by Cesare Rocchi

Why Your App Needs A Walkthrough

by Cesare Rocchi

This article first appeared in issue #5 of App Ville. Thanks Tope for allowing me to repost it here.

There has been some heat around walkthroughs in mobile apps. I think it all started with the bold post by Max Rudberg, If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it. Here is another take on the subject. And by the end of this article, you will understand why you need a walkthrough if you are truly innovative.

How Long Will It Take To Get Familiar With This?

That is a question a designer should be obsessed with when designing a product, (notice I said product in general and not mobile application). While this is a pretty subjective question, in that it relates to way a person develops a relationship with an object, there is also a parallel concept, affordance, which puts more emphasis on the object itself, and focuses on its intended usage. For example, you grab a cup of tea by the handle, because it is obvious it is meant to me grabbed in that manner. Put in another way, the intended use of the cup, is to be grabbed by the handle and to hold liquids.

What Do You Do With A Cup?

This does not absolutely prevent people to be creative and exploit the cup in ways that diverge from its intended use. I am sure you have people grabbing a cup not by the handle (I do for example), not to mention that many tea cups in this exact moment are holding pens, coins, flowers. So even if you are the most objectivist designer in the world, thinking that your object has to be used the way you intended is just wrong: people can (and will) challenge that.

Maybe the cup is an example too easy? Think of a screwdriver. Isn’t it meant to tighten/loosen screws? And yet, when I am in a hurry, I use it to open boxes. The same goes for my home keys. This is not because I like to save the blade of my cutter. This is dictated by me and the context I am living in at the moment: being in a hurry, with no cutter at hand. That is to say that the intended use is influenced by the user and the current context he is living in.

Moreover there is a social aspect. We are using the fork the way our parents taught us to. This means; they gave us a walkthrough to the fork. As you can see the “relative” variables (subjectivity, context, culture) are the key points in this example. So for a while I have come to the conclusion that the “objective” (and somewhat absolutistic) approach, while good for dissertations, is just a waste of time if you want to do business.

Whenever we talk about designers and users aren’t we talking about people? Yes, then it’s all about subjectivity. But turns out I was wrong. Products have a sort of “nature” and you have to consider that as well when designing.

Innovation Needs To Be Explained

Breezi by Cesare Rocchi on

If I design a new fork, there is no need to write a user manual to explain its usage, because people can leverage their previous knowledge (yet a subjective trait) about the usage of forks. Along the same lines, if I am building a new mail app, which clones the functionalities to on iOS, it is likely there is no need of a walkthrough.

On the contrary, if I am doing something disruptive like Clear (no buttons just gestures) or the first version on Twitter on the iPad (no back button) and I don’t put a walkthrough I am just crazy. Of course I can shoot a video, but I can’t assume people buy my app through your website.

Either I put the video in the app (not the best solution in my opinion) or I resort to a walkthrough. Due to the disruptive nature of the app, I have to guide users through it, otherwise I risk they don’t “get it”, discard it, or even worse, write a bad review. You don’t want that for your app, right?

So the essence of my point is: if the interaction in your app is disruptive/innovative and you don’t use a walkthrough, you’ll get the same effect of a child holding is fork for the first time. He starts to grab it in unconventional ways and possibly drop it once he finds out he does not need it.

Some Will Hate It, Some Will Like It: Who Do You Cater To?

Up until now, we haven’t taken into account the subjective side of things, though. When deciding whether to include or not a walkthrough in your app, think also in subjective terms. What will the user think? Before that you should probably ask yourself: who is the target user? Combine the answers to these questions and you will have a ton of different reactions in front of a walkthrough. Here are a few reactions that I stumble upon frequently:

  • I have this app (with no walkthough), now what?
  • The guys behind this app have been so kind to show me how to use it
  • Do they think I am stupid? I know how to use an app!!
  • Why do they show me how to use it? I wanna explore it myself.

The first set of people are the guys that need to be taken by hand. They won’t touch a button without the fear of doing something wrong. They really need an overview of what’s possible to do and how to do it. Those are the ones that, unless taught by a friend, will not get your app and, if they figure out how to do it, leave a bad review on the app store.

The second set of users is the one you are chasing. It’s made of people that like to be taken care of. They recognize there is a ton of work behind a mobile application and they appreciate the care you put in it. In practice a unicorn.

The third set is always the 50% of your users. They can think your app is crap or great, but they will always complain about the fact that, by making explicit the intended use, you are forcing them to interact with your app in a certain way. Those are the ones that use a screwdriver to open a box on purpose, even if they have a cutter at hand.

The fourth set probably does not influence your choice of putting a walkthrough in your app. Those are the ones that buy a TV set, unbox it and throw away immediately the instructions, because they wanna make it on their own. It is likely they appreciate the option to get out of the walkthrough at any time.

An Example In Practice

Keep in mind who you are targeting and why. It will be easier to decide about the need of a walkthrough. The more your target is a niche, the simpler is your task. Unfortunately my target is pretty wide, so I had to figure if and how to use a walkthrough. When I designed Breezi, I had this in mind.

Subjective traits

“The user wants to get a glimpse of the weather and forecast. He wants it to come up quickly and to be very evident. He wants to bookmark a bunch of favorite locations. He has taste.”

Objective traits

“There are gestures to discover content. The user interaction model is disruptive enough that the majority of people won’t go past the first screen. For them, a quick guide is mandatory. Users of gesture driven apps like Clear, won’t like the guide but I think they will be ok with the option of quitting the walkthrough at any time”

So I ended up putting a quick walkthrough in Breezi. Here is a screenshot.

Breezi by Cesare Rocchi on

Key traits are:

  • skippable at any time
  • highly visual, with as less text as possible
  • spotlight like, to suggest the tap point
  • fully accessible

In my case, this solution has proven to be the “lowest common denominator” matching both the needs of people who like to be taken by hand and the “explorers” that can quit the walkthrough at any time.

Summing Up

Should I put or not a walkthrough in my app? There are two main perspectives to account for (subjective and objective), and you should address both before deciding. In particular you should think whether the interaction in your app so disruptive to require a walkthough, of if the user can exploit previous knowledge to get interact with your application.

Check out the Breezi app here. Breezi is a weather app that gets out of the way and lets you interact with it directly. The gestures will blow you away, and yes, there is a walkthrough to help you out.