App design - look at video games for great onboarding experiences

Interaction designers try to create experiences that can be used right out of the virtual box, without the need of a manual. Of course users need some guidance when they open an app for the first time, which can be done with some introduction screens or overlays which explain the navigation. Both of these onboarding methods are quick and part of the experience when done well. Some apps let you even select or change settings by just asking in a very human way, instead of directing you to a settings menu.

Very mild spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 prologue, Spider-Man PS4 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

I think game designers have the same goal. You don’t need a manual or game guide to know the controls or objectives — although I bought the collector’s edition guide for Red Dead Redemption 2 which already helped me a few times — but there are no clear tutorials anymore, especially in open world games. They’re woven into the first level, mission or chapter.

The way this happens depends on the importance of the story and the way it is told. The most recent example is Red Dead Redemption 2, which is an open world game, but very story driven at the same time. The story is divided in chapters and a prologue serves as the onboarding experience, in terms of both character and gameplay introduction. I’ts pretty linear and there are even few visual distractions, since it’s set against a snowy backdrop.

Spider-Man, which launched earlier this year on PS4, does not tell the origin story of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, but he has been swinging around NYC for about 8 years. And to be fair, Spider-Man needs no introduction. The game starts with a short cut scene and you see Peter jumping out of his window, which means you’ll learn web-swinging, the core movement mechanic, before walking. 

You're on your way to capture a bad guy and you get to learn the fighting mechanics pretty soon after. The depth of both systems will be expanded throughout the game by upgrading your abilities. Likewise, an app could present more advanced features once the user got familiar with the basics.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild takes a third approach. Link wakes up in a shrine and immediately gets the Sheikah Slate, a multipurpose tablet and the most important tool in the game. To get out of the place you have to climb, which is an important mechanic to learn, because you'll be doing that a lot later on in the game.

Instead of hiding the world from you like Red Dead Redemption 2 does, Breath of the Wild shows you everything you'll be soon exploring from above, on the so called Great Plateau. You'll even be able to see the final destination of Link's quest right away. It's a restricted environment, but also one that reflects the elements and characteristics of the bigger world below. You're free to explore at your own pace and you get to experience the core mechanics right away. Once you've learned enough, you're allowed to enter the rest of the world and you are already comfortable with its systems.

The first experience a user has with an app is incredibly important. Even more than in games users can be distracted within seconds. If you try to make your user read a few tutorial screens, she or he might be gone before the real thing even started. Or they might get annoyed because they feel they have to do something on your behalf, not theirs. Try to find other ways to introduce your design to the user by taking video games, arguably the most complex interactive systems, as inspiration.
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