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Upon the launch of say a new social media site - is it appropriate to do a big slide-down / lightbox to explain what the site is about - or to let users figure things out for themselves?

Former:

  • Leaves no room for confusion
  • A sense of desperation - "we're new, please help us out!"
  • Should provide an easy exit plus cookies so it doesn't repeat itself for existing users

Latter:

  • Will act as if the site's already well-established
  • Greater psychological impact (i.e. learning by doing as opposed to being told what to do)
  • Users might get the sense that "this must be a new trend, I need to catch up" and start using it immediately
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They're usually universally annoying. –  DA01 Jan 17 '13 at 4:07
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2 Answers

If you're talking about a big pop up as soon as a user loads your site, I would completely advise against it.

Unexpected pop ups associate themselves to bad advertisement practices and would most likely frustrate users.

I would much rather see a well presented header with a "learn about us" button or an introductory video.

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+1 for pointing out that this practice is associated with spammers -- which doesn't mean it won't work, mind you, but actions that're associated with spam tend to repulse as well. –  Rachel Keslensky Jan 17 '13 at 1:25
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If you need it to start, you need it ALL the time -- none of this "upon launch" nonsense. Not everyone will find your site at the same time, and what's a good intro before will be a good intro later.

The real question you should ask is "Do I need [X] to explain the service?" If so, you're going to need it all along, and it's just a matter of whether or not you get out of the more experienced user's way. Doing something big like you're suggesting as an automatically triggered function is not necessary -- and can be annoying for more experienced users.

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