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I am working on a mobile app which relies on the categories/themes of interest chosen by the user and show content accordingly.

These categories are coming from another website and are similar to the numerous Stack Exchange sites, i.e., you must choose what content you have to see. In my case, the overall number of categories could be 1000s, however many of them may have overlapping content.

The idea is to have the user select a minimum of 10 such categories before moving to the main app content. The content is based on the user's selections.

How can I let the user begin exploring the app's content without taking a lot of time with selection of categories?

I am currently showing the whole list to the user. However, since the list is huge, I feel like the user may lose interest before even starting.

  • What about filters? – Danielillo Aug 4 at 14:27
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    This situation is similar to what happens right after creating a new Pinterest or LinkedIn Learning profile; you might have a look at how they've solved this problem (popular categories first, then more relevant suggestions based on what you've just selected). Note, however, that I've always found frustrating to have to click 10 categories before accessing the app (without — at least for Pinterest, afaik — be able to skip this step). – ebosi Aug 5 at 11:18
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    @johnwick - be careful of the most popular categories - they become popular because generally users are annoyed to get a list so they start randomly picking the first few they see. These first few continue being selected by other users causing these categories to actually become popular - not because people like them but because they were the first categories a user clicked on. You always want to take these so called popular categories and mix with them a random number (come up with it based on your business needs) of categories that are not so popular and mix them in with the popular result – JonH Aug 5 at 18:13
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    I think I can speak for most people: if an app makes me do this then I will give up using it. Tumblr only asked for three and that was annoying enough. – OrangeDog Aug 5 at 18:59
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    Twitter also does it, but it is kind enough to have a skip button. After I start to browse content on my own I normally go follow topics I find interesting. – GammaGames Aug 5 at 20:04
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I would suggest creating a short list of broad "top-level categories" that every other category can be grouped into (maybe around 20 of them). For example:

Technology, Art, Leisure, etc.

Then (painfully) link your thousands of categories to those top-level categories.

That way, when the user signs up, they can pick which of those handful of top-level categories interest them. Then you can automatically assign all related categories to that user (or limit it to a random subset if you don't want too many).

I would then suggest that a feature of the application is that when showing content to the user, they can clearly see the original category and provide an easy option for them to "unsubscribe" if they don't like that content.

Yes, it's a lot of work for you in the back end, but that's your selling point - you do the heavy lifting, so that the user doesn't have to.

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    Exactly. As a user I IMMEDIATELY skip this step and if there is more then 10 to 20 categories, then I don;t ever get to it again. If something requires the dedication of going through thousands of options to select/unselect them, there should be proportional incentive to even do it! – mishan Aug 5 at 9:44
  • @musefan your answer and comments seem to hit in the right direction for me. Thanks! – johnwick Aug 5 at 12:38
  • Can categories belong to multiple top-level categories? – Izquierdo Aug 5 at 17:38
  • medium solves this problem as well – Thomas Aug 6 at 6:43
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    You don't necessarily need to manually link all the categories to each other based on what relations you think exist. Let your users do that for you. There will likely be at least a handful of users willing to search the whole thing and find the exact categories they actually like, use those as potential links. 70% of users who like A also like B so make A and B strongly linked, 20% of users who like A also like C so make A and C weakly linked. See Amazon's "Other people who bought this also bought..." section for inspiration – Darren H Aug 6 at 15:49
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This is a frame challenge. What you ask for is impossible.

If you require users to select ten categories of interest before you let them access the app, most users will not proceed beyond that step. No UX polishing can fix this.

The few people who get past this will have chosen ten categories quickly, without much thought. They will have missed categories they are really interested in, and included categories they are only marginally interested in. Again, no UX polishing can fix this.

I think you should rethink your whole approach.

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  • Although it is a fair point, I am not sure this actually attempts to provide an answer to the question. – musefan Aug 5 at 9:38
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    @musefan This is indeed not an answer to the question. It is a frame challenge. As stated in the very first sentence. – Stig Hemmer Aug 5 at 10:51
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    @musefan I don't know if UX has any specific rules regarding frame challenges. But I have seen them (and sometimes answered with them myself) on other SE sites and I think they can be a very useful tool. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Aug 5 at 14:10
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    "There is no appropriate way" is a perfectly valid answer. – OrangeDog Aug 5 at 18:58
  • I strongly agree with this answer. The question above perfectly demonstrates the Paradox of Choice - the myth that more options offer a better chance of finding the perfect one. In fact, the more options presented, the harder it is to choose any option. Humans don't make rational choices based on a known preference of absolute value. Rather, they react situationally to the relative value of compared options. This requires VERY FEW OPTIONS (think 3 - 5). Construct taxonomies accordingly. – Tom Aug 30 at 0:43
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This sounds like a job for a type-ahead -- the user starts typing a category of interest, and the system returns valid responses that can then be selected.

Bonus points if you account for fuzzy spelling or can link the user to synonyms.

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    While this would be a useful feature to have regardless, it does have the limitation that the user needs to know what categories are available (by name) before they search. – musefan Aug 5 at 7:14
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    @musefan This is a problem with 1000 categories anyway. Usually such a select box accepts that the result will not be optimal, as independent of the UI the user will never read all available options, so it makes sure the user finds something that is relevant to him. Aliases for some important options can be helpful, but the user will still likely make a selection from his first 20 ideas instead of finding the best 10 categories, what would require him to either already know them and be sure they are available or check the whole list. – allo Aug 5 at 10:20
  • @allo: like I said: "this would be a useful feature to have regardless". I am not saying this isn't a useful suggestion, I am just saying it doesn't help solve the problem of how to get around the user having to search through the full list – musefan Aug 5 at 10:25
  • This may have worked if there were not too many choices. There could be bias against the choices that the user may want to explore but doesn't know about them in the first place – johnwick Aug 5 at 12:35
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Browse by popular categories

In addition to the other answers, I'd also recommend enabling the user to view which categories are the most popular, based on statistics of your user base.

This will empower users to be able to quickly get value from your service—before they lose interest—by choosing from categories that are already successful in your app.

You do the discovery for them: provide intelligent recommendations

If you're feeling a bit more advanced, perhaps you could get into providing recommendations, based on communities the user is already a part of. This could also be done by using the statistics of your user base to find groups of categories that typically are subscribed to together.

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    One of the drawbacks of this approach is that it gives bias to the categories which are already popular, and results in them becoming even more popular. Depending on how other users are expected to "discover" the lesser categories, it may end up that they never get seen at all. – musefan Aug 5 at 7:12
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    @musefan You’re right, but that could be tuned to occasionally include a small number of “weaker” community suggestions. – maxathousand Aug 5 at 7:27
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Do your users really need to select all 10 categories at the beginning? Maybe you can let them select 3-5 categories and gradually introduce them to select more.

If you collect enough data, you can try to suggest something like: "Users who are interested in Category 1 also choose these Categories"

Asking users to select too many options at once will most likely lead to choice overload right at the beginning of their journey.

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  • Yes, this issue posed as a solution in the question above, causes a second big problem - barrier to entry. In mobile apps, true conversion isn't represented by app download. But rather by 'second use.' Until a user uses the app a second time, they haven't really started using it at all. Thus the enemy of true app conversion is SETUP - any and all steps that stand between new users and the content they seek. When confronted by any setup steps, many uses just bail, never using the app again. – Tom Aug 30 at 1:41
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Depending if this is applicable to your subject matter you could take a hint from some music streaming applications: instead of asking if you like Pop, or R&B or Jazz or Classical, they ask some of your favorite artists and then deduce (or propose) some categories from that. I think Apple Music's setup starts like that.

Again, it is hard to say if this approach would fit your use case or not without knowing what which sort of content we are dealing with.

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There are a number of assumptions that need to be considered when addressing a pattern like this.

  1. why is the user adopting your app?
  2. how did they arrive at your app?
  3. what happens if they try to skip category selection?
  4. how confident are you that the user and the app describe categories the same way?
  5. can we employ some form of behavioral analysis to surface more applicable categories?
  6. Do your users have an opinion on 1000 possibilities? Do they demonstrate any behavior around this list? Can you quantify a preference for items at the top of the list vs items it the bottom?
  7. what happens if the user only selects 5 items, or just one? Is there anything to suggest that 10 categories results on a better experience than 9 or 5 or 1?

These are all questions that draw focus back to putting the user and their considerations at the center of the solution. I have often received a recommendation for a curation product and dropped in and had no idea how to proceed. In situations where I was unfamiliar with the options available to me, I often appreciate a general suggested or what's trending now playlist. As my familiarity with the product increases, I can do more exploration and adopt new relationships to people, groups and topics.

But my suggestion is that you take some effort to test your 1000 item list with users and see how they react to it. Make a cheap prototype with a skip button on it, and see how often users try to skip it. Results from these experiments in the context of your user, with your interface, and your content will give you much better results than suggestions from our limited point of view.

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