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A Lesson in Gradual Engagement

When a visitor lands on your marketing page, what should they see? For nearly all web applications it’s the same: testimonials, a feature list, screenshots. Marketing sites usually explain just enough to entice people to sign up. But what if there were a different way? What if people could use the actual application the moment they land on the page?

A traditional marketing page for a web application faces two problems: First, it must interest a visitor to the point that he or she will sign up for the application itself. Second, a marketing page much teach a user how to use the application once they’ve have signed up, through a process known as onboarding. Combining these two processes – essentially enticing users to use an application (marketing) while teaching them how to use it (onboarding) – is a process I call gradual engagement.

Becoming Fluent

To put this into context, let’s look at an example: I designed an flash card iPhone app called Fluent. It employed a behind-the-scenes system for showing users the cards they know less often and the cards they need to practice more often. This made it so that users could simply launch the app and review cards, rather than having to decide which set or category to review. How it all works took time to explain and, as a consequence, the iPhone app didn’t gain traction.

So I made a website to introduce the app.

A screenshot of the fluent web app

Instead of a bunch of marketing and/or technical language, it simply asks users what language they’d like to learn: French, Italian, Spanish, or Latin.

A screenshot of the fluent web app

Choosing Latin, for example, slides a flash card in that displays a Latin word. A tooltip instructs users to click on the card to see the answer.

A screenshot of the fluent web app

Clicking the card flips it over, showing the answer on the back. Additional tips explain that it will likely take several tries before learning the card.

A screenshot of the fluent web app

Next, a new card is shown with along with a tooltip that explains how cards that are incorrectly marked will be repeated in a review session.

After the user correctly answers the first three cards, a new box appears:

A screenshot of the fluent web app

Congratulations! You’re learning Latin. Create an account to save your progress.

Note how I delayed showing the “create an account” page. I never (explicitly) asked users to to try out the app. Instead, I asked them to save their progress after they invested their time and energy. The difference is huge.

Designers fight a constant battle for attention. Whereas the first paragraph in this section – the one explaining the Fluent engine – might have felt like a bore, a web app that asks a simple question is enticing. Most important, the web app seeds a placeholder account with a small amount of meaningful data, which makes users much more likely to continue using it.

Flipping the process

Gradual engagement encourages visitors to become users immediately. Rather than presenting users with information about the product, it enables them to use the product right away, without signing in and without creating an account …at least not until they have had a chance to use the product and add some of their own data!

This process may not be right for all applications, but it is worth considering for yours.

As another example, Netvibes lets users create a custom news dashboard and walks them through the process. After they’ve make some customizations to the interface, it reminds users to create an account. This allows visitors to actually use the application before deciding if it is right for them.

If possible, delay asking for signup until users have already invested in your application. At that point it becomes a simple decision.

As a final example, Pandora asks visitors to tell them an artist, genre, or composer that they like. The moment users do this, Pandora creates a station for that artist and starts playing their music, essentially letting users use the app without creating an account (though the option is always available). Instead of trying to create a marketing page to tell visitors about the fantastic recommendation engine, Pandora just asks a simple question, so that they can demonstrate the product immediately.

Imagine a marketing page for Pandora that tries to explain how the product works, why it is valuable, and that you should create an account. All that text wouldn’t have nearly the impact as the simple text box that gets visitors engaged immediately.

Adding gradual engagement to your application

After seeing it in action, you might be curious how to add gradual engagement to your own product. to get started, simply answer these two questions:

  • What is the core feature of my product?
  • What features are confusing or complicated that need more time to explain?

Pandora may have a lot of features, but playing recommended music is one of their cornerstones. So they placed it front and center, designing the rest of their onboarding process around playing recommended music.

The biggest obstacle for Fluent was that people had a hard time understanding the process – what was happening behind the scenes. By slowly explaining features as they were used, unknowing users were able to assess its value first hand.

About the Author

Nathan Barry

Nathan Barry is the author of Designing Web Applications, a complete guide to designing beautiful, easy-to-use web software. He also writes about design and business at


  • Andi Reply

    We use gradual engagement as an introduction to just about every web app now, and it’s been written in iOS interface guidelines since the iPhone came out. Give people something, ask very little, give a little more, then ask a little more.

    With so many web services launching every day, onboarding still isn’t given the time or attention it deserves – and yet, founders wonder where they’ve failed. You can offer the most amazing, new, cutting edge service out there, but if you can’t sell it to users, it’ll never succeed.

    Good post; great discussion.

  • Alex Reply

    Great article explaining thought process behind gradual engagement. There are plenty of sites that could benefit from this type of signup flow. Asking users to signup after they have personalized a product or invested time is a much easier sell. Thanks for sharing.

  • Virginia Designer Reply

    Form should always follow function, but getting people to understand the “function” is often an element that requires quite a bit of form. Agreed that simple give and take can go a long way. Nice post :-)

  • Vishal Mehta Vishal Mehta Reply

    Fantastic persuasion technique, and completely non-intrusive. This is a good example and great inspiration, Nathan.


  • Jon Reply

    Gradual engagement is also being seen in the freemium approach. Before asking for any commitment, get the user to play more, save progress, or advanced functionality. Love the simple example.

  • Lucy Barber Reply

    Wow, Nathan! So much of what you said here hit home for me. “Note how I delayed showing the “create an account” page. I never (explicitly) asked users to to try out the app. Instead, I asked them to save their progress after they invested their time and energy. The difference is huge.” — that’s a game changer in the way you look at driving engagement.

    I have found 2 helpful resources in planning out our onboarding process for a redesign we’re launching later this year. The first is a customer mapping workbook from the guys at Adaptive Path (available here: and the other is some interactive teardowns of some of the most popular software’s onboarding experiences (available here:

    Hope others find them useful, too!

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