What Is Onboarding Gamification? 10 Strategies For Improved User Engagement

Gaurav Rawat
April 15, 2024
14 mins


Onboarding flow is a critical part of the user journey – and getting it wrong costs you app retention metrics. It puts your user acquisition efforts completely down the drain, a metric that is often more costly than retaining them.

In our Gamification in UX guide, we discussed how the concept is useful in improving user engagement and retention.

What if you implemented a gamification strategy for the onboarding process too?

It will help make your user onboarding experience memorable and engaging – which means more chances of your new users getting hooked to your product. Here, we provide a detailed guide on how to design and implement onboarding gamification via 10 effective strategies, with practical examples.

What is Onboarding Gamification?

Onboarding gamification involves integrating game design elements into various steps, UX flow, and UI of your onboarding process. Here, you leverage principles from psychology, behavioral economics, and game design to motivate users to actively participate in the onboarding process – and not drop off.

Typical game elements include rewards, leaderboards, progress tracking, social signals (like their friends being on your app), and more.

For example, Duolingo is a language-learning app that has mastered the art of gamified onboarding. It entices its users to embark on a journey of linguistic discovery through a series of interactive lessons, leveling up, and streak rewards.

duolingo's gamified onboarding

Why use gamification for user onboarding?

Today’s users have a low attention span and patience – hence, getting onboarding wrong with multiple steps, forms, glitchy user interfaces, or confusing copy directly means the user will drop off. One has to captivate and retain users from the moment they first interact with your product.

Image Source: Business of Apps

As you can see, in the first month, the churn rate is quite high. It is during this period when the onboarding flow must push the user further into the designed customer journey. A failure to do so simply means that they will churn – and you’ll have to further invest in bringing them back into your app, thus increasing the acquisition cost.

Traditional onboarding processes often rely on tutorials, or lengthy videos to guide users through the application's features and functionalities. However, these methods can sometimes be monotonous or disengaging. Poorly executed mobile tooltips or walkthroughs mean your users feel frustrated and abandon your app.

On the contrary, gamified onboarding introduces elements of excitement, competition, and achievement. It makes the learning process more enjoyable and memorable – thus, improving the chances of the user reaching the activation stage.

5 key benefits of gamified user onboarding

Gamified user onboarding does more than create an engaging experience for your business:

1. Better onboarding completion rates

user adoption journey

Image Source: ProductLed

Gamified elements help transform routine tasks into engaging challenges and activities. Due to this, new users feel more invested in exploring your product and interacting with its features. The onboarding journey no longer feels like a ‘task’ – and users tend to complete it intuitively. Thus, using gamification, you successfully push users deeper into the user adoption journey.

Overall, having multiple touchpoints for onboarding and feature activation helps improve user engagement and retention metrics.

2. Collect behavioral data for user onboarding optimization

By knowing completion rates, time spent, clicks, sections where the users drop off, and many more metrics, you pave the way for iterative optimization and refinement of the onboarding experience.

3. Differentiates your brand from the competition

A gamified onboarding experience gives your brand a chance to infuse its brand voice, personality, and tone to make it unique. This also makes it difficult for another brand to copy your onboarding flow – thus also making it your business’s moat.

4. Reduces onboarding friction

It is common for users from industries like Finance or HealthTech to feel overwhelmed with their apps as they are quite technical and filled with jargon. Gamification alleviates this friction by breaking down complex tasks into smaller, intuitive, manageable steps. By making things simple, it minimizes barriers to entry and makes the transition into using your product smoother and more enjoyable.

5. Helps seamlessly integrate social and referral elements without being pushy

When users have a positive onboarding experience, they are more likely to become advocates for your product. This sense of accomplishment and belonging motivates users to share their experiences with others. Post onboarding, you can provide an exclusive coupon as a reward or integrate a referral system to motivate them to share about your app with their network.

How does user onboarding gamification work?

One of the primary reasons that make gamification effective in improving onboarding completion rates is the ‘Zeigranik effect’. Developed by Russian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik in the 1920s, it gives us a reasoning of how we intuitively remember incomplete or interrupted tasks more than completed ones – and hence, tend to finish them. It means, our brains tend to fixate on incomplete tasks, creating a sense of tension that motivates us to take action to resolve them.

Game elements leverage this same principle to motivate you to complete tasks that would otherwise be undesirable.

For example, it's common for us to worry about incomplete tasks – but the moment they are done, we do not think much about it.

Let’s understand this with how the game element of ‘streaks’ works.

streaks in an exercising app

Image Source: AlternativeTo

A streak refers to a series of completed actions within a specified timeframe. For example, in a fitness app, a user might have a streak of seven days of daily workouts if they have exercised every day for the past week without missing a session.

Streaks typically involve setting a daily or consecutive target for users to accomplish a specific action or task within the application. In this case, it could be setting up a goal to do 7-day continuous workouts. Then, as the user continues to show up every day, they will experience a sense of accomplishment and progress, which reinforces their motivation to continue the streak.

Now, when one sees such progress, one would want to maintain this momentum. This is where the Zeigarnik effect comes into play — as the users become psychologically invested in maintaining their streak. The fear of breaking the streak and losing their progress creates a sense of tension. This drives users to return to the application and complete the task every day to preserve the streak till they achieve it.

Thus, gamification helps enable habit formation among your users — and implementing this during the onboarding process helps set the stage for the rest of the user journey.

nudge streaks

Want to implement streaks for your app’s user onboarding flow to get the Zeigranik effect?

Nudge’s no-code user experience tools can help you design, deploy, and iterate streaks to improve engagement – Streaks by Nudge

When to implement gamification in user onboarding?

If your company is opting for gamification should be a well-rounded decision that you must stick to during the design and development phase of your app. Here are some key considerations to decide if onboarding gamification is the right strategy for your app:

  1. Target specific user segments 

Gamification is particularly effective for onboarding specific user segments, such as beginners, casual users, or those with limited technical expertise. You can tailor the onboarding experience to meet their unique needs, preferences, and skill levels. This ensures that all users feel supported and empowered to get the most out of your product from the start.

For example, let’s say your user base consists of diverse demographics. You can implement gamified narratives or themes that appeal to specific cultural interests. Or, you can incorporate localized content and language options that can make the onboarding process more relatable and engaging for those diverse user groups. Doing so improves the chances of your brand becoming relatable and projects empathy.

  1. Complex products or features

Evaluate the complexity of your product or application. If your product features multiple functionalities, intricate workflows, or requires users to learn new skills, gamification can help simplify the onboarding process. It will make it more approachable and memorable.

Gamification helps break down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. With interactive tutorials or guided tours, gamified onboarding can help users learn and navigate your product more effectively.

  1. User feedback and pain points

When you collect user feedback, if you have too many comments sharing complaints about the confusing or frustrating onboarding process – then, you may consider gamification to make it engaging. Identify what their pain points are:

  • Are your users struggling to understand how to navigate the application?
  • Are the users feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information presented during the onboarding process?
  • Is your onboarding process too lengthy?
  • Do your users find it difficult to grasp key concepts or features of the product?
  • Do they understand your product’s value proposition?

Answering these questions will help you get started in knowing which game elements you must add to your onboarding flow.

Remember: Game elements should highlight your app’s value proposition

Your onboarding flow must not get too deep into the ‘game’ built by you. Your app needs to be ‘gamified’ and not turned into a ‘game’ itself. Thus, ensure that your app’s brand voice or design doesn’t get lost in the efforts of adding game elements to its user flows.

Also, it’s important to note that it is not a magical solution to your user engagement or retention woes. This means, your product inherently needs to provide ‘value’ to the user. 

Here’s how Nir Eyal puts it:

“If the user has no ongoing itch at all — say, no need to return repeatedly to a site that lacks any value beyond the initial visit — gamification will fail because of a lack of inherent interest in the product or service.”

— Nir Eyal, Author of ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Hence, when you design your onboarding gamification process, make sure each step, game elements, and copy reflect your product’s value proposition.

How to gamify user onboarding flow? – 10 key gamification strategies to implement

Now, let us understand five key strategies that will help you get started and implement gamification for the user onboarding process:

  1. Design onboarding flow with hero’s journey storytelling techniques

The hero’s journey is a storytelling framework designed such that it makes the user the protagonist of their onboarding journey with your product. It's a narrative framework popularized by mythologist and author Joseph Campbell – and you can create a compelling and immersive onboarding experience that resonates with users on an emotional level.

The journey is divided into three stages – 

  • Separation: the hero sets out seeking adventure, reluctantly entering the unknown.
  • Initiation: the journey unfolds, leading the hero to their destination, where they obtain their goal.
  • Return: the hero brings back newfound knowledge or treasures.

Using these elements from the Hero's Journey framework, you can design a narrative for your onboarding journey using the rest of the game elements described in further points.

For example, Fitbit’s complete onboarding journey and in-app experience are designed to make you the protagonist of your fitness ambitions. Using badges, challenges, social sharing, and goal-setting game elements, it designs an engaging and addictive journey to help you reach the ‘return’ of your fitness story.

fitbit's onboarding journey

Image Source: PageFlows

  1. Personalize onboarding process

Personalization involves tailoring the onboarding experience to meet the individual product use case, goals, preferences, or demographics of each user. For this, first, invest in understanding your users and form 3-10 user personas for which you can design unique onboarding flows.

In each flow, you can personalize the onboarding content, messaging, and pathways based on user persona attributes. Present users with relevant information, features, and resources that align with their interests, skill levels, and goals. This will enable users to complete the onboarding as they find the whole experience relevant to their goals of signing up for your app.

For example, ClickUp is a project management software that uses personalization to curate the onboarding process. It will ask you about your use case of signing up for the platform – and will automatically load the respective template. The onboarding checklist also gets adapted according to the chosen use case. It also helps users simplify any data migration by asking to connect with other competing project management tools within the onboarding process itself for easy transition.

clickup onboarding
  1. Use progress bars for incremental onboarding

Progress-based game design elements like checklists, progress bars, or visual timelines give your users a sense of direction as they perform onboarding steps. It provides users with a roadmap of the onboarding journey, outlining the steps they need to complete to fully onboard the application.

Then, as the user completes each step, it visually acknowledges the same. They can focus on completing one task at a time without feeling overwhelmed by the entire process. Now, seeing their progress represented in real-time instills a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This further motivates users to continue moving forward and complete the remaining tasks.

For example, Wise is a leading global payments platform that uses progress bars for its onboarding process. Opening an account for financial apps is often documentation-intensive. Wise makes it simpler by including game elements like a progress bar to make it less stressful and intuitive for new users.

wise onboarding

Image Source: UX Collective

  1. Leaderboards

Leaderboards are a visual representation of user rankings or achievements in a competition format designed by your app. They help tap into users' competitive instincts by allowing them to compete against friends, peers, or the broader app community. This provides social proof of their progress and success within the application. Now, seeing others' achievements can inspire them to strive for similar levels of success and encourage them to participate actively.

For example, Strava is a popular fitness-tracking application used by millions of athletes and fitness enthusiasts worldwide. Upon signing up for Strava, users are encouraged to connect with friends, join clubs, and participate in challenges. The app displays leaderboards for various activities such as running, cycling, swimming, etc. This allows users to see how their performance compares to others in their network or local community.

They also frequently host group challenges and events like a monthly mileage challenge, a weekend cycling race, or a virtual 5K run. These encourage users to participate in collective activities and compete for top rankings on leaderboards.

strava leaderboard

Image Source: CitrusBits

  1. Scratch cards

In this gamification strategy, you provide scratch cards based on achieving certain milestones like completing the onboarding checklists, performing a demo task successfully, sharing the app to social platforms, and more. Users can collect multiple scratch cards and access rewards at a specific section of your app.

For example, using Nudge, you can design a scratch card-based reward system and couple it with other onboarding gamification strategies like personalization, social sharing or wins, time-bound discounts, and more. Nudge allows you to design, implement, and iterate on these strategies without investing in developer talent or resources.

nudge rewards
  1. Celebrate the completion of each task

This strategy involves providing immediate visual and auditory feedback to celebrate the user’s achievement during the onboarding process. This could include animations, sound effects, or confetti raining down on the screen, signaling to users that they've accomplished something meaningful. You can further reinforce and validate their achievements by including copies like "Great job!" or "Congratulations on completing this step!". The more personalized you make these nudges, the more likely it will enhance the user experience and become memorable for them.

For example, when you complete a task on Asana, you will spot one of their celebration creatures hyping you up. 

Image Source: Asana Forum

For these appreciation stickers and creatures, Asana took feedback from their ‘Asana ambassadors’ for this update – a good example of leveraging user feedback. Each of these has a certain personality, which gamifies the experience for the user via surprise and anticipation of which creature gets assigned to them.

asana creatures
  1. Rewards and coupons

Offering rewards involves sharing coupons, points, or limited-time discount offers to push users further into your customer journey. It creates a sense of progression and advancement within the onboarding journey. They feel valued and incentivized to continue using the product beyond the initial onboarding phase – and for this, you must design the reward to push them to explore a certain feature to redeem it.

Again, personalization plays an important role in maximizing the relevance and effectiveness of the reward. You must leverage user data and segmentation techniques to tailor the incentives to match users' interests and needs.

For example, the HeadSpace app offers an incentive for the ‘Free Take10 program’ and multiple device access for the new app users to sign up. For any user with second thoughts about joining the app, such incentives may help alleviate them and push them into the onboarding process.

headspace onboarding

Image Source: UserOnboard

Nudge’s no-code user experience software can help you instantly implement such rewards and coupon-based game elements for your user onboarding. You can design unique user flows and place rewards as per your retention strategy.

nudge coupons
  1. Social recognition via badges

In this user onboarding gamification strategy, you design a diverse set of badges that represent various achievements, milestones, or levels of expertise within the application. These badges can range from simple accomplishments like completing a tutorial or signing up for an account. Or more significant achievements like reaching certain usage milestones, mastering specific features, or contributing valuable content.

Make sure users understand what they need to do to earn each badge. Having clarity on how it contributes to their overall progress and status within the community improves chances of triggering word of mouth marketing from power users. Also, it's important to design visually appealing, branded, distinct, and recognizable badges that users can proudly display on their profiles.

For example, here’s a HubSpot academy student sharing various badges they won on Twitter. HubSpot has a comprehensive academy that is designed to train new users to make the most of their features and automation. Their academy offers badges as rewards for completion of each course, which students like Lindsey proudly share on their social media. This further helps them gain brand recognition in their network. What HubSpot is truly doing here is using its academy to onboard new users and turn them into experts in their software.

hubspot badges

Image Source: Lindsey Witcherley

  1. Social sharing

Consider incorporating features that encourage users to share their experiences, achievements, or progress with their social networks. This celebrates their accomplishments and encourages others in their network to check out the application and join in on the fun.

You can use his tactic as a part of the workflow for leaderboards, streaks, challenges, etc to make them more impactful. For example, you can provide exclusive content or badges if the user can get relevant friends invited to the app or share on their social profiles.

For example, the Threads app by Meta is a good example of leveraging the user’s existing social media activity on Instagram to easily sign up. They can instantly create an account and follow known people on Instagram. During its launch, it also showed which of their friends were already on Threads, thus improving the chances of them joining and engaging on the new Threads app.

thread onboarding

Image Source: Bootcamp

  1. Gamified referrals

In the previous strategy, you were leveraging social media to drive brand awareness and impressions using psychological incentives. You can take a step further and incentivize the users to push for their network to sign up on their platform. In return, you reward the user with discounts, premium plans, exclusive content, etc.

You can use user experience platforms like Nudge which helps you implement unique referral links or code systems that they can share with their network. This makes it easy for them to track and claim their rewards. Nudge will also help you combine gamified referrals with other strategies like points and leaderboards 

nudge gamified referrals

By rewarding users for their referrals, you not only motivate them to invite others but also create a sense of reciprocity and mutual benefit.

For example, Airbnb is a leading online marketplace for booking homestays and hotels. During its early days, it implemented a referral program that incentivized users to invite their friends to book their first stay on the platform. Users were rewarded with travel credits for each friend they referred who completed a qualifying booking. Thus, such referral schemes drive both new user acquisition and existing user engagement on the platform.

airbnb referral

Image Source: Social Snowball

5 best user onboarding gamification examples for your inspiration

Let’s see a few more examples of gamified onboarding flows:

1. Slack uses ‘invite team members’ for network effects

Slack, the popular team communication platform, guides users through its myriad of features with playful tutorials and witty prompts. This helps ensure a seamless transition into the world of workplace collaboration and a new interface for communicating with teammates.

Many other project management and communication tools like Asana, ClickUp, Jira, and more use the ‘invite teams’ feature to tap into existing network effects present within team members of an organization.

slack referral

Image source: Useronboard

2. Dropbox’s famous referral system led to exponential growth

Dropbox used gamified referrals, quests, and rewards to tap into new and existing user's networks for user acquisition. They designed the referral system such that it encourages the user to explore the features of the platform. Users earn additional storage space and other rewards for completing tasks, such as connecting their devices, inviting friends to join Dropbox, or completing a tutorial.

dropbox referral

3. Todoist karma system and celebration of task completion

Todoist is a personal and workplace productivity app that uses a ‘karma system’ to measure productivity. Users can set goals for a specific number of tasks to complete. They can also level up their productivity, earn achievements for streaks of completed tasks, and compete with friends or teammates on leaderboards.

todoist karma points

Image Source: The Next Web

Also, when you complete your first task, it releases confetti and audio sound to celebrate your success. Such positive psychological triggers make your onboarding experience pleasant and one completes tasks to have such animations as a reward.

4. Loom uses a checklist for user onboarding

Loom is a screen recording software that uses checklists for onboarding its new users. The tasks within these checklists are designed to help the new user successfully record their first video and share it with their teams. It also highlights other platforms to access Loom via Chrome extension and desktop app – thus trying to enter into their ecosystem from the onboarding stage itself via multiple touchpoints.

loom checklist

5. Zoom provides a special gift post onboarding completion

Zoom is a leading video conferencing platform that uses onboarding checklists for gamifying its user onboarding experience. It uses progress bars and includes a copy of ‘free gift’ which motivates the user to complete the onboarding process. As you can see, the onboarding tasks aim to make users acquainted with the features and ensure they can join or host their first meeting successfully.

zoom onboarding gift

Nudge can help you implement 10 onboarding gamification strategies – without code

Nudge’s user experience platform includes comprehensive game elements that you can use to uniquely design your user onboarding flow. It includes badges, gamified referrals, coins, streaks, leaderboards, and much more.

You can design, test, and iterate multiple combinations and measure their performance to know which flow provides the best onboarding completion rates – book a demo today.

Gaurav Rawat
April 15, 2024