The first five minutes on mobile, and particularly the mobile app, are absolutely essential. If you doubt that in any way, consider the following simple analysis of mobile app economics:

  • You build and maintain a wonderful mobile app. This costs money.
  • You bring lots of users to the app to check it out. This costs money.
  • Over time, those users engage with the app and direct revenue or brand loyalty is generated. This makes money.

Whole industries exist to get cute over each of these steps and refine the details, but ultimately: this is it. These are the numbers that add up to success or failure for any organization in the mobile app space (and that’s most organizations these days).

Let’s take a moment to digest what these numbers mean. We can cut costs and be smart about building our app and acquiring users. And indeed we must. But ultimately, if this equation is going to work, if we’re going to deliver the be-all-and-end-all of business in the 21st century - ROI - we need to make as much money as possible. And that means getting as many users as possible to engage with the app and ideally spend money.

The First Five Minutes

That’s where the first five minutes comes in. To start from the beginning, in too many cases the first five minutes are the last five minutes. A quick scan of my phone tells me that of about 160 apps I see 42 that I’ve used once and never again - or that I can’t even remember installing. And I am not alone. It is reasonably well established, including by our own research at Swrve, that around 25% of all app installs are used once and once alone.

Referring back to our simple model of app economics above, that 25% is a problem. We are effectively killing our ROI by not holding onto those users that we paid for, and for whom we built a wonderful mobile app.

But it doesn’t stop there. The first five minutes have a longer term impact, and longer term retention is ultimately the rock on which mobile success is built. Without it, you won’t even get the chance to further engage and monetize your mobile users. Take a look at the data below showing two retention curves for apps in the same broad industry. Which do you think is most likely to succeed?

Retention Rates in Mobile Apps

Two retention curves. Note that the lower line means a 10x increase in the real cost of acquisition



First Impressions Last

Let’s rewind a moment. We noted above that the first five minutes - or in other words the first-time user experience - can have a long term effect on retention rates. Why is that? Well, when any user opens an app for the first time they are typically asking themselves the same questions:

  • What does this app do?
  • How do I use it?
  • What else do I need to know?

Answering those questions in a compelling fashion is key to a killer first five minutes. And as your mother might have told you, first impressions last. Every interaction from this moment on is colored by what your user learned in those first interactions, and as a result initial experiences have the sort of long term effects we see in the diagram above. So it is essential to get them right. We’ll talk a little more about making that happen later in this post, but first let’s discuss a topic that too often gets forgotten: measurement.

Finding Metrics That Matter To You

If there’s one quick way to create mobile experiences that suck, it’s this: just figure out what looks good, or what a very important person in your organization thinks looks good, and do that. Without entering into a long digression about the importance of user-centred design, let us just remember that subjective decision making is a short route to both the madhouse and the poorhouse.

The alternative is simple. Establish and agree what success looks like in objective terms, and measure your efforts against that outcome. I’m not here to tell you the single metric that matters to you, but it is vital that you identify how you measure onboarding success. It is also vital that the metric you choose correlates meaningfully with longer term success. You can’t simply pluck from thin air something that sounds plausible, but rather establish that passing a certain ‘milestone’ means that a user is much more likely to  Here’s a few possibilities that we’ve seen work:

  • Percentage of new users who get to a third session
  • Percentage of new users who purchase within a month
  • Percentage of new users who use a specific feature
  • Percentage of new users who register within a week
  • Average engagement (time in app) in first week

Of course there are an almost infinite number of other alternatives, and you may wish to work with two or more. But what doesn’t change is the need to track this metric and clearly establish whether the changes you make are moving it. In the right direction.

One last point here, that should be obvious but isn’t always. You decide on the metrics you care about before starting work, not after. Any fool can wander around in a bunch of after-the-fact data, find something that got better, and claim success. Don’t be that guy. That guy is the reason nobody uses the app and the company goes bust.

Looking Closer At The Data

Once we’ve established the metrics that we care about, the next step is being clear about the stages users go through to get to that point. Here I will briefly pause to plug the benefits of a serious analytics platform that enables deep insight based on every event and every individual user. Why does that matter? Because it enables us to answer the million dollar question “what do users who get to a third session look like?” And more specifically, how do they differ from users who do not?

Chances are the answer to these questions are a set of events. And when we have a set of events, we can create a funnel analysis, as shown below. These funnels enable us to see progression through key events to our ultimate objective and are invaluable when it comes to identifying both progress and obstacles - the things that stop users getting to the objective we care about.

Funnel Analysis for Onboarding

A simple onboarding funnel, showing typical drop off as users pass through key events



Once we have funnels like this in place we can get down to business and start optimizing the first five minutes. But first a brief word about technology.

Why In-App Experiences Must Be Delivered Dynamically

What follows may appear to be a minor point, but it is in fact vitally important. It’s like this: optimizing any user experience requires rapid iteration. You need to test different approaches, establish how they impact on your key metrics, revise and go again. Insert inspiration Samuel Beckett quote here.

We all know this is the right way to get this job done. But just try doing it if you are embedding the onboarding process into the core code of the app. After waking up one morning in February deciding your onboarding process isn’t quite spot on, you’d have to chat with the mobile product team and exchange your first born for a slot in the next-but-one release (April, or maybe May). With all the work involved we’ve taken 3 months to change a few screens. And that’s optimistic.

By delivering onboarding experiences from the cloud, however, via a mobile marketing engagement platform of some description (cough), we can make that change in minutes. Or as long as it takes to bribe a designer with some artisanal coffee to make some new screens. Of course serving these experiences dynamically isn’t just about speed of execution - it also enables us to A/B test competing experiences quickly and easily. A/B testing enables us to establish what works based on real user data, which is always superior to the dreaded subjective judgement.

So, What Does Great Onboarding Look Like?

At this moment in time, it is important to remind ourselves that great onboarding is whatever works for you. The process is what matters - namely establishing the metrics that matter and the path that users flow through to reach the objectives we are measuring, and testing and iterating to discover what works best. But all that said, here’s a few simple lessons that might be useful.

Firstly, remember the questions each user has on arrival in the app, and answer them. Make sure that after flowing through the onboarding process you feel you have shown users what really counts, and put them in a position to really get a feel for as much of the value you deliver as possible.

Experiment with different formats. Full screens are fine for the first key onboarding messages, but beyond that point you may wish to use overlay tips that provide contextual assistance to users, as shown below. Of course when a user first visits a distinct feature, you can revert to full screens for a quick overview.

Alternative Approaches to Onboarding

Examples of alternative approaches to onboarding, including tooltips (centre) and commercial incentives (right)



Learn from user behavior (and reduce the initial mental load). Be strict about what you really need to tell people initially - because you won’t want to delay users getting to the ‘core’ experience, and there is only so much the human mind can hold. Then show educational messages only to those users who haven’t figured things out for themselves yet, based on segments of individuals who haven’t used a particular feature, for example.

Don’t be afraid to get commercial. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is give users a reason to engage meaningfully right away. That could mean offering a discount on a first mobile purchase, for example. When you do this, users are incentivized to get through some of the key processes (registration, purchase etc) that can often provide friction when it comes to long-term engagement.

Test key decisions. Of course all content and campaigns should be tested, but don’t forget to test other more fundamental issues? For example, should you push for registration early or leave it for another time? These are questions that many organizations struggle with, but testing will enable you to use real user data to inform the decisions you make. And these are important decisions.

Lastly - remember that onboarding isn’t really about the first five minutes alone. It never stops, or at least your users never stop learning about new ways to use the app, and new value you are able to offer them. Via push notifications and in-app conversations and campaigns it is necessary to keep talking to your users - and keep listening to them. If you do that, you’ll see your retention rates (and mobile success) head for the skies!

Putting It All Together

To optimize the first five minutes and deliver great retention rates:

  • Establish the meaningful metric you wish to move
  • Identify the key steps users take to get them to that state
  • Build or buy an infrastructure that supports dynamic delivery of mobile experiences
  • Experiment freely with alternative approaches to onboarding screens and campaigns
  • Identify what works
  • Iterate!

At this point I would wish you the very best of luck. But you won’t need it. You’ve got a process. People with a process don’t need luck, they just need a wheelbarrow to carry all their mobile money around.