Sometimes, when I design the layout of an app, I always think about that should I put a short description to tell user what this function is or how to use it. But, at the same time, I also think about that the user might learn everything after use this function one time, and maybe I don't need to put the short description. And, it will make the page cleaner and have more space.

I just wanna to know how to determine what should I do, when I design the user interface.

Should I tell users everything? Should I let users learn it by themselves?

  • This is a very broad question and is precisely why test methods exist.
    – jazZRo
    May 12, 2016 at 10:17
  • This is a good question. If it's a problem that keeps recurring and nagging at you, with no good answer, then its likely that it is a problem to all.
    – jackiemb
    Aug 11, 2016 at 6:43
  • Personally, if something is high-frequency, I'd drop the description and saying that if its used once, they will understand it. Looking back 10 years, I tended more toward description. I'm a more confident designer now. There is no right answer in terms of 'users will always have such-and-such behaviour'. HOWEVER a big influence on the design you choose is the environment in which you work. If there is a robust continuous improvement process, the risk is minimised. You are constantly monitoring the use of the design,and can go back and change. If it's a one-shot job, use more description.
    – jackiemb
    Aug 11, 2016 at 6:57

4 Answers 4


In an ideal world we will design a solution that is so obvious that everybody will instinctively know how to use it.

In the real world there are a number of factors that can influence whether additional information will be valuable or not:

  • Frequency. Is this something people will use once or lots of time?

  • Importance. Is there a chance the user will make mistakes?

  • Your User. Are they known to you (e.g. employees using your solution) or are they strangers (e.g. customers)?

As designers, we should be prepared to justify every visual element in the user interface. If we cannot think of a reason for something, then it is a candidate to be dropped.

However, as long as the description is short and succinct, and provides additional clarity, then I do not see this a bad thing.

  • Love this answer for your bullet points. Frequency. Importance. User.
    – jackiemb
    Aug 11, 2016 at 6:48

Don Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things) has a great quote that seems to cover this:

"When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual — even a one-word manual — then it is a failure, poorly designed."

Use gestalt techniques to add a layer of meaning and context to your controls and on-boarding sequences that show rather than tell because users simply don't read instructions.


For the first time visitors, it is a good practice to tell them what features lies where and how that feature can be used for a pleasant experience.

However, it depends on the type of users of your application. If technologically sound people are the target audience, I don't see a need to show description; as they are experienced users and they know what to do and what icon/button means what. If the users are non-technical then definitely - Yes. Showing the information of features will help them a lot. And, if the user are both technical/non-technical - it's good to keep the option.

Follow a little different pattern by showing a small popup message which reads 'I'm new to this site - show me how it works. Explore - Skip'


There are ways in which you can manage user's learning curve. It should be noted that a learned user should not feel that the UI is cluttered with information which she no longer needs.

Onboarding UI

This is a very common recent trend. When user signs up or logs in for the first time, she is shown a help overlay which helps understanding the UI metaphor. The most prominent functions are highlighted on the UI.

enter image description here

Another variant of this approach is to provide a tour for the user. That helps her to understand the process. There are patters regarding how to handle it.

Usually, there is way to restart this from user settings if user has forgotten.

Help icon or dictionary

This slightly old method was ubiquitous on early windows applications where users were shown a ? mark icon at the top right. Users could go on a particular function/button and get more information about it.

Although this no longer is a trend, for enterprise applications where screens are busy and huge data is on screen, such a feature can still prove to be helpful.

enter image description here

It has now matured into an icon next to such a function or a 'Learn More' link. On click of them contextual small information is shown on a small overlay.

enter image description here

There are entire help manuals for applications. This route is primarily taken in case of enterprise applications where there is huge information to be shared along with domain specific information or glossary etc.


For actions where icons are not self explanatory or there is more non standard actions, tooltips can come in handy. You can provide single line information about a function in a tooltip. It has been around since ages and still widely used.

However, you need to study your target users for at least two aspects. The frequency of operation and the learning curve. For example an income tax related website might be accessed once a year and user might need to re-learn the UI. In such case the small in context ? icon can prove to be beneficial. On the other hand, if your users use is frequently, the onboarding UI can be shown initial few times and then can be manually triggered from settings.

The importance should be given on the screen element affordance, the memorability of actions and frequency of use. Then it is easier to select an appropriate method for managing user's learning curve.

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