How to successfully train users without overwhelming them

How to successfully train users without overwhelming them

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How to successfully train users without overwhelming them

Educating users about how a product works can be difficult.

Maybe you are designing a tool for a complex, new workflow and need to introduce all the moving parts to the user. Or you are working on a consumer product that is largely self-explanatory and follows conventions set by other apps. But at certain points, it deviates from these conventions, throwing users off. Whatever it may be – you will need to think about onboarding and user education.

Here are three things that we think are most important when designing an onboarding flow.

Context is king

You have seen it: Tutorials, slideshows, and videos that you need to click through before you can actually start using the app. Here, they say, is all the information you need to succeed at your task.

Often, when this happens, the user sees this before they even have any idea what the actual app looks like. They have no context. All they have done so far is to click on an icon! And what they are presented with at the start is an obstacle blocking their way to whatever goal they had in mind. Remember: These users downloaded and started your app because they wanted to achieve something. They want to do that and not play school for five minutes.

This is bad: Avoid front-loading information.

It is understandable why designers and product managers want to include this type of introductory tutorial: In theory, reading through it will allow the user to understand the tool or app better and equip them with the basic knowledge to fulfill their task. But by omitting the context (i.e. the user actually experiencing the app), all of this falls flat. The user has no chance to integrate all of this information into an existing metal framework. They simply had no chance yet to build one. Psychologists know this phenomenon as "latent inhibition" and research in the context of effective teaching suggests that this kind of "dull knowledge" is often simply discarded and easily forgotten(e.g. Gerstenmeier/Mandl, 1995).

In an even meaner twist to the designer's expectation, studies have even shown that this kind of tutorial may hinder the user's understanding later on: In a 2020 test, NNG, a UX research firm, found out that if users skipped such tutorials, they would find the app easier to handle than those users who suffered through the tutorial (see Better Onboarding).

So instead of dumping all the information up front, it is better to educate the users at the moment they encounter something that needs explaining. They will be more attentive and open to learning, as the information that you are conveying will help them solve a problem they are currently working on: It is immediately relevant.

Space out the tutorial, and offer it in the relevant context

Start at the end and work your way back

One common mistake we see over and over again is that, because designers, developers and managers are well aware of the importance of user education, they want to focus on the first-time user experience right away. It is what the user will see first, after all.

This is difficult, though, as it can often be unclear at the early stages of a project what we want to guide the user towards. What are the core workflows that they will do in the app? How does a typical usage-loop look like? How will a pro-user interact with this program? It makes sense to only look at designing the onboarding experience when you can sufficiently answer these questions.

Create a safe space where the user can explore and learn the ropes

Let's take a detour for a second and talk about video games (a favorite subject of mine!). Video games are inherently complex systems: users need to understand what they are doing in the game (goals), how to do it (mechanics) and how their actions affect the world around them (interactions). And all of this is different from game to game. It is no wonder that game makers have been looking at user education for a long time!

Let's take "The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild" as an example. It has one of the best tutorials we have ever seen. When starting the game, you wake up as Link – the main character – not knowing where you are or what to do. A voice is calling you to get up and get out. The camera pans around, and you see that you are in some sort of cave or shrine. And with that, you are handed the reins. With some trial and error (and some helpful context-specific prompts), you will figure out how to get out of the cave. And within minutes, you are set free to explore the game's first area (if you are interested, you can watch the first few minutes of gameplay here).

What you don't realize at first is that this area is basically a sandbox that contains and introduces all the major mechanics of the game - be it in a relatively tame environment. By interacting with it and spending time in this place, you will eventually learn everything that you need to know to beat the game. And this is not only simple stuff like "press A to jump" – it's about how elements like fire, water, wind, etc. interact with each other. How to pause time for an object or enemy. How to use magnetism to move metal objects around. Or how to cook food with the ingredients you find. There is basically a full physics system behind the game, and after completing this first area, you will know how to interact with it and how it affects you as a player.

At no point does this feel like a tedious tutorial. All the time you were just playing the game.

To us, this is the holy grail of how to design an onboarding experience: Input and action blending together naturally in a safe space that allows you to make mistakes and learn from them. We can call this kinesthetic or action-oriented learning (see e.g. Gudjon, 2014).

Look outside the box

It is easy to think of onboarding as a design problem. And it is! But also look at other disciplines that have dealt with the problem of education and effective learning before: psychology, neuroscience, and pedagogy come to mind. Many of the concepts developed or the insights gleaned there can be useful when thinking about how to best build your onboarding flow.


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