Teach Users How to Use Your App by Having Them Actually Use Your App

It's late at night. The empty cans of Red Bull tower over your desk precariously. You've done it. You've finally created your beautiful, polished, delightful app. The blood, sweat, and tears will all be worth it once you hit that delicious button to submit to the App Store.

You hesitate. You have a sense of worry gnawing at the back of your mind. 

What if users don't immediately comprehend my glorious design?

What shall I do?

I know! A tutorial! That's the ticket!

Netflix app for iOS (image via http://www.mobile-patterns.com/coach-marks)

Netflix app for iOS (image via http://www.mobile-patterns.com/coach-marks)

Suddenly, your beautiful app isn't so beautiful anymore. You've decided to smack the user in the face with a brain dump tutorial.


Why is it that so many apps fall for this trap? The most common reasons seem to be that app developers run out of time to properly implement a tutorial system or the developers fail to realize that the onboarding experience is an integral part of the app that requires just as much design effort (perhaps even more effort) as the rest of the app. Yet, it is still common to see apps that don't give much thought to how users will learn to use the app.

Whatever feelings you may have about Facebook's Paper app, they at least took a relatively uncommon approach to the problem of teaching users how to use an app with an uncommon design. While it may be somewhat heavy-handed at times, the tutorial system in Paper clearly took a bit of time to design and implement. In fact, the Facebook Paper team gave a presentation on how they approached the problem with contextually aware tutorials.

Developers can look outside of the traditional app development industry for inspiration as well. The game industry has spent decades working on this very problem. Take, for example, this analysis of the first level of Super Mario Bros. by the folks at Extra Credits:

The game designers at Nintendo carefully crafted the first level experience to teach players the skills that they will need throughout the game. They did so without dumping a bunch of explanatory text right at the start of the game or requiring that a player read the manual.

You might very well ask, 'how can these same design principles be used when creating an app?'

For starters, you should consider what your first-run experience is like for a user. Does your app have a bunch of empty states? Design a way for those empty states to have a call to action or design the app's first-run experience so that the user doesn't have those empty states to begin with (for example, pre-populating an app with content that the user is reasonably expected to enjoy). Does your app involve a complicated ecommerce transactional experience? Design a way for users to get progressive disclosure on where they are in the process.

Folks, Super Mario Bros. doesn't bombard players with every possible bit of information they could ever need at the beginning of the game, and there is little reason why apps should be any different. Teach your users how to use your app by having them actually use your app.


If you enjoyed the design analysis done by Extra Credits, you might also enjoy these videos (warning, they are longer videos and may include profanity so be careful at work).