If a Mobile App Includes a Walkthrough, Has It Already Failed?

If you’ve downloaded a new app lately, you may have noticed the not so “Quick” Tutorial that has plagued your mobile device with chalkboard-like feature demonstrations upon first launch. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced world of mobile, users don’t want to see a dragging tutorial of an app’s features – it’s simply not user friendly.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch says it often sends a false message to users about the apps complexity:

“The problem, in a nutshell, is that in too many cases with new apps, the existence of the walkthrough speaks to core issues with the design. It can come across as lazy. Anything more than a couple of basic pointers sends a message to users that this app is complex, it’s complicated, and now I need to hold your hand while you learn to use it.

That feels wrong on some level. This is mobile. It’s meant to be simple. Accessible.

Apps are not enterprise software with hundreds of functions. They’re not bloated Office suites with overstuffed ribbons filled with a dizzying array of choices. They’re not even desktop software, requiring complicated installations and configuration procedures that once had users phoning I.T. support for help. They are apps, and the user generally already knows what they’re for before they installed it.”

This is not to say that apps shouldn’t demonstrate any of their features, because often a brief feature demo is helpful. The inelegant “walkthrough” simply needs a major usability makeover. Luckily there are better, more fluid ways to explain the core functionality of an app.

According to Visual and User Interface designer Max Rudberg, on his blog Max Themes Blog, visual cues are the solution:

“The problem is mainly the lack of visual cues; there is no way to tell that sliding the main screen to the left will toggle the alarm on in [mobile app Rise], or pinching a list in Clear will minimize it and take you up a level in the hierarchy. It’s not obvious, and what’s often called mystery meat.

Arguably a less intrusive way compared to a walkthrough is to guide the user in the situation with UI hints. This can be done through slight visual cues and animations. A hint should not be a popup (it’s probably even more disruptive than a tutorial).

Some examples of clever explanation of UI gestures include Apple’s own camera lock screen sliders. Just tapping on the camera icon makes the screen jump, briefly revealing the camera UI behind the lock screen. This combined with the ridges above and below the camera tells the user to slide the lock screen up. Before this behavior the camera was activated by a mystery meat action; double tap the home button and a camera button would appear to the right of the Slide to unlock well. There was no way to find it unless you knew that double tapping the home button was possible in this screen.”

While these “mystery meat actions” should be avoided, the over-simplified annoyingness of a walkthrough can be just as, if not more, painful. Rudberg concludes that walkthroughs should be a last resort:

“When it comes to teaching users to use your UIs, I would recommend to do so mainly by progressive disclosure with slight visual cues and subtle animations – only use a walkthrough as a final resort.”

Looking for guidelines and best practices on mobile usability? Down this free eBook: Mobile Usability.

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