Every avid gamer, upon purchasing the latest and greatest game, will plop down on his couch for an hour or so and read the manual cover-to-cover before installing the game. If your jaw is not hanging open after that first sentence, you’re obviously not counted as one. After spending years reading news about an upcoming game, participating in discussion forums and fan communities, downloading desktop wallpaper, and signing up for a chance to beta test, there is such anticipation to actually, finally play the game that nobody reads the manual. They install the game as quickly as they can swap the CDs and dive into the game headfirst.
Good game designers recognize this fact and design games accordingly. Most games begin with a tutorial, but these days, you may not recognize them as such. Typically, the tutorial is a beginner-level series of tasks that is directly tied into the story. You begin as an apprentice and have to buy some bread at the market. On the way there, an old woman asks you to kill the rats in her cellar. After you have learned how to fight by killing rats, learned how to carry on a conversation with the woman and the baker, and learned how to purchase an item, find it in your inventory, and navigate the game world to return it to your master, the epic story can kick off, throwing your simple existence into turmoil. You have just graduated from driver’s ed, but it didn’t feel like you were in class, and you didn’t have to impatiently work through lessons before playing.
How can this concept be applied to a software application that is intended for doing work, rather than for entertainment? There are many types of applications that require information to be entered before they are useful, such as personal finance tools. Such an application can lead the user through the steps of setting up her first account, scheduling her first automatic payment, and entering her first receipt. But what about applications for content creation, such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word? Often, graphics applications will include sample content for use within a tutorial, but that requires you to spend time doing the tutorial while making no progress on the work you want to accomplish.
The challenge, then, is to design a “tutorial” that will help you learn the tool while working on your own tasks.