We’re not born knowing how to walk right from the getgo; so why should we expect any less from a product? Does every product need a tutorial? and is there a baseline of complexity that everyone understands?
By traditional means, I’ve never considered myself a good student; but I like to think I learn pretty well. In fact, the best grade I ever got in university was a mechatronics project course where I learned Python and computer vision on my own time. My point is, given enough time and personal motivation, I firmly believe we can all learn to do anything (of course, within the laws of physics and thermodynamics).
Last Friday, I caught up with a good friend of mine and startup founder. For the past couple of days, he’d been working on adding a tutorial feature to his product, hoping it’d help with on-boarding interested customers and usage. As soon as he finished implementing it, which took the form of a “How-To” button on the main screen, a mentor of his had told him:
“If you need to add a how-to feature, then there’s a problem with your UX.”
Now, the business side of me reacted with a smirk as I try to plug in my availability for design services to a startup in need, but then my design side was puzzled: is this really true? Does the need for tutorial functionality stem from poor user experience? Let’s lay down some facts.
No skipping this tutorial
Before we jump right into it, I would like to share a particular definition of UX that highlights an important phenomenon. An improved definition of UX was derived by Caglar Araz in his article, stating that:
User experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context.
One thing that prompted me to share this definition was the use of the phrase “singular and accumulated experiences”. If we are truly designing for people, one thing we need to consider is what these accumulated experiences are, and how they help shape the basis for many interfaces today.
Intuition is what a lot of us know as the “gut feeling”. The concept behind intuition comes from the accumulation of our lived experiences that in summation, define what we personally and individually believe to be common knowledge or instinctive. As our brains continue to collect and store information within our lifetimes, it is constantly comparing our current experiences with our past ones. Being able to match these patterns and make a decision is what we know as intuition.
Because our experiences eventually evolve into second nature, intuition is something we often take for granted in the context of UX. This is especially prevalent for those designing these experiences for other users. For example, when I was designing the interface for my past startup Otto, my team would easily perform key app interactions on the fly, but as soon as I put it in the hands of someone new, it was a different story. Testing it within our development group gave us a false sense of confirmation that our app was usable.
What one person finds intuitive doesn’t translate across to everyone in your ideal user group because we all have unique histories and experiences. This is why we test our products with multiple users while adjusting our target demographic segment and interfaces accordingly. In the words of Sargent Terry Jeffords, “if you want to know which restaurant has the best pie, you can’t just have one guy try one pie from each place. Everybody needs to try both pies from both places.”
The truth is, all products require a tutorial process; some just do it smarter than others.
There are two ways that we can make our apps easy enough to use right from the start: embedding familiarity or creating an on-boarding process.
Many interfaces that share similar objectives and use cases (such as social networking sites and streaming platforms) employ familiarity to derive usability from the user’s experience of using similar interfaces.
Symbols provide the perfect design analogy to familiarity. If we look at something as iconic as a play button, most of the world would immediately understand its functionality. Whether we’re on YouTube or Netflix, we all know how to initiate a video to play and stop just based on the symbols displayed.
In the same respect, we can treat types of services like symbols and utilize existing frameworks to help users understand our products faster. That’s one of the reasons why most messaging apps (Viber, WhatsApp, Messenger) function similarly, with bubble texts and right-left alignment referring to the different parties. People already understand this format as texting, so companies use similar structures on their applications to put their own users at ease.
Guiding users through an experience helps us remove the need for a how-to section because we show them exactly what they need to right from the start.
I used on-boarding in an app for a startup that I worked with recently called BestSelf, a platform that lets users set goals and achieve them. My role as their UI/UX designer was to embed their own system of goal setting in a way that makes sense to the user. I’d never used a goal-setting app before so I made sure to test as many different ones as possible to gain some contextual understanding of the space.
We had both a new way to track goals and a product space with a variety of executions. Because of these reason, we employed on-boarding to help guide users through the experience. In the screens below, the goal tracking process is explained through the use of text windows highlighting the different functions of the page and the system overall.
By giving the users a taste of what the app has to offer right from the start, we eliminate any preliminary need for the user to fish for answers. The key is understanding that the complex or new system you are showcasing isn’t intuitive to users. In the case of BestSelf, this was true for those who have and didn’t have experience with goal-setting apps.
As we’ve covered, tutorials aren’t necessarily a bad thing. FAQs exist because we can’t predict how everyone uses our app, and we should not expect everyone to use it the same. However, familiarity and on-boarding can help give your users the right amount of guidance. At the end of the day, no product is perfect, but if we approach design with humility and empathy, we may be able to create great experiences that are intuitive in the end.