Problems with SaaS Onboarding Guides? You’re Doing it Wrong

There has been a lot of talk about SaaS onboarding walkthroughs lately. Seeing as walkthroughs are a rising star in UI design, everyone in web design and UX has an opinion about them, and rightly so: Facebook, Google and LinkedIn have all added different forms of walkthroughs and tooltips to introduce new features and guide their users through changes in UI. If everyone is jumping off the bridge – well, there must be something awfully appealing in the water.


The big question regarding walkthroughs revolves around principles of design. Onboarding walkthrough critics claim that if UI design is clear and intuitive enough, there is no need for onboarding guides. While there are quite a few arguments contesting the need for walkthroughs, there are very few in their favor.




The Contenders

The most quoted piece contending walkthroughs is the provocative if you see a walkthrough, they blew it by designer Max Rudberg. The thing with this blog post is, that it doesn’t really criticize walkthroughs, rather it rebuffs many apps’ failure to provide Clear UI with visual cues that stimulate users to action.


That said, the articles based on Rudberg’s post provide some substantial arguments against walkthroughs: Sarah Perez claims walkthroughs give the unjustified feeling that mobile apps are complicated, whereas Jeremy Olson argues that the users lack context if they view the walkthrough before the app. He also states walkthroughs may be confused with the actual app and that they annoy impatient users.


Granted, all these critiques are referring primarily to mobile apps, but the assumption is that many of the same design principles apply to webapps, especially with the new and improved flat UI trend.


Bad UX Design Makes for Lousy Everything

Here’s the thing about all aforementioned arguments: they are all true. But they don’t actually criticize walkthroughs as a UI tool, rather they argue against bad walkthroughs. Walkthroughs that come up too early in the onboarding process; guides that are meant to compensate for lazy design; that are misplaced or badly used. That’s kind of like every other feature, design trend and novelty ever developed for web or mobile use: when it is done badly, it sucks. But that doesn’t mean the principle of it is wrong. Just the carrying out of it. “Bad Walkthroughs” does not equal “Walkthroughs are Bad”.


 Does this mean Google “blew it”?


What “Intuitive” Means for Your Smartest Users

Walkthroughs are a tool to help with navigation in the right places. They do not replace good design but are there to support it. No matter how Clear and Intuitive you strive to design your UI, there will always be users who don’t get it, to whose intuition it doesn’t appeal. John Pavlus at MIT Technology Review wrote some wise words about the delta between intuitiveness and familiarity:


If you don’t feel like you have to learn how to use a tool–that you “just get it,” that you “already know,” or “it just works”–then it feels like it’s magically tapping into your ineffable “intuition.” It ain’t. You still have to learn how to use it. It’s just that the more familiar it is (or seems), the less you notice the effort of that learning (or the less effort there will be to begin with). A pen is “intuitive” because you’ve used a zillion pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and stick-shaped inscriptor-tools in your life.


As a long time Android power-user with complete confidence in my technological abilities, I can safely say my mind goes to boot when I am handed a machine that runs iOS. I find myself staring blankly at the screen, trying to Slide and Tap various icons, but they usually don’t do what I assume they would. This happens to more users than you can imagine, all the time: with marginally decipherable new icons, with vaguely familiar symbols and with the frequently-occasional new feature. Needless to say, this is NOT a reaction to poorly designed UI, rather it is derived from the UX baggage a user brings to this FTUE: old, well ingrained habits.


How Do We Create Good Walkthroughs?

The long answer is – it depends on your users. Like everything else in the app world, this needs ongoing testing and response to feedback. In some cases, your users may make better progress with elaborate walkthroughs on every page. In other cases – the occasional helpful guide on fields pointed out as “weak links” by your analytics will hit the spot. Likewise tooltip positioning: some users groups may prefer a prominent, colorful whereas in other cases, an un-invasive, modest tip on a side-bar will do the trick.


The longer answer requires some delving into recent on-boarding and First Time User Experience doctrines:

In a comprehensive article on First Time User Experience theory and methodology, tech journalist and entrepreneur Michael Grothaus expounds on the merits of progressive reduction. The idea is that users at different levels of proficiency require different levels of interaction with your design. Veteran users are familiar enough with the features to get impatient with what they consider information overload.


The easiest way to visualize progressive reduction is by imagining a button that has a shape (say, a rectangle) and inside that button is a text label that describes what the button does, and also an icon representing what the button does. For a first-time user, a clearly defined (rectangle shape) and labeled (text and icon) button is a good thing to see. In progressive reduction, however, once a user has reached a certain stage, the text label is removed from the button, with only the rectangular button’s shape and icon left behind.


Kera (RIP) blogger Taige Zhang presents a graphic depiction of a similar idea – instead of the user learning the app, the app learns the user. The web page has sadly been taken down, but we managed to save a screenshot:



This applies to onboarding guides, as well. Well then, I can hear the iOS designers’ eyebrows going through the roof, if you’re gearing up for progressive reduction, doesn’t that mean you’ve decided to give up on walkthroughs altogether in favor of The Clean and the Minimalistic?


In fact, I have not. Interactive website guidance systems serve a wider purpose than introducing the occasional new feature: as a navigation tool, they appeal to an entire segment of online users. Aaron Travis sheds some light on the different kinds of learners – Global Learners, who take in the overall screen at a glance, and the Sequential Learners, who learn better through step-by-step guides. Your users hail from both types and according to Travis, the percentages are split right down the middle. Per Travis:


Sequential Learners:

  • gain understanding in small sequential, logical steps
  • tend to follow logical stepwise paths while problem solving
  • may not understand material fully but are still able to solve problems and pass tests
  • may know a lot about specific aspects of a subject, but may have trouble relating them to different aspects of same or different subjects

To summarize – for walkthroughs, like most SaaS solutions, much of the effectiveness depends on the application which, in turn, depends on user response. Which is to say – walkthroughs are not some lazy solution for a badly designed UI but a tool addressing the solid learning needs of roughly half of your users.

 Would you like to see good walkthroughs in action?

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