The Designer’s Guide to In-App Messaging

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When designing an app, attracting users is only one aspect of success. Once someone uses your app, you need to keep them engaged, often by using in-app messaging.

🚀Read: Customer Experience Guide: How to Put your Customers First? 🚀

Today, we’re taking a closer look at in-app messaging, including how using the right design can maximize its effectiveness.

What are In-App Messages?

Also known as in-app marketing or in-product marketing, in-app messages are any type of direct communication between your brand and your customers. These messages appear within the app.

In-app messaging is typically part of an omnichannel marketing strategy, where you’ll also attempt to connect with the consumer through email, phone, push notifications, and other channels.

Unlike a push notification, which can be sent to devices even when the recipient isn’t actively using a specific app, in-app messages are sent only when the app is running.

In-app messages can be used in practically any type of Software as a Service (SaaS). You’ll find them in large, widely-used platforms such as Basecamp and Slack, as well as multitudes of more niche programs.

Read The Secrets of SaaS Business Model


The Benefits of In-App Messaging

Any type of message you send to a consumer poses inherent risks. Ideally, when you communicate with someone actively using your app, they’re willing and interested in the information you have to provide. However, if you bombard them with useless information, or send too many messages at once, you can alienate them.

When implemented correctly, in-app messages benefit the following areas:

  • Onboarding New Users
  • Encourages Users to Upgrade to Paid Features
  • Keeping Long-Term Users Informed
  • Retaining the User Base

The key to designing effective in-app messaging is understanding situations where they work well and why. When you have a clear goal in mind, the messages you send have a greater chance of being well-received and acted upon.


You know what they say about first impressions. When a customer first uses your app, you have a limited window of time to connect with them. In-app messaging can help start the user’s experience off on the right foot, but it requires knowing what not to do as well as knowing what to do.

Messaging has two main goals during onboarding:

  • It should welcome new users and reaffirm how your product will meet their needs.
  • It should help the user take meaningful next steps.

Keep your initial messages short, informative, and cheerfully conversational. Greet the user, briefly reiterate what the app does in broad strokes, and offer guidance about what to do next. Above all, avoid overwhelming your new users. Instead, focus on a few key tasks.

For example, consider Basecamp, a popular project management software. When a user launches it for the first time, they’re welcomed and then asked a specific question: “Do you have a company-wide event or anniversary coming up?”. If you click yes, you’re prompted for more info in what turns into a real-world tutorial for the basics of the software.

Also, personalize the message. During their initial login, ask them a few quick questions about their goals. You can use that information to tweak their user experience and point them to features they’d likely find useful. (Of course, you don’t want to overwhelm the user, so keep the question session brief.)  

Read 7 Ways to Personalize Your Communication in a Chat Box


Picture 2. Slack onboarding

Free Trial and Freemium Conversion

There are three free-to-paid models for an app:

  • Freemium – Unlimited use of core features, with the ability to pay to unlock more
  • Free Trial without Credit Card – The user has to input limited information to use the app for a limited time.
  • Free Trial with Credit Card – The user inputs their credit card number to access the free trial

In-app messages can play a key role in convincing free users to start spending. Their success depends on both timing and placement.

Generally, you want to send an in-app message whenever a user attempts to use a paid feature they don’t have access to. It reaches the right audience, which is people interested in that feature while remaining unobtrusive to anyone not interested.

Also, keep the design simple. Many designers like to keep the message itself small or even semi-transparent, so the user can see the paid features they’re missing out on. It creates a preview of the exact menu they can unlock.


Keep the language as clear and brief as possible. People want direct information they can act on quickly. Also, keep your tone fun and casual, which tends to feel like the most natural style when read on a smart device.

Even better, try to cut down on words by using emojis, which have both design and communication benefits. They reduce the space required to communicate an idea. Also, using emojis in in-app messaging helps add a personal touch.

Read Emojis in Business Communication

Inform Long-Term Users

Experienced users of your app don’t need as many messages as newbies, but you don’t want to stop sending them entirely. In-app marketing is a great way to keep your existing customer base informed about new products, features, and other news.

Small announcements such as these typically don’t warrant full-screen messages. Instead, you’ll want to use slide ups, which don’t obscure much of the screen, to quickly convey the new info. Also, make sure the slideup enters the screen only when relevant. For example, if you’re releasing a fix for a specific feature, the info only needs to pop up when that feature is accessed.

Of course, big announcements require a full-screen message. It’s the best way to introduce major features or significant redesigns. A large, in-app message directed at your entire user base is typically used alongside emails as part of an omnichannel campaign.  

Read How to Use Website Announcements for Brand Promotions

Retain Users

People will continue to use an app if they feel it meets their specific needs. In-app messages can help create a personalized experience. You can target messages based on practically any criteria you want, including session length, items abandoned in a cart, past purchasing decisions, and more.

The type of message you send depends on how you’re sorting users. For example, if a user puts an item in their cart but doesn’t purchase it, you can send them a message if that item goes on sale at a later date.

This sort of personalization encourages users to stick around. After all, your app understands what they want, so they do not need to look elsewhere.

Key Design Elements

Now that you know why and when to use in-app messages, the next step is learning what they should look like.


One of the most important design rules is to keep the messages simple. People want to understand the message quickly and either take action or dismiss it and return to what they were doing.

Along those same lines, always make the message easy to dismiss. For example, Spotify uses an in-app message to remind users of the platform’s integrated voice features. While the message is physically large, taking up roughly 80% of the screen, a large Dismiss button is immediately apparent, allowing users to quickly close the message if they’re not interested in voice features.  

Read A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking



Crafting the right style for your in-app messages is a bit of a balancing act. The color palette, font choice, and other design elements should reflect the existing site. The user should instantly recognize that the message is part of the app.

At the same time, the message must also stand out from normal app operations. Let’s again look at an example from Spotify. Their default color scheme has a black background, white text, and green highlights. However, their in-app message has a white background, black text, and the same green highlights.


There are three general types of in-app messages:

  • Full-Screen
  • Modal
  • Slideup

The full-screen type covers the entire screen, blocking the content underneath it. It can consist of images or images and text. While they grab the user’s attention, monopolizing the screen should only be used sparingly, as users can feel like their experience with the app is getting hijacked.

A modal is a graphical element that appears on top of the existing text. It covers almost the entire screen but often doesn’t obscure the underlying page completely. It’s typically an excellent option for displaying messages related to paid content, so the user can see the layout of any features behind a paywall.

A slideup message slides into view from the sides, top, or bottom. It only blocks a small portion of the screen. Slide ups are typically considered the least obstructive type of in-app message.

Final Thoughts

In-app messaging has a key role in any omnichannel campaign. Once someone is actively using your app, you want to reach out with any info that can enhance their experience.

Successful in-app messages are brief, engaging, and relevant to what the user is currently doing. Also, the design must be clear with an appropriate size and human-friendly elements like informal language and emojis.

Taking the time to develop a comprehensive in-app messaging strategy will pay off with an engaged, informed, and active user base.

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The Designer’s Guide to In-App Messaging was last modified: February 23rd, 2021 by Martina Pranjic
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