How ‘Phased Onboarding” Can Help Deliver Mobile App Success

How ‘Phased Onboarding” Can Help Deliver Mobile App Success

It won't shock anyone to learn that there's an issue with the 'stickiness' of mobile apps. Something in the region of 25% of mobile app installs are used precisely once. And things aren’t particularly better further down the line. 94% of app users churn within a year.

For many app developers, there’s an easy answer - or partial answer at least - to these problems: onboarding. If we can design a “First Time User Experience” of screens and messages that help the user understand the value of the app, and navigate around it, then we can move the needle on these retention numbers. 

And indeed we can. But before long those designing the onboarding process face a dilemma. Namely, how much information is too much? We have to make a decision around the scale of the onboarding process, a decision that can best be understood by considering the extremes at each end, namely:

  • No onboarding at all, with the user dumped straight into the core experience, or
  • An endless series of screens telling the user in great detail about every single aspect of the app and how to use it - which will ultimately prove so frustrating that nobody will complete it

Now most of us can instinctively make a decent stab at compromising in this situation. And the addition of a ‘skip’ button can cover a myriad of sins. But I wanted to share two recent examples of what I call ‘phased onboarding’ that make compromise in this area completely unnecessary.

Phased Onboarding

Whilst browsing the Irish Times app recently I was met with the following screen or rather screen overlay:

There's nothing particularly unusual about this experience - most of us have probably seen information communicated like this before. But what is interesting is that although I had used the app several times, I had not yet used the ‘comment’ feature. The developer of the app has almost certainly delayed this ‘onboarding’ or educational message and targeted it specifically at those users who have engaged with the app for a certain period of time, but never used this particular feature.

By delivering ‘how to’ content in this way, it is possible to tailor the onboarding experience for each individual, and most importantly strip back the initial number of screens to the minimum, confident that we can always catch those who don’t appear to have discovered everything for themselves later. It's a great way to ensure users get the most from the app, and are thus more likely to stick around, without having to create a huge and cumbersome initial user experience.

Here’s another example from the BBC:


Again, I had spent some time in the app before being informed this was an option. And again, it is almost certainly the case that this message is better delivered later in the app experience, and only to those who have not already edited the layout (it would make no sense to send it to those who had).

A good example of how the ability to segment and target the user base (and then talk to those target groups!) can help greatly improve key mobile metrics like retention and engagement. Of course there are many other ways to use these types of interactive messages within the app - in addition to helping educate users they can also help to sell - and upsell - further down the line. All the more reason for moving beyond the app as a single 'static' experience!