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10 guidelines for designing the onboarding experience

By: Kristina Hansen
Date: November, 2014
File under: Articles

We’ve recently conducted a fair bit of user testing focused on how to best teach users about new features and functionalities in apps. We call the process of easing people into using an app (or a website for that matter) onboarding.

It has become quite common to introduce users to onboarding screens when they first start using an app. Onboarding helps them learn how to interact with the new interface, which is particularly helpful if the interface features unfamiliar functionalities. If users do not learn how to use a new app properly they can become overwhelmed and frustrated, and may decide to abandon using the app altogether. So aside from teaching users how to use the app, onboarding also serves to turn people into returning users.

There are arguments against onboarding, such as “if it’s not intuitive for users how to use the elements on an interface, the design and usability must be fundamentally flawed.” However, if your target audience isn’t familiar with gestures, interactions or new functionalities you have implemented, onboarding is valuable in showing them how it’s done.

Below we outline 10 guidelines to be mindful of when designing the onboarding experience.

  1. Choose when and where to introduce onboarding
    When and where onboarding is presented depends on your product and users. Sometimes it’s useful to present the value proposition or key functionalities of an app when users first download it (done via an interface walkthrough). In other cases, it may be more helpful to explain functionalities progressively as users make their way through the app and in the context of them using it; for example, by applying visual cues or subtle animations to call out functionalities and features.
  2. Explain key features
    Dedicate onboarding to explaining only the most important features of the app to ensure users aren’t overloaded with information. This is particularly important to be mindful of if you are showing users several onboarding screens before users even enter the app. Decide what key features are crucial for users to learn about and then leave them alone to explore.
  3. Inform users about system progress
    It can be useful to indicate to users where they’re at in the onboarding process, so they roughly know how long it takes to complete.
  4. Be concise
    Use short and concise sentences to explain functionalities. Limit the word count and use keywords so users can quickly grasp meaning.
  5. Keep it short and consider context of use
    Keep the onboarding process short and take into consideration the context of use and where users are most likely to be exposed to onboarding. If it’s a mobile app, think about when and where they will be using it (for example, on public transport, when walking around the city etc.). If it’s an app for tablet, users might be more likely to start using it when they sit on the sofa at home. Context may affect the time users have available to go through onboarding – and also their attention span.
  6. Provide users with control
    Users like control. So provide them with the option to skip onboarding if they wish, in case they don’t have the time or patience to go through the process at the time.
  7. Show users where to find onboarding on demand
    Upon showcasing a UI walkthrough when a user first logs into an app or a website, always finish by showing a user where they can relocate the onboarding process if they need it later point (for example, within the ‘help’ area) – or If they’d skipped onboarding the first time round.
  8. Put learning into context
    Explain the features interactively and put learning into context. Showing screens and flows that replicate screens on the actual app is a great way to provide contextual information and pair it with simple explanations.
  9. Explain it interactively
    In addition to showing users how to use features during onboarding, it can also be quite effective to get them to use the features. For example, make the onboarding process an interactive tutorial where users have to tap, drag and drop to move on to the next stage of the onboarding. If users complete actions, give them positive feedback so they know they have completed them successfully i.e., show a success screen after each action has been completed. Positive feedback also makes the process emotionally engaging.
  10. Limit onboarding to a first-time use scenario
    Users should really only be exposed to onboarding once, unless they skip it. Do not initiate onboarding if someone has gone through the process, logged out and come back to use the app a second time. If users are shown the onboarding process multiple times, they might get annoyed. Once they have gone through onboarding, users usually just want to be left alone and go explore the app on their own

Conclusion

The guidelines we’ve provided here are tips on how to design a good onboarding experience, but not all aspects necessarily apply to your product. It’s important to keep in mind who your users are, what you already know about them and what are their behaviours.

The best thing you can do is to get some user feedback on the onboarding experience you’re designing. Put a couple of onboarding concepts in front of your target audience to ensure the onboarding aligns with their needs

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