Are UI walkthroughs evil?

December 27th, 2012 Jeremy Jeremy

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 1.44.14 PM

Max Rudberg on gesture-based apps like Clear, Rise, and Solar:

“These apps have chosen to reduce details to achieve a minimal UI, but in the process the UI has also become harder to use. Unfortunately a UI walkthrough is quite an inelegant way to explain the core functionality of an app. It can be a frustrating obstacle before you can dive into an app, and you have to remember all of those new ways of using it once you get in.”

First off, I think Clear’s UI is awesome once you get used to it. Though it frustrates some people, I think the UI is fairly intuitive and I use it all the time. I think I’ve gotten used to Rise, though I admit that trying to use the app for the first time was a little rough.

But Max’s main argument is that apps should not rely on UI Walkthroughs to teach users about how their mystery meat app works. Instead, the app itself should provide the visual affordances needed to understand how it functions.

I tend to agree. UI Walkthroughs have several problems:

  • No context. The user barely knows what the app does and yet they are bombarded with instructions to swipe hither and thither to do this and that. Because there is no context, the gestures themselves seem much more complicated than they actually are and folks are easily overwhelmed.
  • Memory management. While users may, by some miracle, remember all the gestures you described in the walkthrough, think about users who come back to your app after a month of non-usage. Unless your gestures are extremely intuitive, mapping to real world metaphors (like iBooks page swiping), your app may be a complete mystery to them. That’s not good.
  • Impatience. Impulse downloaders want to cut to the chase. They want to evaluate your app in a few seconds to see if it is worth their while. We learned from Steve Krug that users don’t analyze websites, they muddle through. The same applies to apps. Many users will skip the tutorial because they don’t want to learn about the app, they just want to try it.
  • Confusion. If not done properly, users will often mistake the walkthrough screenshots as the actual app and will try to tap them, getting frustrated when nothing responds. I learned this the hard way by doing usability testing on an app I worked on. Almost every user tried to interact with the walkthrough screenshots (and I thought I had already taken adequate precautions against that).

The bottom line? We can’t rely on walkthroughs to teach mainstream users our minimal UI’s.


Another popular approach is to fill the screen with coach marks the first time users come to a screen. Not a fan. You might say that this provides more context but I think it’s overwhelming and only provides superficial context.

I think the best context to teach the user a gesture is when they actually want to take the action or right after they have performed the action by a different means. I also think that in most cases important actions should always have some level of affordance.

We played with gestures a lot when developing Languages. Going for that minimal, gesture-based approach definitely helped us get rid of unnecessary UI baggage but at the end of the day we decided that functions like search were so important that we needed a button (in this case a search field) to make the function obvious. We then used a folding animation and other cues to let the user know they can also conveniently swipe the entire screen to switch between searching and browsing.


Finally, though walkthroughs have their disadvantages, they aren’t evil. In fact, they make a lot of sense in some cases. For example, This walkthrough in Evernote helps users understand Evernote’s basic value proposition — how it can be used day to day. If done well, this can be very useful and powerful because a lot of folks download apps on impulse, with little idea about what the app actually does. A fun walkthrough can remedy that.

UPDATE: I think we need to be fair to apps like Clear and Rise that use a walkthrough to help teach users gestures. There are definitely drawbacks to walkthroughs but these apps have a certain minimalist style that makes in-context hints and “progressive disclosure” very difficult. It’s hard to have these cues without changing the nature of the app. I’m not saying it’s impossible and I think it is very much worth exploring but these apps have made the conscious decision of sacrificing a little discoverability in return for minimalism and a sense of exploration. The designers of these apps are super smart and forward thinking so I would love to hear their own thoughts on the subject.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to say a particular UI practice is evil altogether. Each app has different goals and different users and, speaking of context, we should always be open to trying different things depending on the app. I think we all have a lot to discover in this area of “teaching UI” so keep your options open, experiment, do usability testing, and tell us what you learn! I’m all ears.

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10 Responses to “Are UI walkthroughs evil?”

  1. Samo says:

    This seems like such a non-issue and retarded point to argue about. Seriously, if someone wants to try something new/uncommon UI-wise or in terms of concept, how _else_ should the introduce their app? Should we stop trying out new concepts and UI interaction patterns just so the poor user isn’t confused for the first 5 seconds of using the app? Or is it actually ok for people to try out new patterns—that might prove quicker in actual usage—and take the freedom of assuming their customers have an IQ over 50 and are able to remember “exotic” gestures if that’s the trade off for an app they enjoy using more?

    Yeah, Walkthroughs don’t always make complete sense, and if done badly are worthless. But so is every other type of documentation, video or marketing material.

    This whole discussion has a bit of a Graybeard feeling to it, like people griping about Aqua buttons because they were used to OS 9’s style. And mobile phones or tablets are way more of an appliance than a personal computer is, and as such I’d rather see apps that try out new UIs than everyone trying to cram their app’s functionality into an UITableView, no matter how much sense that makes.

    Besides, Clear also comes with a introductory To-Do list that acts as discover-as-you-go help, so it feels like including it in the Bad Boys List is just cheap linkbait. Heck, why not add Weightbot to the list while at it, it has the exact same “problem”, no?

  2. Ben Peck says:

    Our role as UX designers and developers is to push the boundaries of user interactions but allow users to validate whether what we’ve done is either good or bad. I agree that in some cases a walkthrough is helpful to users and sometimes its not. I wish these types of articles included more user testing and analytical data to illustrate usability success for each user interaction use case, otherwise its just one persons opinion.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Samo: see the update I recently posted. I think these things are worth talking about but not being dogmatic about. I hope my article didn’t give the impression that I was against innovation in UI. I wanted to point out the downsides of the walkthrough to teach UI in the hopes that we would innovate not just on the UI but in the way that we teach it. In some cases a great walkthrough is the most straightforward solution but it definitely has drawbacks.

    Ben: completely agree. The designer of Rise told me that they tried alternative techniques to teach users to use the app but at the end of the day users did better with a walkthrough. In my usability testing, walkthroughs can have their own frustrations and confusing elements and I tend to discourage them but I agree that we need to continue to experiment and validate and iterate with user feedback.

  4. [...] showing you where to poke, pull, pinch, and tap. The gist of the complaints, summarized pretty well here, is that the very need for a UX walkthrough implies the interface itself has failed to provide [...]

  5. Robleh says:

    Another great alternative is video tutorials. This is something that I’m exploring for a future app.

    Color Splash, an app store classic, does this with their first-use experience. Their video is way to long and boring in my opinion but I think it’s the right direction considering how short our attention spans have gotten.

  6. Karl says:

    @Ben Peck

    “Our role as UX designers and developers is to push the boundaries of user interactions but allow users to validate whether what we’ve done is either good or bad.”

    Respectfully, I entirely disagree. The role of the designer is not to make a beautiful thing and have the user validate your choices. That is backwards.

  7. Jeremy says:

    @Robleh: I agree. I really like the way Paper for iPad does it. They have a video that is clearly optional but does a great way of illustrating the gestures because folks can see it being used in-context.

    @Karl: agreed except that I think both are true. Your first iteration should be based on users and then validated by users. On the other hand, in order to innovate we need to build something that users don’t necessarily even know they want or need so we take their feedback but also need the freedom to think creatively.

  8. Products fall into multiple categories based on patterns of usage and intended audience.

    Some products are daily/heavy use products which should optimize for the daily/regular user. These products need to be designed such that, once the user has an understanding of how to navigate and understand the product’s functionality, they can perform regular actions with ease.

    Examples: A Todo list, a weather app, or an app for sports scores and the news on a mobile phone. A POS (Point of Sale) system where the operator has some sufficient time for training [Keep in mind that POS systems are designed for fast transactions to keep lines short and moving smoothly].

    Other products are used many times by different users, infrequently. These interfaces need to be designed such that they’re intuitive, require as little handholding as possible, and should offer 80% of the benefit for 20% of the effort. Additionally, that 20% of the effort should be possible by almost all of the people who enter into the experience.

    Examples: a photo kiosk at the local drugstore, a fast food ordering counter with an iPad or self-checkout system at a grocery store.

    What does this have to do with UI walkthroughs? Because the first class of products are not designed to be *intuitive* on first usage, they need scaffolds (extreme way of conveying this is a “crutch”) for the user to understand their operating protocol. Once the user understands how the system works, then they will be able to use the product quickly and effectively on a repeated basis.

  9. [...] – Are UI walkthroughs evil? [...]

  10. Jsut a acorrection for RIse watch url it’s and not :)