Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: September 7, 2012

Creating a useful product tutorial

One of our greatest struggles with GoSoapBox, the award-winning student response system, is educating users about our product.

Education is more than about how to navigate an interface. We also need to show our users what features exist, when they would use them, and where to find help. I often refer to this as designing the onboarding experience. That name isn’t very catchy, though, and if you are interested in the topic you should check out the slides from Daniel Burka’s presentation after reading this post.

What we have found with GoSoapBox is that educators who participate in a live demonstration of the product very quickly grasp the concepts behind it. That is, when we have their attention, they absorb our mental model with ease, and are much more likely  to continue using the product. Teachers who onboard without such a demonstration are less likely to continue using it.

Live demonstrations require a lot of extra time. Because we prefer to keep these sessions one-on-one, there are a limited number of teachers we can onboard in a given week. So for those we cannot reach directly, we offer a thorough knowledge base, videos, and a quick-response support system.

Unfortunately, the resources we have created aren’t always used. We’ve been searching for a new approach to hands-off onboarding. I’m going to mention a few here:


Screenshot of Desk Dot Com

Desk.com, a popular support/help system, incentivizes product discovery by giving users bonus flex hours by doing new things. This approach works because Desk.com is a broad application with a lot going on. They believe their product is valuable, and to get users to see that value they want them to sink their teeth in deep during the trial period.

Incentivizing comes easier to Desk.com because they have something to give away, these flex hours (they charge by support agent, and flex hours allow someone to be a part-time agent). For a product like GoSoapBox, the users we want to discover features are not paying anything anyway. To gamify feature discovery, we would have to ger very inventive about what to give away. Maybe a t-shirt.


Screenshot of Kera dot io

From the screenshot, you are probably having a hard time guessing what Kera does. When you click their ‘demo’ button, a video playback box appears and you hear the voice of the product’s founder, Max Cameron. What happens next looks like a standard video, but is actually an automated tutorial. A piece of recorded JavaScript takes over during this audio recording and begins interacting with the page, guiding visitors through the homepage intro slides before inviting them to sign up for the beta.

The potential of Kera is that it can allow a visitor to engage with the tutorial. For example, we could create Kera tutorials for each GoSoapBox feature … a brief discussion of polling and then inviting the teacher to create their first poll without having to switch between a help page and our product.

For the time being, though, Kera is in a limited beta and not available for widespread consumption. Definitely something to keep an eye on.


Screenshot of Tutorialize dot me

Tutorialize is a bit more simplistic, but also provides an interactive approach to a product tutorial. After clicking “See an example”, a little yellow box appears on the screen. Clicking ‘Next” within that box opens another dialog elsewhere on the page, and the screen scrolls to that location.

This could be very useful for introducing a complex user interface.

Pulse App (iOS)

Screenshot of Pulse App tutorial page

Pulse is a RSS feed reader for iOS devices. The screenshot above is for Pulse’s iPad version. The first time you load the app, a semi-transparent screen appears above the normal display with instructions and arrows. They point to a few important tools and use the rest of the space to set expectations for use. “This is how you’ll use Pulse”.

Successfully setting expectations is the greatest outcome of a product tutorial. When you transfer your product’s conceptual model to a user, they will understand how to fit it within their existing workflows, leading to much greater retention than if they’re not sure what you’re about.


In this article, I have highlighted several approaches to hands-off onboarding. While not perfect, they are interesting alternatives to status-quo knowledge bases and videos.