open the settings menu.
Function-oriented onboarding will require that you onboard users with similarly succinct information just as you would using value-oriented onboarding, but instead of listing benefits, you’ll highlight your app’s unique functions.

In other words, you aren’t telling users about the perks that your app will provide. You’re briefly coaching users on how they can achieve those perks by presenting the unique intricacies of your product.

But because simply listing functions has the potential to bore your customers, it’s crucial to make your function-oriented onboarding slides very visual and comprehensible. Oftentimes apps even animate each function to clearly show users correct usage. By balancing any functions that you note with lively design, you’ll maintain the best odds at strengthening your customer retention.

The Rise alarm clock app uses function-oriented onboarding to showcase unique gesture-based commands

Rise is a well-known alarm clock app with a lot of great features, but it manages to break down its function-oriented onboarding slides into simple and bite-sized chunks.
When it comes to the “don’ts” of function-oriented onboarding, avoid listing obvious functions, and try your best to resist explaining your app’s more obvious icons to users as well. Does the hamburger icon really need an explanation? Think about it. No one wants to waste their “precious” time sifting through unnecessary slides. Also, once a customer sees one unnecessary slide, they might get “trigger happy” and just flip through your entire onboarding process. This could cause them to potentially miss critical information and also taint their first impression of your app. The average customer’s attention span is fleeting, so don’t let your function-onboarding process feed into it. Capture their attention and allure customers with your app’s functions.

Onboarding Tactic #3: Progressive Onboarding

Progressive onboarding is an interactive onboarding tactic that has the potential to provide certain mobile apps with the best of both the value-oriented and function-oriented worlds.

By welcoming new app customers with a progressive onboarding process, you will sequentially instruct them on how to take certain, critical actions that are relevant to where they are in their unique journey through the app.

With in-line hinting, customers will quickly understand the value and functions of your app as you guide them through a potentially complicated workflow(s). It’s basically powerful learning on the go, allowing customers to visualize the exact benefits that occur from performing certain actions.

Progressive onboarding requires that users invest themselves in your app. This means that you only reach out to your customers at specific, key points within typically their first journey through your app. For example, a content sharing app, like Birdhouse, only prompts a customer about a certain feature once the customer has created a draft of content. This helps the function and its value better stick with the customer because they have actually physically completed the action themselves. It also presents an opportunity for your app to give kudos to your customers, further strengthening your app-customer relationship.

Progressive onboarding in action, courtesy of the Birdhouse app

Birdhouse only elaborates on the history button once a user has created their first draft. (Source: Elezea)
Progressive onboarding can also be used beyond the customer’s first session. Maybe they haven’t explored a certain page within your app or utilized a certain tool? Progressive onboarding is a great way to help customers discover additional aspects of your app that might have gone unnoticed.

However, you should be careful not to take progressive onboarding too far. Let the customer navigate in their own time. There shouldn’t be a need to provide hints on every screen. If you excessively prompt new customers with obvious hints, you risk annoying or distracting your customers. Basically, everything in moderation.

Bonus Onboarding Tactic: Analysis and Optimization

So now you have a brand spankin’ new onboarding process in place. You are hoping to observe longer first-time sessions, decreased quit rates, and greater overall retention. Yet in order to meet those awesome KPIs, you also will want to be able to see exactly how customers are behaving within your app. Maybe some are quickly swiping through your entire onboarding process, or maybe others are confused by a log in prompt? At the end of the day, when you can clearly visualize how your customers are behaving within your app, then you can better optimize and troubleshoot your app’s onboarding experience.

How can you do this, you might ask? Here is our bonus tactic for you: By pairing your mobile app with user session recording tools (like those of Appsee App Analytics), you’ll be able to witness how your customers are actually using your app, and understand in detail the effectiveness of your onboarding process. Remember that when speaking of your onboarding process, we are talking about the customers’ first impression of your app—the ultimate factor in whether they keep your app or uninstall it. Thus, the more you know about your customers’ behavior and experience, the more likely you will reach those key KPIs.

Testing different onboarding tactics, analyzing your results using quality app analytics tools, and repeating this process is the key to strengthening your app’s lifespan and customer base.


It’s evident that the creation of a powerful first impression can help set the foundation for your mobile app’s entire existence. How people think, feel, and act from the initial moment of interacting with your app could be the difference between converting a customer for life, or sending them directly back to the app stores.

By pairing your mobile app with one of these three onboarding tactics and thoroughly analyzing your process, you will better capitalize on that first impression and provide exponentially more “guests” with enjoyable, investable, and addictive customer experiences. This is how you will significantly increase your odds of converting those “guests” into engaged frequent users of your app.

Apps that don’t onboard their customers effectively often leave people confused and missing out on the greater value or unique functions that their app has to offer. Don’t forget, your customers are searching for solutions. They want to be onboarded with great, comfortable experiences.

Ultimately, your path towards mobile app excellence begins by implementing a smart, optimized onboarding process.

About Hannah Levenson

Hannah is the Community Manager at Appsee . A UX and content strategy enthusiast, she has a great affinity for discovering and sharing unique insights and resources with the mobile tech community. Hannah also loves photojournalism, classic rock, and pretending that she's the only one with a "foodie" Instagram account. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLevenson.
View all posts by Hannah Levenson >

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