Nobody ever reads the manual. Video games worked this out years ago, and it’s now standard to begin a game with limited features/functionality/ability and for the full gamut of buttons presses to be revealed in contextual narrative form during Level 1. It was a very simple step to achieve – it only required two changes to be made.

  1. Introduce the game’s narrative in the Tutorial
  2. Rename the Tutorial to Level 1.

By calling the tutorial Level 1 it takes on a new importance from it’s new mandatory state underscoring the importance of delivering as compelling an experience here as in the rest of the game. The reason N.E.R.T.F.M. is because the main event is far more compelling, which is why making the manual part of the main event is a great solution.

After more than 30 minutes of play I realised that
all this time I had just been taking part in a Level 1
that was equal parts tutorial and intro

And the best games deliver Level 1 seamlessly. Take Oblivion as an example. I started the game a skeptic, convinced that overcomplicated gameplay would damage the rich narrative I hoped for. After more than 30 minutes of play I realised that all this time I had just been taking part in a Level 1 that was equal parts tutorial and intro, and now all of a sudden I was being let loose on a massive free flowing world with a fairly adept understanding of how to interact with it.

Is it possible to use this approach elsewhere? To establish this we need to understand what is going on.

  1. Users are identified as new.
  2. New users are given reduced functionality, but are put in an environment where the initial limited functionality is adequate.
  3. A basic level of knowledge is assumed so as not to patronise users – game tutorials assume you can use a joystick to move around.
  4. Abilities are introduced one at a time in context with the users need to use the new ability to overcome a relevant obstacle.

If we consider the Level 1 approach for an application things are not as simple. If I spend several hundred dollars on the new version of Photoshop and after installing it I’m denied the clone tool as it is something I’m going to have to earn the right to use I’ll quickly become frustrated. Bearing this in mind we would have to offer users the option to skip Level 1 activating the full functionality of the app right away.

he openly encouraged students and enthusiasts who didn’t have the budget for his software to steal a copy of it

This has been tried before. Back in the day, Kai Krause brought us his Power Tools, a creative hot bed of over the top filters for Photoshop. Kai was a bit of a hippy and had an anti-establishment approach to user interface and software development – he openly encouraged students and enthusiasts who didn’t have the budget for his software to steal a copy of it and if they ever made enough money for it then they could buy it.

Although Kai’s Power Tools was accessed from the Filters menu in Photoshop, when selected a new UI full screened over Photoshop’s menus and palettes which initially had limited functionality, which was a good thing because the interface was genuinely weird. As the software was used, more functionality starts to reveal itself, but only functionality relevant to the type of work being already being done. This meant that my installation of KPT ended up with different functionality from your installation.

Although this sounds extreme, it’s not far from what Microsoft have tried with recent versions of Office where the apps decide which menu items should be shown at first click based on the type of use, with the full menu available after a few seconds delay. This however proved frustrating for many users as it resulted in menu items being hidden unexpectedly resulting in disorientation.

So perhaps reducing app functionality is a step too far, but we should at least recognise a novice user and offer them more support. Most apps have tooltips active by default and more and more feature a landing screen when opened without a document visible – both steps in the right direction.

An interface is about hiding complexity from the user

When you visit a tab on a Basecamp project with no submitted content it displays a link to a tutorial video on how to use that section – a simple and effective example of helping beginners that isn’t overly intrusive to expert users that simply haven’t added data to that tab yet.

I’m going to end this article with a quote from Mr Krause himself.

“An interface is about hiding complexity from the user, It’s about guiding a process, without cognitive understanding of what goes on beneath. Interface design is the art of enveloping the observer in an enticing, “try this” exploration with ever-new elements and designs as the tools to triumph in new territories.”