Mobile app onboarding best practices and use cases

Written by Hannah Chaplin  | 



There’s no doubt about it: While we strive for our mobile apps to be intuitive and user-friendly, there are always opportunities to enhance the user experience for our mobile users. One of the most successful ways you can do this is with in-app onboarding–leveraging guides, tooltips, and help buttons in the app itself to help your users right when they need it. 

PMs know that updating and launching new app versions (and then getting users to upgrade!) is a lot of effort–which is where the magic of Pendo comes in. With Pendo, you have full control over the in-app experience without ever needing an engineer or a new version of your app. You can react as circumstances change, launch new features successfully, and get new users to value quickly–all without touching a single line of code. 

What is mobile app onboarding?

Mobile app onboarding is the process of helping users get started with your app in an automated way, so they begin engaging with high-value features right away. Typically, this is done through a welcome guide that walks users through set up and using the core functionality of the app.

A good mobile app onboarding process leads to higher software adoption, better user retention, and an overall enhanced product experience. In-app guidance and user analytics can be combined to take this to another level: contextual onboarding.

What is contextual onboarding, anyway?

Contextual onboarding is a way to help your new users–or show existing users–new features and workflows in your application. When onboarding is “contextual” it means you’re able to give users the right help at the right time. Instead of showing all of your users the same in-app guides, contextual onboarding allows you to target users based on where they are in their journey to ensure your messages are genuinely relevant and helpful. In Pendo, you can choose exactly who should see which guides, helping to keep the content engaging and relevant to each individual user. 

In Pendo, use segments to choose which users see each guide

When you’ve invested so much in creating a great app, including contextual in-app onboarding as part of your user experience means you can be confident that everyone is supported and using your app in the intended way.

Contextual onboarding best practices

Providing the best possible mobile app onboarding for your users can mean the difference between higher adoption rates and user retention and first-time users heading for the exit after logging in to find a confusing, frustrating experience. And no two users are the same, so it pays to tailor your onboarding to the context of their individual use cases.

Here are eight of the most important best practices for building a successful in-app onboarding experience:

  1. Build a guide with a maximum of five steps so you don’t overwhelm your users (this does vary between our customers though!). In Pendo, you can use guide metrics to understand the length and type of in-app guides that work best for your particular app and user base. And remember, you can quickly and easily edit any guides and add or remove steps–all without an engineer or new app version.
  2. Brevity is your friend: Use. Short. Sentences.
  3. Start with a full-screen guide step for brand new app users to demonstrate the app’s benefits.
  4. Use similar branding for each step of a guide sequence to ensure a smooth visual experience.
  5. Decide whether you want to let your users opt-out of an in-app product tour if you have one. This is very much a personal choice. There will be occasions where you feel it’s important to guide users through a certain area of your app, and others where it’s ok for them not to complete the guide steps. Use your judgment wisely here; not allowing an opt-out can be a frustrating experience if it’s not used carefully.
  6. For longer workflows, show the total number of steps. This sets expectations for the user; they can see exactly how far through they are and how many steps are left. They are much more likely to complete a set of guides when they know how long it will take.
  7. Lead users directly to the new feature’s page after the last step of a new feature announcement (via an app’s deep link).
  8. Test the tooltip in your guide  on a physical device before deploying the guides to your users.

Mobile onboarding use cases

There are a few different types of mobile onboarding that you can utilize. In practice, most organizations will switch up their approach based on what their end goal is and what makes the most sense for their app and users. You can also combine all three types, of course.

Here are three approaches to consider:

1. Highlight your app’s benefits (“Show me why”)

Launching an in-app guide to show (not just tell) users the benefits they will get from using your app helps set expectations and make them feel confident about getting started. Explaining your application’s major benefits and key features demonstrates why they should invest their precious time and effort in your app the very first time they open it. If users know the value up front, it keeps them engaged and wanting to learn more. 

An in-product tour highlighting the app’s benefits for new users

Take the time to think about your “first use” app experience. What do users need to know to be successful? What do they need to do to get started? This will help inform the type and style of in-app guidance you’ll want to offer in the very early stages of your user’s journey. 

Use. multi-step guides to guide users through their first experience with your app

In Pendo, you can build multi-step guides to support new users through their crucial first experience, and launch these guides when a user first opens your app. Combining a showcase of your app’s benefits with a basic product tour is a great way to build users’ confidence. 

2. In-app tutorials (“Show me how”)

Tooltip guides are fantastic for steering users through important features and workflows. Short and instructional guides can really enhance a user’s experience, especially if your app contains complex actions where extra support might be needed. 

If it’s more appropriate to let your users explore on their own, you could add a “launch” option to your most critical workflows. This will let users have free rein alongside the ability to quickly access guided in-app help when they need it–aka the best of both worlds.

An example of a tooltip guide

As with all mobile app onboarding, take the time to consider what type of in-app guides are going to be the most appropriate. Think about how tech savvy your users are, what your app needs to help them accomplish, and which areas of your app are the most important for getting users to value.

3. Help new users get set up (“Get me started”)

Finally, many apps require some level of user setup when they’re used for the first time. Guiding a user through this experience to get them started quickly can be the difference between an engaged user and one that deletes your app a few minutes in.

If your app requires any user setup, consider including a short, guided experience to help support users and make them feel good about your app right from the start. 

Add tooltips to “Help” buttons so users can get more detailed information when they need it

You could also consider adding tooltip guides to “Help” or “Information” buttons. These are non-intrusive and give users a lot of control. When they get stuck or want to understand an area of your app in more detail, this option will allow them to launch in-app help when they need it.

If you want to learn more about creating mobile guides for creating effective mobile app onboarding, check out the recording of our latest webinar, “How to delight your mobile users with in-app guides”: