Web Apps Onboarding: How to Treat Your New Users

**Part of Leveraging Great Game Design in Web Apps Blog Series

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There has been some discussion about the need for tutorials and onboarding in web applications. For example, see If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it or Rethinking The Mobile App “Walkthrough” or In Defense Of The Humble App Walkthrough. Simple web application onboarding is relatively established but more in-depth ones are nascent. Are they needed?


Here are the facts…

1. Onboarding Experience Needs to Fit the Complexity of the Application

Research from E. Andersen, et al. from Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Washington found, one size does not fit all. The onboarding process for simple apps and games, should be non-existent or minimal. 

Abstract from The Impact of Tutorials on Games of Varying Complexity:

One of the key challenges of video game design is teaching new players how to play. Although game developers frequently use tutorials to teach game mechanics, little is known about how tutorials affect game learnability and player engagement. Seeking to estimate this value, we implemented eight tutorial designs in three video games of varying complexity and evaluated their effects on player engagement and retention. The results of our multivariate study of over 45,000 players show that the usefulness of tutorials depends greatly on game complexity. Although tutorials increased play time by as much as 29% in the most complex game, they did not significantly improve player engagement in the two simpler games. Our results suggest that investment in tutorials may not be justified for games with mechanics that can be discovered through experimentation.

If your web application is simple, you really shouldn’t have to create a walkthrough. How about if it isn’t?

2. Test your assumptions


We reached out to Stephanie Kaiser, Head of Studio at Wooga, one of the gaming industry’s thought leaders on building successful games. Wooga is extremely respected for their metrics driven game design process. Luckily, they also have 50 million monthly active players to test with.

I asked her if she has ever tested just putting a user straight into a game vs. giving them a tutorial first? 

Stephanie Kaiser:

Yes we have. In fact we tested it with several different A/B tests as well as with (it feels like) hundreds of user tests. Again, for a casual game such as Monster World, the tutorial we built was absolutely necessary. We had a version, where there was no tutorial whatsoever and I saw so many people failing on the game. Oh dear, that was painful. Having the tutorial in as it is today, I saw a lot of “non-gamers” succeeding in the tutorial, feeling rewarded for that matter and being engaged by that. 

UX designers and product managers need to understand their users and test. For example, Stephanie believes tutorials may not be needed for hardcore players: “Some people might not like the fact that they are forced into certain actions. I cannot judge on it. I can only talk about the casual games that we produce.” It’s up to the product owner to test and decide how to capture early engagement. 

3. The onboarding experience should be engaging

As a product manager or UX designer of a web application you have many tools available including video, tooltips, and even interactive walkthrough (as seen on our homepage).

The important thing is to keep your users engaged during the process. Videos are great for creating excitement and building emotions. Gamification is a powerful way to influence user behaviour. And tutorials are a great way to guide the user to quickly discover the value of what your application can do if it’s not self evident.

I created a model to show how a successful web application works. It’s called the “Virtuous Cycle of Web Applications”. 


Fred Wilson expands more on this idea in his famous 10 Golden Principles of Successful Web Apps video. The bottom line is to make your onboarding process as fun and seamless as possible. Learn from game designers.

Take a look at this brillant critique of how Mega Man deftly onboards users.

Next: Stay tuned and subscribe for my next post: “Game Designers’ Secrets on Getting New Players to Learn Long, Complex, and Difficult Games”

—Written by Taige Zhang (@taigeair)