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The spectrum of in-app guidance between help and action

Emily Wang
5 min read

Slack is an often-cited example of a product with amazingly intuitive guidance and help, and many SaaS products aspire to deliver an experience like Slack.

But what is it that we’re trying to deliver? A product that actually needs no explanation? Effective guidance? The right amount of help? All of it?

Our take: it depends.

2 examples of In-app guidance to achieve customer activation in Slack

  1. When you have manually searched for a channel or user enough times, you’ll get a tooltip pop up that suggests CMD+K as a shortcut for switching channels
  2. When trying to set up SSO, there’s an in-app link to “learn more” which opens a help center article.

What is the difference between these examples of in-product support?

The first feels like a nudge and the second feels like help. Why?

Pithy and action-triggered → nudge.

  • The more direct the content, the more it feels like it’s driving the user to take action.

Support when a user is already motivated → help.

  • When a supporting explanation is offered after the user is already motivated, that feels more like help.

For in-app guidance, what causes the difference? The message or the framing?

Imagine instead, that the first example (a contextual tip to use CMD + K) was a modal that popped up on a new user’s login that said:

“Did you know that Slack has keyboard shortcuts? Try CMD+K to see them”.

Instantly, that feels like (unwanted, disruptive) marketing instead of a nudge.

Why?

  • Irrelevant. What does logging-in have to do with a keyboard shortcut? And why should a user try this, of all things now?
  • Wrong form factor. A pop-up modal instantly makes us think we’re being marketed to which is ineffective if we’re trying to drive action.

Under-the-hood, this experience might have been driven by a desire by a particular team to increase adoption metrics. In other words, driving internal goals vs. customer goals. Or, the modal content is created based wanting to ensure there's a complete set of announcements for ever key feature. In other words, chasing "completion".

In-app support on a spectrum

A more effective approach is to look at where users are on a spectrum of awareness and motivation. Once we identify that, we can shape more effective solutions to these gaps.

Users who aren’t aware

If users aren’t aware of something critical, then thoughtfully interrupt them with some kind of announcement. Here, it’s most important to moderate how many disruptions a particular user or user-segment is exposed to. 

For example, new users are particularly easily distracted. You can tell by how they click around your app, hoping from one thing to the next. Plus, everything is by definition “new” for new users, so disruptions like a new feature announcement feel out of place.

A less disruptive and more effective form factor to motivate new users is the classic new user onboarding guide or checklist. But since these users also have an awareness gap, the most effective onboarding lists enhance “to dos” with critical context setting, education, and useful tips.

Here’s an example of Intercom’s new user onboarding guide which nicely marries education with action, all in a persistent and trackable page.

Users who are motivated but stuck

On the other end of the spectrum are users who have found themselves trying to take a particular action but are stuck. A great source of signal comes from support tickets and questions. 

By building a robust and easily searchable help center, users can effectively self-serve. Documentation can be paired with live chat, where the job is often routing and triaging. Ultimately, the best solution might be an iteration on the product UI/UX, but it doesn’t make sense to withhold help until then. 

Users who are aware(ish) but haven’t yet built the habit

And finally, the messy middle. 

If users have some basic awareness or reason to be motivated, provide a nudge especially while in the product and in a way that drives action. Many of us have experienced deeply integrated calls-to-action as an elegant way to point us to the next step. Other times, well placed help icons and tooltips provide helpful additional context.

The hardest thing to get right about the “middle” is timing. Most of the time – and especially with 3rd party tools – getting the exact timing of a nudge right is very difficult. When triggered at the wrong time, these nudges quickly feel like spam.

So what’s the alternative?

Contextual guides are about offering the right kind of help when the user is in the context where they can take action. By making these guides opt-in versus opt out, you can help the user without risking overwhelming them.

With Bento, we’ve designed contextual guides to show up when a user interacts with a visual tag.

A simplified example of visual tags in Bento, which users can opt into and see a contextual guide

Use in-app support in moderation

As with many things, emails, announcements, change logs, webinars, videos, guides, tooltips, etc. can quickly add up to being too much of a good thing. Most features don't need one of every type of help.

In a world of limited resources and limited bandwidth for maintenance, the good news is, rarely do you need “one of each” for every feature.

By surgically introducing help you can:

  • Reduce the internal cost to support the product
  • Reduce the likelihood of overwhelming and distracting your users (which might actually move them away from adopting)

That said, some product changes need the full spectrum. Those key features are often:

  • Powerful but visually small, or have a complex interaction
  • Take effort in setting up, and requires the user to adopt a new mental model or philosophy

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How you help and nudge users along in their adoption journey requires iteration and a lot of cross functional collaboration. But it can be simpler and easier when you focus on the goal of the user, and relax the pressure to do everything  on the spectrum.

  1. Useful things framed in the wrong way at the wrong time feel bad. Instead, think about it on this spectrum to deliver the right experience (form factor + content + audience)
  2. New user onboarding is a particularly unique segment where you want to marry awareness + action
  3. Assuming you have resource constraints, don’t aim for comprehensiveness because the audience is unlikely to be the same

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