App Onboarding Best Practices: Lessons from Slack, Stripe and Spotify

When was the last time that you were wowed as your were purchasing something?

This can include how you were greeted, the service you received and the actual exchange of money. If I had to guess, this doesn’t happen often to you (or most people).

And while we are talking about real life purchases here, the same principles transfer over to digital products. I want to show you how to take app onboarding best practices and adopt them in your own products and services.

Before we get into that though, let me tell you about a recent experience I had where I was wowed.

For most of my adult life, I have been getting my haircut at a “Supercut”. Those are the hair salons inside malls. They are cheap, fast and efficient which is something that most guys care about. In and out in 20 minutes is the goal here.

Supercuts vs High End Services

However, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t love the haircut I got from them. They were ok and I knew I could do better. So I decided to book an appointment at a more upscale barber shop near my house. This haircut was going to be triple what I usually paid for Supercuts.

Honestly, I was worried that I was just wasting my money and time.

All of these doubts disappear the moment I walked in. I was greeted warmly by the receptionist who was actually expecting me! She took my coat and offered me coffee or a beer. I thought it was a bit early for a beer so I took the coffee. Supercuts never offered me any free coffee and they didn’t even know my name!

I waited for a few minutes while drinking my coffee and then it was my turn to get my haircut. The stylist spent a few minutes understanding what I wanted to do and even recommended a few ideas that would look good on me.

Fifty-five minutes later, the hairstylist was done. It was one of the best haircuts I had ever received. Not only that but I loved the experience! It felt amazing to get such special treatment instead of just feeling like another transaction.

Was it worth the money? Absolutely.

Did I recommend this shop to my friends? Yes and happily.

Do I think this company intentionally planned every step of this experience? 100% yes.

We all know that first impressions matter and yet, we don’t spend nearly enough time optimizing the first impression that our customers get.

It doesn’t matter if you sell web and mobile products or if you have a physical product like a barber shop. All customers have to go through a first time onboarding experience. This is their first impression and it can determine if a customer stays with you or moves on to a competitor.

In this article, I’ll focus primarily on the world of web and mobile apps and how to design a great onboarding user flow.

Use the links below to jump around to the parts that are relevant to you.

What’s the Goal Behind Your Onboarding?

Exercise 1: Reverse Engineering from a Successful User Flow

Exercise 2: Client 1 Philosophy

Exercise 3: Handcrafting 11-Star Experiences

Collecting and Measuring the Performance of Your Onbording

Real Life Case Study: Spotify Mobile App

Real Life Case Study: Waking Up Mobile App

Real Life Case Study: Slack Web App

Real Life Case Study: Stripe Web App

What’s the Goal Behind Your Onboarding?

Before we start mocking up pages, writing copy or writing code, we need to get clear on what we want out users to do. “Start with the end in mind” sounds like a Chinese proverb but there is truth to this statement.

Onboarding flows are meant to help the user understand why they should care about your product and start getting value out of it as soon as possible.

We are not trying to teach them everything they have to know (since that would be overwhelming) and we have limited time with the user. This might be a few minutes or a couple of hours but there is a limit.

At a high level, you’re trying to take users from one stage to the next in the customer journey. Users might be coming in with some idea of what they want out of your product and you’re trying to move them along one step closer to becoming an engaged user or paying customer.

To help you do this, you could use any of the 3 exercises listed below. I personally love the “Handcrafting 11-Star Experiences” from Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky but feel free to explore the other ones as well.

Exercise 1: Reverse Engineering from a Successful User Flow

Our first exercise will start by taking an existing successful customer (the criteria is determined by you) and reverse engineering what they did to get there.

This customer can become the model on which everything is based upon including getting more users like them. Your copy, your marketing, and your onboarding user flow can be tailored for this kind of customer. You’ll even be able to learn what factors drive your user retention.

Start by getting basic demographic data.

  • Who are they?
  • Gender? Age? Interests?
  • If they are a company, how many employees do they have? Revenue? Key roles?
  • How did they learn about your product?
  • Why are they using your product?

You then want to understand their first few days or weeks with your product. In most cases, you should be able to look at your product database or other sources of data to see what this customer first did after signing up for your product.

  • Did they fill out their profile right away?
  • Did they invite friends or coworkers into the product?
  • What else did they do within the first 7, 14, 30 days?

Finally, you can look at the questions that they asked or struggled. In a lot of cases, your customer support team will have a pretty good idea of the most common questions that come up for new customers. These are the kinds of questions that you want to address during the onboarding experience.

You can then repeat this process for your second best customer, your third best customer and so on. Within time, your onboarding user flow should resonate very strongly with a certain customer segment. This can also lead to a high customer loyalty which you can measure through metrics like NPS.

Exercise 2: Client 1 Philosophy

In our second exercise, you can use a concept that I like to call the “Client 1” philosophy.

Think back to when you first started your business. Do you remember your first client or paying user that wasn’t your Mom? Did you go above and beyond for this client/user.

Chances are that you did. The service that we provide our very first user is usually very different from the service we provide our 100th user. This is normal to an extent. A lot of the things we did for client 1 may not scale.

However, you can definitely look into bringing some of the actions that you applied for client 1.

Let’s imagine that you spent a lot of time on emails and phone calls with client 1. You were constantly answering their questions, guiding them along in the product, checking in with them and ensuring that they were getting a lot of value out of your product or service.

Focus on what is happening during those human interactions.

  • What questions are you answering?
  • What roadblocks do you think they are facing?
  • When you check in with them, what are you asking them?
  • How did you guide them during the first few days?

You can then take the answers to these questions and automate them. You might build them into your onboarding user flow as an actual step or you might leverage notifications like email or SMS to nudge and guide your users in the same way you would do it in person.

The goal here is to try and bring the same level of attention and care that you had for client 1 to client 100 and beyond.

Related: If you’re in charge of marketing or product at your company, be sure to check out the 6 Reports That You Should Be Running to increase the growth of your product and company.

Exercise 3: Handcrafting 11-Star Experiences

Our third exercise comes from Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb. He shared this idea in a podcast called “Masters of Scale which is hosted by Reid Hoffman. You should check out the whole episode but I’ll give you a summary of the exercise that Brian talks about.

The “Handcrafting 11-star” exercise is one that Airbnb started using during their early days and they still use today especially around their new product appropriately called “Experiences).

Start by taking one aspect of your product or service. For this example, we’ll focus on the onboarding experience for a new user or customer.

Then, brainstorm what different star experiences would like. For example, we would ask “what would a 1-star experience look like here? Brian from Airbnb tell us what he considers 1-star, 2-star and 3-star experiences:

“So a one, two, or three-star experience is you get to your Airbnb and no one is there. You knock on the door. They don’t open. That’s a one star. Maybe it’s a three star if they don’t open, you have to wait 20 minutes. If they never show up and you’re pissed and you need to get your money back, that’s a one-star experience. You’re never using us again.”

You then want to continue going up on the star scale. Let’s imagine that we are now asking what a 6-star experience would look like. Let’s go back to Brian and see what he considers a 6-star experience:

“So we thought, “What would a six-star experience be?” A six-star experience: You knock on the door, the host opens. “Hey, I’m Reid. Welcome to my house.” You’re the host in this case. You would show them around. On the table would be a welcome gift. It would be a bottle of wine, maybe some candy. You’d open the fridge. There’s water. You go to the bathroom, there are toiletries. The whole thing is great. That’s a six-star experience.”

Finally, we keep going up. As you get higher and higher, the experience has to be more incredible, more memorable. At the end of the day, you’re trying to brainstorm what a 10-star or 11-star experience looks like for your product.

What would a 10-star and 11-star experience look like for Airbnb? Let’s go back to Brian one last time:

“A ten-star check-in would be The Beatles check-in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d  be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindfuck experience. So what would 11-star experience be? I would show up at the airport and you’d be there with Elon Musk and you’re saying, “You’re going to space.””

Your 10-star or 11-star experience will likely be crazy. It will be an amazing experience for 1 person but you’ll struggle to scale it to thousands of paying users. That’s normal.

Instead, focus on the elements that came up during the 6-star, 7-star and beyond. Perhaps you can implement emails that replicate some of the same ideas. Maybe you can hire people to do certain things like planning or preparing customized welcome gift packages.

The point of this exercise (and the other 2) is to get you brainstorming of how you can design an amazing onboarding experience (or user flow). Like everything else, this is an iterative process. You might find yourself doing a lot of manual things in the beginning and slowly automating as you grow.

Collecting and Measuring the Performance of Your Onboarding

Onboarding experiences are typically designed and improved in a continuous fashion. Your first design attempt can be ok but you can significantly improve it once you have data.

There’s quite a bit we could talk about here when it comes analytics but the fundamental report that you need is a funnel report. This report looks like this:

Mixpanel Funnels

Tools like Mixpanel, Amplitude, Heap Analytics and many others can generate this report in real time.

You’ll set up all the main steps of your onboarding and then see the overall conversion rate plus drop offs in between steps. You should then be able to slice through this report to find any segments that convert better than the average e.g. users who authenticate via Facebook vs Google.

Real Life Case Study: Spotify Mobile App

Spotify is one of my favorite apps and one which I used almost every day. In the following video, I’ll show the onboarding process after you create an account.

The first onboarding steps for Spotify are pretty typical where you provide an email address, select a password and accept the terms and conditions.

Since Spotify wants users to listen to music they love as quickly as possible, they start by asking you about your favorite artists. I love the effect of similar artists appearing once you make a selection.

Selecting Artists in Spotify

After selecting your favorite artists, Spotify will create mixes or playlists for you. This means that you don’t have to go find a song that you like. Instead, just open one of the mixes and start listening to music.

Automatic Playlists in Spotify

We can see how hard Spotify works to get users into that first aha moment: listening to a song they love for free.

Real Life Case Study: Waking Up Mobile App

Waking Up is a mobile app for mediating by Sam Harriss. I also use this app almost every day and I wanted to analyze it because how simple the onboarding is.

The app itself isn’t complex. You have audio recordings of guided meditations based on the teachings of Sam Harriss.

I love that this app doesn’t ask for you for a password. Instead, it uses your email as authentication and sends you a 4 digit code.

Simple Authentication

The app also does a great job at giving you a preview of free content and what you could be accessing with a paid subscription. This lets you start using the app right away but give you a reason to upgrade.

Free vs Paid Content

Finally, before we sign up or login, we see the common preview screens upon app launch. These screens are an ok solution to show the value proposition of the app. However, I like the screen which contains an audio message from Sam himself on what the app is.

Preview Screens and Audio

Waking Up does a great job making it easy for the user to start meditating while working hard to convince them as to why they should upgrade to a paid subscription.

Real Life Case Study: Slack Web App

Slack is one of the most popular B2B products and they are known for designing a product that is easy to use. In the following video, we’ll look at the onboarding flow for new users and what you can learn for your own product.

You start the sign up process by just providing an email address. I really like the simple explanations of Slack concepts like workspaces and channels.

Slack Workspaces During Onboarding

Slack also requires you to invite users to get the most out of this product. In the invite screen, you get multiple options for doing this including emails, a custom link or even skipping this step altogether.

Slack Invite Users

This is a minor detail but notice how the preview image on the right has the name of your workspace and the channel you just created.

Slack Workspace Preview

Slack also has the Slackbot which further guides you on how to send messages and gives timely suggestions.

Slack Bots and Guided Interactions

Related: If you’re in charge of marketing or product at your company, be sure to check out the 6 Reports That You Should Be Running to increase the growth of your product and company.

Real Life Case Study: Stripe Web App

Stripe is a payment processor that became popular because of how easy it is to get started and start processing transactions. In the following video, we will look at the current onboarding for brand new users.

As Stripe has evolved, it now has 2 distinct kinds of users. Developers who will work with the API and users who will use existing apps like Shopify, Squarespace or other plugins.

Stripe Onboarding Choices

For the developer flow, we have a clear list of next steps that we need to complete. API keys are easily accessible here and we get direct links to the relevant documentation. Simple but it’s something that is usually missing from most products.

Stripe Next Steps for Developers

On the app path, we have a similar list of next steps. Note that once we have a selection (Squarespace in this case), the copy around the onboarding switches to this selection.

Stripe Next Steps for Apps


Now I want to hear from you! What are the best (or most memorable) onboarding experiences that you have seen as a customer or user? They could be from any kind of business: web and mobile apps, services businesses, restaurants, etc.

Let me know in the comments below.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

All companies are sitting on a goldmine of data that they haven't fully explored. It's not about technology or capturing more data. The key is to learn how to make the most of your current data and convert it into actionable insights. This is the main idea behind my first book, The Data Miage: Why Companies Fail to Actually Use Their Data

I'm excited to announce the release of the book through all major retailers. If you're interested, you can download the first chapter for free using the form below. You'll learn what the best data-driven companies do differently and how to make sure you're playing the right data game.