If there’s only one heuristic you apply to user onboarding design…

…it’s this classic: rely on recognition rather than recall. 

Do an internet search for recognition vs. recall and you’ll find any number of UX articles on the topic, some dating back decades. You can also find general psychology and neuroscience studies dating back as far as a century showing the benefit of recognition over recall. Yet, it’s a heuristic we seem to forget, especially where user onboarding is concerned.

If you rely on first-run tutorials or informational overlays, you’re relying on users to store that information and retrieve it later. That’s recall. And that’s an effortful memory task prone to error and abandonment. It’s easier for people to act when they can recognize something based on familiar cues. The more cues, the faster the recognition, and the less work involved.

It’s one reason GUIs did better than command line interfaces. People didn’t need to have the luxury of time or ability to memorize detailed command-line training manuals. They could figure things out based on objects (such as menu items) represented in the interface, and through direct manipulation of them. They could now recognize the tasks they wanted to run because of labels and symbols, rather than having to recall commands they needed to type on an empty screen with a blinking cursor.

There’s just so many ways recognition is embraced in interfaces today. Like exposing navigation options in the header of a website or the tabs of an app, instead of tucking them away in a hidden menu. Or showing suggestions when typing a search term. Or using familiar aria labels that help users focus on the right item. Or showing thumbnail previews in addition to file names. Or using the same kind of visual/audio/haptic feedback whenever users do the same kind of task. The list can go on.

User onboarding is no exception here. Help your interface be more self-explanatory, and therefore accessible, with good writing and design that leverages familiar industry concepts, from labels to navigation structures to transitions and empty states. Test these rigorously with research to see what resonates. These will all improve the experience not just for new users, but existing users as well. 

Of course, it’s OK if users can’t figure out everything on their own. If you need special guidance to help bootstrap new users, make sure that information is provided in context and can be easily retrieved later in case they forget it—for example, via a “?” icon.

All of this to say: Better onboarding starts with better product design built on core design principles. It doesn’t except it.

And, PSA, please invest in UX writers! They play an instrumental role in finding what will resonate with new and existing users alike.