Luis Abreu

Product Design

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Efficient App Communication

Why and how to drop walkthroughs in favor of a better way.

Feb 1, 2014

4 min read

We’ve all encountered the problem of having to explain either the value or usage of a possibly abstract feature of an app.

A very popular solution is to use a paginated walkthrough, where each page contains a very brief explanation of the main features or screens, like the one below.

blue iPhone 5C displaying a screenshot of the Clique app walkthrough

The objective here is to inform the user, and the assumption is that people will read carefully through all the screens and retain this information.

The Problems

The problem is how this pattern doesn’t take into account what science knows about memory and learning. We know that attention, repetition, duration, recall and other factors impact learning performance.


Walkthroughs are untimely.

They are not explicitly invoked and break the expectation of being able to use an app after it opens.

This is a problem because we know lack of motivation negatively impacts learning and it’s not unreasonable to think most people simply skip past the content without even paying attention to it.

Also remember that when opening an app for the first time, the user will have searched, chosen to install and waited for the download to finish. We should reward people with a simple and immediately available experience, not introduce further delays with Walkthroughs designed to manage complexity.

Single Exposure

Michelle Dubois and Antoine Characters from Allô Allô

Walkthroughs are presented only once, this brief exposure to unsolicited information is a recipe for bad learning performance.

Phenomena such as the Spacing Effect demonstrates how we “more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span”, opposed to a single exposure.

The Testing Effect shows how “learners who tested their knowledge during practice later remembered more information”, opposed to just passively reading information as done in walkthroughs.

Focus and Platform Awareness

Just like the Hamburger Menu, Walkthroughs present no impediment to adding non-essential content such as a really good animation, photo or illustration you might have invested time and money into.

Or maybe it’s an essential business need, something like selecting interests in order to increase relevancy and content personalization.

That makes perfect sense, but maybe there’s a better way.

Maybe this and other information such as an avatar, account or contact email is already on the device and we just need to ask permission.

space grey iPhone 5S displaying a screenshot of the Facebook Camera app login screen pre filled with the Facebook account stored on the device

The Facebook Camera app uses the Facebook account stored on the device to provide a smart default.

That’s it, by knowing and leveraging the platform capabilities we simplified the login process into a single tap.

Other solutions?

So what can we use besides a Walkthrough? Is there anything that ensures repeated exposure, relevancy and not get in the way of the user?

Let’s blow it up

Hannibal from A-Team lighting a cigar and holding a gun while a vehicle explodes in the background

We can start by splitting this monolithic interaction into smaller pieces, putting them in context and presenting them on-demand.

Contextual Education

Empty Dropbox Favorites screen displaying information about that feature

In this example, Dropbox explains the value of favoriting files and even offers further information through the ‘Learn more’ button.

The information is displayed because the user has chosen to view this screen, making it likely there is some curiosity in exploring the app and learning its features.

It will also be displayed every time the user visits this screen and hasn’t used this feature, meaning it’s visible more than once and only goes away once the feature is used and presumably understood.

This could even be enhanced by actually showing how to favorite a file.

Above is the gesture for advanced users, this is similar to something Apple has been doing in OS X for many years now in the Trackpad System Preferences Pane:

picture of the OS X Trackpad System Preferences Pane, displaying a video alongside each individual multitouch gesture

Contextual Education is also called Just-In-Time Education by some and can be implemented in a slightly less obtrusive way that coexists with existing content.

Foursquare contextual information example

Above is an example of that alternative in the old Foursquare app, below is another example in an app I worked on recently:

Information is displayed in context and doesn’t get in the way. Additionally, we can use this framework to present progress feedback:

Foursquare’s use of humor and diversity is a lovely twist to an otherwise boring copy, bringing delight and personality into the app.

Wrap Up

Walkthroughs are rarely an efficient solution for educating users mainly because they’re unsolicited and presented only once to the user. Instead, use Contextual Education for achieving the same result.

But what do you think? Do you have any other solutions or comments? Let me know on Twitter by replying to @lmjabreu!

I’m also available to apply these principles to your app, just get in touch!

Related external article: Unnecessary Explanations

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