Onboarding and the active user paradox

Illustration showing a user happily running far ahead of a tutorial, which is chasing them

“New users aren’t discovering our features. Can we make them watch a video or do a tutorial before they get started?”

This is a question I’ve heard many variations of throughout my career. Chances are, if you work in product design, you’ve heard it too.

This question arises when we notice people aren’t using our product the way we envisioned. It’s hard to look at data that shows poor retention or engagement with the features we’ve built, to hear customers bemoan lack of functionality that already exists, or to watch someone struggle during a usability test.

Wouldn’t our users be more successful if they invested time in understanding how things work, before they started using a product or service? It stands to reason that up-front instructional content would ensure they discover every feature that could help them. Sometimes the suggestion to add an introductory tutorial will even come from users themselves.

Who are we to say no to such a reasonable-sounding request?

But this line of thinking rarely results in success. We like to think that people will be interested in our entire product and will complete a tutorial with focus and motivation. But, really, they have many other distractions demanding attention in their lives, and must only focus on getting their most pressing tasks done.

This concept is more elegantly described as the paradox of the active user, first defined by Mary Beth Rosson and John Carroll in 1987 as part of their larger work on interaction design, “Interfacing thought: cognitive aspects of human-computer interaction.” At the time, Rosson and Carroll were researchers at IBM. As part of their studies, they observed that new users weren’t reading the manuals provided with their computers. Instead, they would just dive right into using them, even if that meant encountering errors and roadblocks.

Why? It turned out that these users were motivated only by the specific goals they wanted to achieve, not by the larger potential of the computer, so were uninterested in taking time to learn about the whole system. As a result, each person’s understanding of what their computer could do was limited to the learning methods they employed and the tasks they chose to do, and most never understood all the functions it could serve. It was deemed by Rosson and Carroll a paradox because they knew users could get more from their computers if they just spent time learning about them up front, but also knew that people would never behave like that in the real world.

Rosson and Carroll stress that this paradox is the result of fundamental human behavior, and is not a design problem to be solved. This is supported by other studies that show people often disregard up-front training content.

What does that mean for us? It means that we need to change our mindset about when onboarding and user education should happen. “More guidance, earlier” isn’t going to help if people will dismiss it. It doesn’t matter how well-designed an intro video or tutorial is, if it’s paid no mind. We need to make guidance accessible throughout our product experience and design it to fit within the context of use, so that it can help these active new users no matter what path they choose to take. And we have to be OK with knowing that one user may never need to understand every detail of our product in order to find value from it.

Interested in reading more about how to educate in the context of use? Read my past post, “Guided interaction,” on the topic.