What Can We Learn From In-App Chat to Improve Onboarding UX?


Apps stand a much better chance to convert users during onboarding when deploying an experience that offers more than it asks of users.

Americans send and receive an average of 94 text messages per day.

If we’re awake for 16 hours each day, that comes to 5.8 texts an hour, or just less than one every ten waking minutes. And though these text messages stats don’t include in-app chat — communication among people on third-party apps, such as Airbnb or dating sites — perhaps they should, as the practice only continues to grow, helping level the playing field among users accessing platforms from a variety of entry points, platforms, and operating systems.

Regardless, direct messaging, what’s proven to mostly be an age-agnostic practice, remains one of the primary reasons we spend upwards of four hours per day on our mobile devices.

So, given this intuitive, ubiquitous presence in our lives, it appears something of a missed opportunity by companies and apps to eschew direct chat messaging UI/UX when onboarding new users, a time to perhaps gamify and capture user attention at one of the most critical and delicate steps in the user journey. Rather than present potential users with cold, emotionless form fields akin to a loan application, why not deploy chat messaging and speak with users instead of loading them up with laborious tasks that suck the joy out of the process?

Because even though onboarding is the line to get on the roller coaster, the taxing on the runway, it doesn’t have to cause similar stress, and it has the opportunity to present the user or customer with actual value in the process. Pendo, a product-led SaaS company that counts LabCorp and ReMax among its customers, recently wrote that automated, educational onboarding is “quickly becoming an industry best practice” that “can be customized, and [help] accelerate time to value for the customer.” Indeed, transferring value to the time spent onboarding is the trick, and chat messaging helps make it happen.

During onboarding, the majority of apps need (or want) to capture some variation of the following from users:

  • Name/username
  • Email or phone number
  • Profile photo/avatar
  • Location
  • Interests

There is little reason these inputs can’t occur over in-app chat — confirmation codes sent via SMS, an increasingly common practice, already establish a form of DM chat on their own — while simultaneously providing value and a chance to educate users with information that matters in the moment.

Use Case: Libby

Consider the app Libby, a place to borrow and read books from local libraries. The app deploys chat messaging during its on-boarding, and the experience is a pleasant, informative one. Why did Libby choose this route? It appears the company discovered that to get people using and enjoying an app means to showcase value and do the heavy lifting themselves rather than hope users will figure it out on their own. In lieu of requiring users enter their information via form fields, the app converses in real-time and provides information while at the same time gathering data about the user to make informed recommendations.

In other words: the app’s on-boarding provides value to both parties through one interaction. Below are Libby’s first two onboarding screens.

Libby's introduces users to its service via chat, offering a friendly and easy-to-use way to learn more about the app

Notice that the app doesn’t ask that the user enter in information — the CTA is simply a “yes” or “no” question that helps drive the next step. Here, after selecting “Not Yet,” we’re given the screen on the right. A simple CTA leads us next to finding libraries in the area.

Libby's onboarding process includes providing users information they can use in the moment

Upon selecting “Find Libraries Nearby,” the power stays with the user, as the app asks if it can use location sharing to find local libraries while providing the option to search on one’s own. Immediately, users are shown the familiar UI of location sharing, a transparent menu indicating which data are being collected, and when. Note that not once since beginning this onboarding process have users needed to manually enter in anything. While the app would surely like to know their name and email address, that information can be collected later and is not pertinent to the current process.

It is an experience worth examining. Onboarding UX for apps and various platforms is among the most poured-over topics in the industry. This is because no one has truly cracked the code, no pattern has been solidified as the industry standard — there is no Right Way, there’s just a bunch of different ones that, sometimes, are fine, but too often are cumbersome and designed to fit one’s brand. Is chat the perfect solution? Time will tell, but its ethos is one of inclusion that provides immediate feedback, an experience that certainly tracks better than most. Because the best onboarding UX establishes value through some form of immediate action and using chat messaging for onboarding gives new users the chance to discover intrinsic value through a familiar, flexible experience that naturally and elegantly enables a response. We’ve mentioned it above but it’s worth repeating: Asking new users to provide information through chat messaging is superior to presenting several blank inputs before gaining access to an app. Using this messaging for app onboarding gives products the flexibility to educate and set up each new user.

After all, great onboarding isn't about getting users "up and running"; it is about converting and engaging with them so they can rapidly become frequent users and enthusiastic about the product. Onboarding with chat messaging can be the golden ticket to make users comfortable and more productive with your app. And that is what Libby does in its process.

Here are the final two onboarding steps:

Libby's onboarding process put the onus not on users, but on themselves, to provide value

Upon selecting what users see as their local library, they’re prompted, once again, not to manually enter in any information but to simply confirm details. The library is then chosen as their “home” library, and users are free to browse titles, authors, and much more. Now, in about 10 seconds, users have:

  • Discovered the app’s value (library details: locations, hours, authors and titles)
  • Provided enough information so the app can begun working as needed

And as users continue using the app, they are able to explore more of its features and discover tips and information that will further the experience.

The experience here is not perfect. Libby’s app needs some UI upgrades and the chat could be sharper and cleaner overall. But the lessons drawn remain: good onboarding means gathering only the information needed to (immediately) provide users with the app’s value, and at the same time, leverage a familiar UX pattern users not only know how to use but want to use. Business and security concerns can’t be ignored, either, but what users tend to care most about is transparency and honesty — as we see upfront with Libby, location sharing and data gathering is a transaction that both solidifies permission while at the same time providing value, in the moment, to the user.


There is no end-all for user onboarding. Maybe that is a good thing — enough apps and services are all blending together as it is, at times becoming indecipherable and causing soulless uniformity that confuses users and, in some cases, infuriates them. But here, with in-app chat, there is a spirit that can be adopted to help inform decision-making thinking when thinking through use cases.

So, once more, when designing an onboarding use-case, consider the following:

  • Speak with users
  • Provide immediate feedback
  • Do the heavy lifting yourself
  • Ask for only pertinent information — gather more later, when it matters to both user and platform

Maybe someday we’ll pick up our devices, download apps, and without any further interaction, the machine will gather our brain’s every thought, instantly creating for us a new user profile. Immediately, we’ll have the app’s value catapulted back into our brains. Yes, maybe someday. But until then, consider building communication systems and connecting with people in a natural, human-centered way that demonstrates meaning and value, one that shows us there is someone on the other end of the line who cares about what we’re going through and what we need. That is, perhaps, something we can all get onboard with.