There is no way to tell if a new visitor to your website or web application will be a total novice. At least some of them will have prior experience. When you force somebody like that through a Walkthrough, they might feel resentful and not read any of the offered information. Even if some of the Walkthrough steps would have introduced new and helpful information.

Walkthrough tutorials were inspired by the gaming world: the best games don’t require long textual introductions: a player starts playing and learns along the way. For games however this is much easier: every game’s controls will be slightly different and the interaction of controls, game mechanics and the game world are almost always sufficiently novel to keep the attention of first time users. Games can also count on gamification: players expect a game to be fun, this makes them more forgiving towards the onboarding experience.

An explanation for this can be found in the Instructional design (ISD) theory, a teaching methodology that some companies try to implement using Walkthroughs.

Instructional design, or Instructional systems design (ISD), is the practice of creating "instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing." The process consists broadly of determining the current state and needs of the learner, defining the end goal of instruction, and creating some "intervention" to assist in the transition.

In the rest of this post I will go through the strategies you could use to improve the alignment between the help content you offer and the learning requirements of your audience. I will reiterate the basic principles that can help you make more effective and appealing instructional experiences.

Targeting Walkthroughs

The problem is that ISD requires careful evaluation of the current learning state of the student, i.e. the site visitor. In an internet setting this is hard to achieve, as it needs to be automated and digitally performed. Even so, I think it’s still possible to personalise the experience, using one of the following four strategies:

  1. Learning model
    • How? You assume zero prior knowledge and keep track of the Walkthroughs that a certain user has taken before, using this to build a progressive model of a visitor’s knowledge.
      But… The problem is that visitors will still need certain prerequisite knowledge that is not only applicable to the system and that might or might not be present in a given student.
  2. Ask first
    • How? You envision gauging the learning state of a visitor using a questionnaire (e.g. “How familiar are you with CRM systems?” or “On a scale from 0-5, how well do you know our application?”).
      But… I haven’t seen this implemented in an application that uses Walkthroughs yet.
  3. Predictive model
    • How? You identify behavioural patterns that correspondent with failure experiences and make instructional experiences available that address their most likely root cause.
      But… You need to be very careful with this technique since you risk creating the “Clippy effect”, frustrating your visitors because they feel patronized.
  4. Self-Service
    • How? You let your users select the experiences they require themselves, through a help system that makes experiences available in their appropriate context.
      And… This is the strategy that we aim to facilitate with EmbedHelp...

Short and sweet

From personal experience (I’ve been a very conscious Walkthrough user since we started WalkHub), I believe that the best Walkthroughs only have a few short steps with very little text in them. You might argue that you could make exceptions for very complex tasks where a customer needs to be guided through a process, but for onboarding purposes Walkthroughs should be short and sweet. Adding a video in a Walkthrough goes counter to that. When a Walkthrough opens on an app, and you are forced to click through 7-8 screens, there is a big chance that you won’t even read what is in the Walkthrough. It is also really important that visitors are first convinced that they need a certain learning experience, and that they voluntarily choose to undergo an experience that is relevant for them.

About the author

Kristof van Tomme

CEO, Co-founder

Kristof Van Tomme is an open source strategist and architect. He is the CEO and co-founder of Pronovix. He’s got a degree in bioengineering and is a regular speaker at conferences in the API, DevRel, and technical writing communities.