A Beginning is a Delicate Time

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct”, said Frank Herbert as the writings of the Princess Irulan of his science fiction book Dune.[1]

Thinking zombieWhen analysing an interaction system, one of the first questions I ask is: “Where does this story begin?” I find it all too often that a digital application’s initial screen has an excessively complex menu, where one doesn’t know which option one should take to start using it. My typical example is the Microsoft Outlook calendar, where one has menu options of something like “new meeting”, “new appointment”, and “new…”. If I want to mark my vacation to the calendar, is it a meeting, or an appointment? Behind the third option, I find actually the two earlier options repeated, for all that I see there. The counter example is Google Calendar, where there is one clear button in red colour, reading: “new…”. Once I click it, the system starts asking me sensible questions that I can answer. This button is, where the story begins, and it ends with a proper marking made in the calendar. Neat and tidy! This is a significant part of “onboarding”.

Onboarding is one of the four phases of interactor journey introduced by Yu-Kai Chou in his book “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards”.[2] These phases are: “discovery”, where a person learns about a system and gets interested in it, “onboarding” where a person starts using the system and learns how to use it, “scaffolding” where the user finally, properly uses the system, and “endgame” where a single use case of the system is finished, cleanup is done, and it leaves the user with a disappointed feeling, or a hunger for using it again.

The onboarding phase is the most delicate and challenging for the designer. It is the phase, where the user initially knows nothing about the system. What are the controls? What are the rules? What is the goal? Where does one start?

Most systems manage to get the setup described clearly enough (although there are exceptions to this too).  The user’s guide explains what pieces there should be and how they should be initially distributed. Shuffle the decks of cards. Set some initial values for value fields. Create and tune a character. Create a new file.

After the setup, there is the beginning of action, which is where things often easily fail. Who does what, in which order, and what does it affect? There are two typical approaches by the interactors for this: 1) trial and error, and 2) familiarise yourself with the user’s guide. The second one is the more mature approach. Learn the system by reading about it. The challenge here can be, if the user’s guide is poorly written that the user may be confused and get a headache and become discouraged to start using the system at all. The guide is usually written by people who know the system thoroughly, and when the system is so familiar, they easily neglect explaining things that appear obvious to them, or they use terminology that can only be understood by people already familiar with the system. The third approach is often more fun – the interactor gets immediately rewarding sensations of actually getting to use the system, which is more rewarding than just reading about it. With some systems, this option is infeasible, because there are restrictions for using the systems, such as ticket costs, or the system consumes fuel or some such, which entails a cost, or the system may be actually critical, so that errors cause harm to things – possibly even living things. Also, in trial-and-error-onboarding often the guide design is important. The guide should have it easy to find descriptions of the system usage in every step on the way. Faults here cause the users being frustrated over spending a lot of time trying to find answers to the questions that arise during the game, or they use the system in a wrong way, if they fail to find some rule that is an exception in a particular situation to another rule.

A proper user’s guide should be designed from at least three different approaches: 1) It should be a hand-leading guide for the first time users for how to start using the system, 2) it should be pleasurable to read through as a book that introduces the reader to the system, without actually needing to have the system available for trying out things at the same time, and 2) it should be an effective reference manual for the experienced user to find answers to any arising situation during the use of the system.

Especially for entertainment systems, the people are unlikely to want to read through a whole book first, when they feel like they want to be entertained by the system. Also, when they don’t feel for entertainment, they are unlikely to study the rules of such a system, unless the phase of introduction has really hooked them to be curious enough. Throughout history, people have gamified the onboarding phase in one way or another. Learning a profession is social activity within an educational system, if it is not apprenticeship, where one can join the actual activity with someone already professional.

A book that concentrates on giving step-by-step instructions on starting to use a system, is tedious reading on it’s own. When a person reads a book, it is expected that the book has a bottom-up or top-down structure for it’s content, covering the whole concept of it’s topic in a systematic way, rather than just going through cases of using a system, and then filling in the blanks at the end. This is the contradiction between the second and first approach of user’s guide design. A book that explains different situations, like a dictionary, isn’t fluent reading either. It tends to either repeat the same thing over and over again, or ask the reader to read more about this and that from this and that page all around the book. The reader wants to start reading the book from the beginning and finish at the end – once again in a systematic way. This is the contradiction between the second and third approach.

Often the user’s guides are poor reference manuals. A stepwise guide and a system description can teach a person to use a system, but when the user forgets something, or there is a complicated situation with room for interpretations, those approaches are not effective. There should be a section explaining the workings of a value that in the system use goes to zero, if the guide typically only talks about the value either being above zero or falling below zero. Most preferably this section should explain, what this particular value means, but at least it should describe the purpose and effects of the value enough for the user to be able to deduce the meaning. This third approach of the user’s guide is more relevant to the third and fourth phase of interaction journey, and a bit less to the onboarding phase.

One typical practise here is to fuse introductory phase with the onboarding phase so that the new person observes other people using the system, which introduces it to them, as well as teaches them the basics. This is how I learned to play 9-ball billiards, for example. Seeing how it was played in the movie Colour of Money, I picked up the basics, and therefore no longer needed the step-wise getting started manual. Instead I needed the reference manual (official rule book) to fill in the remaining blanks and fix some misconceptions I had, due to having seen only so much of the game play in the movie, and the rules having changed a bit since the making of the movie.

Registering as a user is often an important part of the onboarding phase. In a way, it’s on the border of the introductory phase, where the potential user is reading about the system on a page where there are visible the input fields for a form through which one registers as a new user, and the onboarding phase, where the user needs to introduce themselves to the system in effort to gain the necessary resources to start using it. It can be seen as a part of the setup, where the players write their names on the game board.

Registering can be scary, because it can involve risks. There are people, who don’t use Facebook, because they don’t want to give Facebook the information it asks from them. Facebook is collecting a huge database of personal information to be used for marketing purposes – you will find personalised advertisements in Facebook, based on the 1) personal information you give directly to them, as you register, 2) personal information that Facebook gathers through your web browser and your IP-address as you surf the web, especially where there are Facebook-provided advertisements on web sites other than Facebook, 3) personal information that you enter to Facebook, as you use it, and 4) personal information of the group of people you have as Facebook friends.

For whom do you give your name, address, credit card details, phone number, and other such information, as you register, and what are they going to do about it? Can you use the identity that you would like to, or is that reserved already by someone else? Most often all nicknames shorter than four characters are already registered in popular systems, so I can’t usually get “bgt” as my username. And even for longer names, such as Matt_Smith, they can easily been taken already, and the system recommends something like Matt_Smith_2042, or such. Not only is this annoying, but it also makes one think about Matt_Smith_2041 – is this person really someone else names Matt Smith, or is this person trying to impersonate him?

Registration can also be too complicated and faulty. A game might refuse to start on a game console, because the console cannot connect to the game producer’s server to register the copy of the game and the player. The registration form may try to enforce the legitimacy of given information by inspecting that the ZIP-code and county name are correct according to the USA adressing format, forgetting that a scandinavian person can have weird characters in their street address, and the format of the address is different – not to mention Asian addresses.

It’s been several times for me, where the onboarding has ceased at the point of registering as a user. In one way, this has been a failure of their discovery phase, as they haven’t gotten me interested enough to find the requirements of registering worthwhile.

One problem in registering is that people have to register in so many different services. One should, of course, have separate strong passwords for each registered systems, and also change these passwords every now and then. People are reluctant of having yet another password in yet another account. For this, a contemporary solution is to use Facebook or Google accounts as means for authentication. Instead of needing to decide which username and password to use in a new system, and go through the e-mail confirmation procedure, one can just click to login with a Google account. The trade-off here is, of course, that now Google/Facebook knows that you are using this service, and also how often you are using it, and on the other hand, the service knows, who you exactly are in Google/Facebook.

One further common part of onboarding, especially in games, is creating a character. Typically, the most problematic part here is that it can be excessively time consuming, and that you get stuck with the choices you make at this point for at least the rest of the game session. It is problematic at this point of onboarding that the user doesn’t know much about the character, and yet they should design how it looks like. When one plays an adult character in a game, it is assumed that the character has a history. At it’s best, the history will be written during the character generation. At it’s worst, the game has a ready set history for the character, but it can’t be revealed to the player, because it would spoil the plot of the game. So does the character have scars or not?

Gauguin titled a painting in 1897 as: “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?)[3] The title and the painting emphasise, how the beginning is important in defining the essence of something. The direction where the thing is heading, is more complex, as it is both, also an important part of the thing’s essence, as well as defined by the thing’s beginning and essence. As director David Lynch had Virginia Madsen say as the character Princess Irulan in the 1984 film adaptation of Herbert’s Dune: “A beginning is a very delicate time.”

Paul Gauguin's painting
Paul Gauguin – Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

[1] Frank Herbert, “Dune”, Version 3, Ace Books, New York, 2010. (The book originally published in 1965)

[2] Yu-Kai Chou, “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards”, 2015.

[3] Wikipedia, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Do_We_Come_From%3F_What_Are_We%3F_Where_Are_We_Going%3F (Referred in 18.7.2017)

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