We've all faced the problem of having to either explain the value or usage of a possibly abstract feature or screen.
A very popular solution is to use a paginated walkthrough, where each page contains a very brief explanation of the main features or screens.
While this solution might be perfectly valid in some situations, I believe we have to take into account its characteristics that according to what we have learned about memory in Cognitive Sciences, are likely to make it an inefficient solution.
Memory retention is impacted by a many of factors, but in this specific case we're exposing the person to multiple pages of information and hoping a single-time exposure will be enough for the information to be retained.
Memory doesn't work like that, and depending on the importance of the content this reason alone should be enough to rethink how you're communicating with the user.
STOP, Walkthrough time!
Walkthroughs are usually used for on boarding processes which take place the first time an app is launched.
The problem with this is that we break the user's mental model regarding using apps. Which would be just annoying if it weren't for the fact that motivation is also a key factor in information retention and we're basically interfering with the main motivation that took the person to search, install and launch the app.
Remember, this is the first time a person interacts with your app and it didn't just materialized on the person's device (also something to take into account in user sessions where people are artificially exposed to an app in a careful setup, guerrilla or not).
There is a journey that takes place before app launch and we should reward the person for taking that journey, not present one more barrier and sometimes even tiny videos of the app that was just launched as if any more teasing is necessary.
Sometimes the information isn't even essential. It's very easy to add one more page to the walkthrough, especially if you have that really good photo or illustration lying around.
Or maybe it's a business need, something like asking for a phone number so the app can automatically search for other users to follow or contact with.
That makes perfect sense, but maybe there's a better way. Maybe instead of asking the person to input an avatar, type email and password or phone number. Maybe all the information we need is already on the device, just needing a single tap to confirm we got it right.
The Facebook Camera app uses the Facebook account stored on the device to provide a smart default. That's it, by understanding the platform and its capabilities we reduced a flow that could take not only multiple screens if we had used the Facebook SDK and boiled it down to a couple of taps: one to confirm it's the right account, and another one to permit the app to use it.
So what can we use besides a walkthrough? Is there anything that ensures repeated exposure while staying completely out of the way of the user?
Let's blow it up
And after the walkthrough blows up, pieces of information parachute down on the app, strategically landing where they make most sense.
Friendly Neighborhood Coach Mark
There are two types of coach marks, the quick & dirty, often in the form of tooltips with limited exposure and low discoverability that sometimes need to be intentionally displayed by the user, see iMovie:
These are just horrible, sometimes necessary, but definitively not the best we can do.
If you use Dropbox or Foursquare you might've noticed these refined coach marks:
The advantage of this approach is that it solves the exposure problem by nicely into the rest of the app UI.
It doesn't get in between the user and the app. Both the Dropbox and Foursquare examples illustrate how you can explain a feature and even provide a link to further information is necessary.
It's the complete opposite of a large piece of information being delivered only once, here we have byte-sized portions that are easy to digest and presented multiple times.
On top of solving those problems, it also allows you to give voice to your application.
Even a personality like Foursquare does through its humorous messages displayed during 'dead air', so feared in the broadcasting industry and known to us as the loading screen.
What do you think? Do you have any other solutions or comments? Let me know on Twitter by replying to @lmjabreu!
Sometimes we need to expose small bits of metadata such as the number of files in a directory, last refreshed time for an inbox, remember that you also have table footers and toolbars where you can present this logically connected information through small phrases and simple UI widgets such as progress bars instead of dedicating a whole new screen to it.
Related reading: Just In Time Education