When a user first launches our desktop application, would it be more helpful to give them a walkthrough, a Twitter-style wizard, or arrows and tooltips?


I work with a team that maintains a desktop application (Java) that is clunky and too complex. It's really hard to change, because of some underlying issues with its code. We're working on its replacement, but this won't be ready for a while.

In the meantime, we'd like to help new users with the existing application.

Common user problems

From the Support logs I know that the most common problems are for new users, in these areas:

  • I just installed this and it's mostly blank. What am I supposed to do?
  • How do I do various basic and important tasks? (e.g. create a folder, give a colleague access to a folder, update my password, etc)
  • How do I do more complex tasks? (e.g. integrate it into my website, set up access controls for a large organization, etc). I don't intend to try to deal with this level of issue in a generic walkthrough.

Possible solutions

Here are my ideas:

  • Walkthrough: Immediately after installation, show a tutorial-style tour (including a Skip option). No interaction; they just click Next Next Next until it is done.

  • Tooltips: Decorate the interface with arrows and text bubbles to point out where to do things. Let users turn this off and on.

  • Twitter-style wizard: Create a wizard-tutorial hybrid (what is this called?) that makes the user do some foundational tasks. Interestingly, Twitter forces new users through their wizard, and you can't escape until you have done it.


Because we are working on a new interface, we want to minimize the work we do here. When the new interface is ready, we will throw out the old one and its associated walkthrough/tutorial/wizard.

We can detect whether a user is new to our product or has been around for a while.

So: which would be most effective for our new users? Or can you think of a better approach?

2 Answers 2


You will have two sorts of users:

  • The old VCR users who just shoved the tape into the machine and searched for the play button. Their VCR never showed the correct time when in standby. They are the ones who want to explore your new program on their own. They will fiercely be annoyed by a walk-through-how-to-guid (if they cant skip it) and click through it as fast as possible to gain access to their freshly installed program. They will also be annoyed by bubbles and tooltips showing on functions or buttons they do not want to click or try out at that moment.

  • And then you have the VRC users who actually read the user manual to program a timed record etc. The users who would welcome your first walkthrough when starting your program. But that wouldn't be enough for them. They are the ones who will search for the help function and suck up any tutorial and guid they can find before using a function etc.

My suggestion would be trying to offer both parties a solution: Give them a help function which indicates involved tools when searching for a topic while also offering the opportunity to go in to depth (as in user manual or how-tos). Best example: MacOS help search in every Cocoa application.

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Entering a search phrase within the help menu (1) will hover a blue arrow (2) on the function which might be related to the phrase. Your search results also include links to more detailed parts of the user manual (3).


I think all your options are valid. The main thing you need to remember though is that not all users are alike. This doesn't mean that you have to implement different ways for them to learn - it just means that they might not (want to) do what you tell them to.

Let's say you go with a quick walkthrough with several steps where you explain how to do something.

Some users may want to bypass this walk-through for now because they quickly need access to your system to get a certain job done. Or maybe they skip the walk-through for now to explore a bit on their own, then get lost later on and need help to figure stuff out again. And some will just not bother at all, and hope they run into everything on their own. And others again will do the walkthrough, not use the app for months, and come back totally blank, not remembering a thing.

So I'd suggest breaking everything you do up into small pieces and, for example, having a page-specific help button, that they can click to immediately (re-)access whatever help/tour function you implement. If you've got the time, maybe even allow them to click a help button and then a specific page element, and get a popup bubble with a few words to help for that element.

The point is that they should be able to initiate this on their own, because you can't expect them tot do as you say, or remember what you said.

So let them initiate it whenever they seem fit, and it's up to you to decide how much effort you want to put into the method you choose, as tool-tips are obviously easier than walkthroughs.

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