The following piece was originally written on 6 July 2012 when I was working on tourmyapp.com a lot have changed over the last 6 years yet some of the things that I had written on can still be pondered upon. (I have edited the version for the current context)
One week back while i was browsing the Internet I read this comment by someone which said that in-app tours are nothing more than band aids to bad design. While i do agree that a lot of poorly designed products slap in an onboarding tour hoping to increase engagement. I still would not agree that these tours have no other objectives but to patch up crappy UX.
Many of the UX first proponents have preemptively come to the conclusion that a well designed User Experience alone can solve the engagement problem. And if gotten right there won’t be the need for in-app tours and other such band-aids.
Coming from a background of mechanical engineering, I always try to draw parlance to Ergonomics and I realize that these UX-Is-Everything proponents fail to realize an important bit.
Usability and Ergonomics
While designing a physical product, engineers consider ergonomics of the design. Simply put it is a process to make it easy for the user to use the object based on his physical, cognitive and environmental limitations. That is why your microwave has an instant heat button, and your photo-copier’s instant copy button is made large.
Usability in web app development is something similar, it is about making it easy for the user to “use” the app without having to put a thought into it. Usability starts and ends there. And hoping that great usability will act as a effective tool for new user on-boarding is like giving an ergonomically designed food processor to a person who has never cooked in his life.
The Instruction Manual
Assuming that a “usable” web app will get your new user productive is like assuming that giving an ergonomically designed food processor would make a kitchen novice a chef de cordon bleu. What we producteers keep forgetting constantly is this tiny little booklet that comes along with the ergonomically designed food processor. The Instruction Manual.
A lot of us have no documentation, and a lot more of us have crappy documentation that goes no where near helping the end user. We have a habit of giving circuit diagrams of the food processor when all the person wants to know is how to make a smoothie quickly. This is exactly where in-app tours and other such aides come in. It aims to help your user quickly overcome the learning curve associated with a new app and hence get your user to become productive. If properly used, its not a superficial plastic surgery on top of your app, but a genuine effort to get your users to appreciate whatever usability you have built into your system. In short its the missing instruction manual, which is to the point and which is just a click away!