Imagine being dropped into a new job with no explanation of your primary work tasks or how to accomplish them. You probably wouldn’t be very successful (however that’s measured) or stay for very long, right? Having an effective onboarding process is key to enabling new employees to succeed. Further, each time a new process is introduced, onboarding would again be needed to get everyone to adopt it.

The same is true for user interfaces, particularly when the interface is something intended to be used repeatedly. In this article, we’ll focus on mobile-app onboarding.

We define onboarding as the process of getting users familiar with a new interface, using dedicated flows and UI elements that are not part of the regular app interface. This includes not only teaching users how to interact with the interface (a common misconception), but also completing any necessary setup. Additionally, onboarding is not limited to first-time users — existing users may also be onboarded when new features or redesigns are released. Thus, onboarding can occur at multiple points in a user’s lifecycle of an app, not just the first launch.

Skip Onboarding Whenever Possible

Generally speaking, onboarding is problematic for a few reasons:

  • Higher interaction cost. Onboarding flows require user attention and effort. Even if users decide to skip your onboarding, they still have to click or tap to do so, thus increasing the interaction cost of completing a task in your application.
  • Memory strain. Oftentimes onboarding is used to help users remember certain things about the interface (like what an icon means or how to do something), but human memory is limited. Instead of taxing user’s memory by asking them to remember several things about your app, build on existing mental models, and spend time making the app easier to use.
  • May not improve user performance. We know some of the drawbacks of onboarding, but the benefits are sometimes less clear. However, our research on deck-of-cards tutorials, a method of instructional onboarding, showed that tutorials didn’t improve task performance

Consequently,  we recommend professionals avoid creating app onboarding whenever possible and instead spend your resources making the UI more usable.

When Does a Mobile App Need Onboarding?

Users always need (often minimal) time to learn a new app, but that doesn’t mean that all apps require separate onboarding flows or lengthy explanations. For most mobile apps, users should be able to learn the interface by using it and thus instructional onboarding flows are not necessary. Even for fairly complex mobile apps, it’s often more effective to train users by showing them tips in context instead of presenting them with a tutorial that explains the app’s UI — people are simply unlikely to (even try to) remember a lot of information, especially if they are not sure whether they will actually have to use it. Also, while errors are a negative element of user experience, error messages can teach users a bit more about the app in a “teachable moment” where people have a small degree of motivation to read a few words about how to fix the problem.

There are only a few situations when onboarding screens can be useful in a mobile app:

  • You need user information to get started. For instance, a banking app may need users to create an account and confirm their identity before they use the app.
  • The application functionality is highly tailored to the user’s context and preferences. For example, a dieting app will benefit from knowing the user’s current weight.
  • Important app features or workflows are fairly unique to the app, and perhaps differ from standard UI patterns or are new and unfamiliar. For example, when mobile check deposit was first introduced as an alternative to in-person ATM deposits, that novel feature was worth a formal introduction.

If you’re still unsure whether your app needs onboarding, test the app with no onboarding before investing money into adding extra screens. Do your users show difficulty using the app (or a new feature) for the first time? If yes, consider first whether you may be able to make some changes to the app design to make it more learnable. If that’s not possible, prototype an onboarding flow and test it. Does it solve your problems? Are people more successful at using the app? Only if the answer is yes, it is worth adding dedicated onboarding to your UI.

What’s Out There: Onboarding Components

There are three frequently encountered components in mobile onboarding flows: feature promotion, customization, and instructions. An onboarding flow may contain one or more of these components.

There are three common components found in onboarding flows: feature promotion, customization, and instructions.
There are three common components found in onboarding flows: feature promotion, customization, and instructions. An onboarding flow can contain one or more of these components.
There are three common components found in onboarding flows: feature promotion, customization, and instructions.
There are three common components found in onboarding flows: feature promotion, customization, and instructions. An onboarding flow can contain one or more of these components.

In what follows, we look at each of these components in mobile apps and we discuss whether they are warranted.

Feature Promotion

Feature-based onboarding educates users about what the app can do, and, as such, tends to be perceived as marketing.

Productive, a habit-tracker app, provided promotional onboarding that illustrated some of the things the app could do, like set reminders and view statistics.

Avoid feature-promotion onboarding at first launch. Users rarely download an app for no reason; therefore, lengthy promotional onboarding will likely be skipped. The one exception to this rule is when a feature is truly new or advanced, such as the mobile-deposit example mentioned earlier. (Keep in mind though: that technology is no longer new, so today’s apps should not promote it at first launch! How quickly a feature progresses from novelty to well-known will vary, depending on how frequently it’s used and the memorability of its steps.)

Instead of front-loading users with this information, present these types of promotional screens on the app store page, as that is where users will explore new apps and compare features.

The Productive app also offered promotional content on its Apple app-store page under the Preview section. Including this content both on the app store and within the app is overkill.

In addition to highlighting features on the app store, another solution is to highlight features while the user is in the app, through contextual help. For example, in the Productive app, it’s likely that users will want to see habit statistics only after there’s enough data. Instead of advertising this functionality before users have the means to do anything with it, highlight it when it’s actionable for them. For instance, after a user has logged 7 days’ worth of data around a habit, the app might provide a visual cue (like highlighting the statistics section of the app) and a short bit about what users can do with this data.

Though this type of onboarding is less valid and helpful to a user at the app’s first launch, feature onboarding can be helpful to existing users when new features are released. For example, Chase used a deck-of-cards onboarding flow to introduce its new budgeting feature.

The Chase banking app prompted existing users with a deck-of-cards feature onboarding flow to highlight new app functionalities (like a credit card spending summary). The flow was short and even allowed users to skip it altogether.

Limit the usage of feature onboarding to what is truly new to users, not what’s been in your app for a while and has low utilization. Consistently highlighting existing features that your users may already be familiar with but aren’t relevant or needed by them can annoy people and make them ignore all such onboarding elements, even those for legitimately new features.


Many applications request user data so they can customize that user’s experience. For example, users might customize the content or visual design of an app. However, not all customization should be done during onboarding.

In particular, visual-design customization, such as selecting a color scheme, doesn’t belong in onboarding. It’s hard for people to know how they will prefer the app to look before actually using it or why a certain visual design may be better than other. (Also, in general, a lot of research shows that people usually stick with defaults. Instead of making them choose and increasing the cognitive load, do your homework, run a study, and figure out which design is best.)

The Reflectly app included visual-design customization in its onboarding. The app forced users to pick a color scheme before they knew how the UI would look.

This is not to say you shouldn’t offer the functionality to customize a visual design, but you can save it for later. It does not deserve priority in your onboarding. allowed for visual-design customization via app settings and did not prompt users to select a theme on first launch.

Content customization can create a relevant experience and is more likely to be appropriate for initial app onboarding. There are dozens of examples of content customization in apps. For example, for a language-learning app, picking a language and identifying how proficient you are in that language will be essential in order for the app to be useful.

Fitplan greeted new users with a brief survey in order to tailor the app experience with recommended workouts. The app also provided a brief explanation of what information it needed and why. Additionally, though this survey was automatically presented, an option to Skip it was available, along with a progress indicator.

When prompting users to customize their experience, keep it brief. Explain why you want that data and how it will be used (as in the Fitplan example above). Consider whether you truly need this information for a user to get started and be successful in the app. If you can’t explain why gathering that data is beneficial at launch, this information should be gathered later, once the user can better understand why it’s necessary.


The goal of instructional onboarding is to teach users how to use an interface. Instructional onboarding should not be used to supplement poor design. Resources are better spent for making a UI more usable than for creating instructional content. That said, there are cases where instructions are warranted (for example, the features or workflows are unique to the app, different from standard UI patterns, or legitimately new and unfamiliar to users) or expected (mobile gaming).

Instructional onboarding comes in many forms: deck-of-cards tutorials, contextual help, interactive walkthroughs, and so on. No matter the form, instructional onboarding should be brief, optional, and should only highlight the minimum that users need to know to use the app. The following are examples of instructional-onboarding styles in mobile applications.

Decks of Cards

Deck-of-cards tutorials usually are presented immediately when the app is launched and provide instructions for how to use its interface in a deck-of-card format (similar to a carousel). This type of onboarding, particularly in relatively simple mobile apps, tends to make the interface appear more complicated than it actually is, and strains user’s memory. Therefore, we don’t recommend deck-of-cards onboarding. That said, if you still choose to implement them, be kind to your users and ensure there’s a highly visible Skip option, minimize the number of cards to only focus on need-to-know information, and focus on one concept per card.

What the Forecast?!! used a deck-of-cards tutorial to provide instructional onboarding and inform users where certain controls could be located in the app. Explanations of standard icons are useless and simply waste users’ time.

Instructional Overlays

Instructional overlays and coach marks are another type of instructional onboarding, used to show users where some core functionalities are located within the UI and what those elements do. When implementing instructional overlays, ensure the content is timely (like at a user’s first encounter with a feature) and unobtrusive. This type of onboarding pairs well when it accompanies a user trying to complete a task for the first time, and as such, provides extra nuggets of information as the user progresses. For this reason, instructional overlays are often nice-to-have and not need-to-have elements.

The NOAA Weather app overloaded users by highlighting every possible interaction on one screen. This implementation was highly obtrusive and unnecessary for standard UI elements (like the Share and Settings icons).
Checklist used instructional overlays to show users some core functionalities, like how to categorize and tag a packing list. However, the instructional copy is used to explain unfamiliar verbiage (left: in this case, a ‘category’ when discussing a packing list) and an unlabeled icon (right: the large orange tag). In this case, a less obtrusive solution for instructional content would be a popup tip so that, if a user needed clarity, it would be a tap away. (Even better: improve the UI instead of providing clarity on a bad one).

Interactive Walkthroughs

If your app is more complex than some of the previous examples, and you believe instructions are warranted because the design is new or unfamiliar, consider an interactive walkthrough. Interactive walkthroughs enable users to learn by doing (ideally in a low-stakes environment). When done successfully, (i.e., brief and only highlighting what’s new or unfamiliar, as mentioned above) interactive walkthroughs feel more like a practice round and less like a tutorial.

Fabulous, a goal-tracking app, used interactive walkthroughs to get users familiar with relatively easy and familiar workflows. This implementation was unnecessary.
Temple Run 2 provided an interactive walkthrough where users were given timely on-screen instructions while playing a simple level of the game. For example, before an obstacle approached, instructions on how to avoid the obstacle were presented. This walkthrough taught users the game controls and gave them an opportunity to practice multiple times in context.  
MindNode, a mind mapping and brainstorming app, used an interactive walkthrough to get users onboarded to a less familiar workflow. In the tutorial, users created a very simple mind mapping artifact, and thus became familiar with the controls and terminology in an interactive, practice environment. An option to skip the tutorial was also present.

Most mobile apps don’t need instructional onboarding. If you do include it in your app, save it for what’s novel (i.e. the elements and interactions that make your app different from similar apps) and make it short.


Keep onboarding as simple as possible. For most mobile apps, this means putting users directly into the interface. On the other hand, complex apps with unique interaction patterns or those that want user information to tailor the experience may benefit from onboarding flows. With onboarding, focus on what users need to be successful in your app, highlight what’s new or unfamiliar, and keep instructional content brief and unobtrusive.