I was having this conversation the other day, well, a meeting where I heard

If we have to explain how to do something to a user, we have failed.

Now, in some circumstances, without a doubt, there will be times where you will have to explain the 'rules' as it were. You will not be able to avoid it.

Some examples:

  • A game, instructions on how to play
  • A 'VR/3D' experience, again, where you have to give an overview of where to click/where to scroll.
  • A minimal website that has, at its heart, not many UI elements

This leads me into a much larger question, however.

Is it acceptable, do you think, to tell an audience what to do, and for it to succeed? By succeeding, we mean a user reaches the end 'goal posts', whatever that might be. As far as 'Goals' and 'Conversions', it could be that a user purchases, and converts.

Here's an example I am working on:

image of map acting as a hyperlink

The mock-up shows an African charity, where we wish to use the map of Africa as a <a> hyperlink. It is not immediately obvious that a user can click this to be taken somewhere, so we thought of adding a line of text 'Click a map'.

Does this then fail because we have had to tell the user what to do? I tend to disagree. For me, somehow, it feels like a more personal experience because we are helping the user. Speaking to them directly.

  • Something I forgot to ask but realized that this was important to answering the question: "Who were the people in that meeting?"
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 22:25
  • Another thing to take into account here is accessibility for users that might not be able to interact with the screen/page the same way that you might be able to.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 22:31

4 Answers 4


There are some issues with designing based on the statement

If we have to explain how to do something to a user, we have failed.

I think it implies that some assumptions about the user has already been made, such as:

  • There is only one type of user and they all think/do things the same way OR
  • There are different types of users and they all think/do things the same way

Or you are making some assumptions about the design, such as:

  • It is so simple and intuitive that the user will discover the features themselves
  • It is designed to guide them through each step of the process and prevents them from errors or mistakes

It might be possible to know so much about the users, or to design the application so that it is very robust, but ultimately your design goal should be measured against what the user expects and requires to achieve their goals, and if that means having the system walk them through and explaining things to them, then how can you have failed in your design if it meets the user's expectation and helps them complete the task?

  • Very interesting take on this. It’s true. Your design scope as it were should reflect the people you are designing for. If possible, of course.
    – David
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 8:59

Not only is it not immediately obvious that you can click on anything in your mockup, but even after being told I can click, I don't know what those clicks are supposed to do. Do confused people donate more money? If so, then this may be an approach you should pursue. (If you can demonstrate increased donations by your approach, who cares how user-friendly it is?)

Otherwise, what is the point of this mockup? What am I looking at? What is it supposed to do? And why are standard solutions to the problem not adequate?

If we have to explain how to do something to a user, we have failed.


  • Novel solutions to non-existent problems. Windows 8 replaced start menu with start screen.

  • Unnecessarily cluttered or complicated interfaces. Virtually any hospital EMR.

  • Software that's impossible to use without extensive training. Emacs. Vi.

  • Not using standard solutions for standard problems. Many custom programs.

No. Failure to Explain is Failure.


  • GNOME/Apple. (My way or highway.) -vs- KDE/Windows. (Customer is always right.)

  • Ribbon toolbar. Initially hated, but now loved.

  • Disappearing menu bars. Who uses them anyway?

  • Disappearing scroll bars. This may be taking things too far.

  • +1 I don't think that there's right or wrong answer here, and you have provided some examples where context is critical as to whether explanations might be required or not.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 22:27

I agree with Michael Lai's answer.

But I would like to point out things about your example. The clicking on the map is not very obvious (that's why you added the text). But there are more things that are not clear: The user has no clue what happens when clicking on the map.The call to action is missing. What is the difference between the map on the left and the one on the right?

Having said that, instead of having a text like 'Click a map' you could provide a call to action together with the map (on, above, blow the map). The CTA would be something like 'Read more about some topic' or 'give me more info' (whatever gives the user a clue what to finde behind the link). This way an explanation how to user your hyperlinks will not be necessary.

So I would say, if a explanation on how to user a function, you should ask yourself if it is possible to make it clearer without explanation. If so, it's a plus, if an explanation is needed, that's fine too, but it should be second choice.


My opinion: Yes, absolutely. The very category of this service we provide is called user experience. If the median user has trouble it's a failure. I am tired of seeing UX designers attempting to be creative. Creativity is a part of the field but it should not be a primary element. Poor UX and modals have ruined too many user's experience. The internet is supposed to be for the people. Of course there is some variation, but for the most part this is the reality I see.

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