Onboarding Techniques and Examples for Your New Users

Sep 23 2013 by Krzysztof Kozak | 5 Comments

When someone signs up on your website, or downloads your software, or installs your mobile app, it doesn’t immediately mean the person has already decided to use it.

You have a small window of opportunity to quickly introduce your app’s key features and teach a first-time user how the app works. The process of familiarizing a new user to your app is called onboarding.

Onboarding accomplishes these two things in the most efficient way possible:

  • Present the key benefits of using the app (the app’s value proposition)
  • Teach the app’s main features so new users can use the app immediately

General Onboarding Concepts

  • Onboarding generally starts as soon as the new user launches the app.
  • The onboarding process should be short because you want the user engaging with the app as quickly as possible.
  • Onboarding should only focus on the most important characteristics of the app.

Next, I will go over four common techniques used in onboarding and discuss some real-world examples that employ each technique.

Onboarding Technique: Tutorial

A common technique used in an onboarding process is presenting a short tutorial before bringing the new user into the app’s UI.

The tutorial is generally a sequential flow of static screens displaying the app’s key features and benefits.

Examples of the Tutorial Technique

Mailbox

Mailbox uses an interactive tutorial for the onboarding process so that new users can rapidly see the app’s unique features and learn how to use it.

Notice how the onboarding process doesn’t go into every single detail of the app; it only highlights and teaches you the app’s core benefits and features.

Pocket

Pocket’s onboarding experience is a series of static screens that demonstrate how to use the app.

Onboarding Technique: Walkthrough

Walkthroughs ensure that you avoid the blank slate problem by prompting users to fill out some necessary information in order for them to start using the app.

The downside with walkthroughs is that they are generally very rigid. The user can’t explore the interface without first completing the walkthrough. Thus, walkthroughs should conclude quickly or else you risk the possibility of having the user walk away from the app.

Examples of the Walkthrough Technique

Tumblr

Upon first interacting with Tumblr, the new user is prompted to input important information to ensure a customized user experience.

Pulse

Pulse has a shorter walkthrough than Tumblr because it only needs new users to choose their interests.

After the walkthrough, you’re free to explore the app by yourself.

What’s important to note is that the walkthroughs above are as short as possible; they only gather information that’s needed.

Onboarding Technique: Screen Overlay

Another popular technique used in the onboarding process is to draw attention to a key element of the UI and then providing helpful information about it.

The rest of the UI is deemphasized so that the focus is on the particular element being highlighted.

Related article: The Art of Distinction in Web Design shares concepts and strategies for drawing the user’s attention towards certain elements of a web page.

Unlike the tutorial or walkthrough techniques, screen overlays allow you to get users immediately inside the app after they sign in without having to present any preliminary screens.

With screen overlays, you can guide the user’s attention to the most important features, but you can also give them the option to explore the app on their own.

Example of the Screen Overlay Technique

Fitocracy

Fitocracy is a community-oriented app that helps you track your workouts. Though there are a lot of features in this app, the onboarding experience focuses only on a handful of key features, leaving it up to the user to discover everything else later on.

Onboarding Technique: Inline Hinting

Another technique you can use when onboarding a new user is to display hints while the person is exploring the app.

When they reach something that deserves more explanation, they are presented with useful information about it — a concept called progressive disclosure.

Inline hinting can give your users freedom to explore the app on their own and is not as obtrusive as other onboarding techniques.

Example of the Inline Hinting Technique

YouTube Capture

The onboarding experience of YouTube Capture starts with a quick tutorial. Then it uses inline hints to teach you the app’s UI. It’s a simple app and so progressive disclosure works very effectively in this case.

Conclusion

It’s important to note that you can use a combination of these techniques to craft your onboarding process. For example, you can start with a tutorial and then proceed to screen overlays and inline hinting when the user starts exploring and interacting with the app.

Onboarding is not always necessary. Many apps are so simple that an onboarding process is a burden for the user. Take for example a flashlight app:

The flashlight app above has only one function and one major UI element (a really big on/off button). Thus, an onboarding experience will only serve to slow down the user’s experience in this instance.

Other Articles on Onboarding

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About the Author

Krzysztof Kozak has many years of experience in UX. He specializes in mobile technology and designing for mobile devices. He works as a UX Specialist at Symetria, a company that provides comprehensive e-business and user experience services. Follow Symetria on Twitter.

5 Comments

Dominic

September 23rd, 2013

Great article, as you’ve mentioned combination can be a winning choice.

Short videos tutorials also work great.

Anil Kumar krishnashetty

September 23rd, 2013

Nice article. This is one of the technique to educate your users.

The Curious Properties of Intuitive Web Pages by Jared M. Spool Talks about current knowledge and target knowledge.

Rasmus Kahl

September 24th, 2013

Great article Krzysztof – thanks!

I’ve actually just started my master thesis, researching in exactly this subject – onboarding.

I’m just wondering – how would you categorize the video-demo that the app Convertbot has (or just any other videos in the onboarding)?

Thanks.

Shane

September 25th, 2013

Some of the onboarding techniques are great but the frustrating method some of them force you to go through every time leaves a little to be desired – Twitter comes to mind.

Krzysztof Kozak

October 3rd, 2013

Hi Rasmus,

demo is an another onboarding technique, which I didn’t mentioned in article.

In my opinion videos are better in encouraging user to download the app like clip on http://www.any.do/

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