The Ideal First-Run Experience for an iPhone App Is None at All

Brent Simmons:

Isn’t there some quote, maybe even from Steve Jobs, about apps early in the day of the App Store, that went something like this? “iPhone apps should be so easy to use that they don’t need Help.”

I’ve always thought to myself, since then, that if I see a first-run tutorial, they blew it. Apps should be designed so that you can figure out the basics quickly, and then find, through progressive disclosure, more advanced features.

A complex iPhone app, even at its most ideal, may not truly reach the point where users must not need help, but they ought to be designed with that goal in mind. I’ve been stumped by even my favourite apps — I once accidentally switched off smart quotes in Tweetbot and it took longer than I am willing to publicly admit to figure out how to turn them back on.1 The best apps are those that require no instruction because they are designed and built with familiar components used in consistent ways.

If an app developer feels like they must include a tutorial, it ought to demonstrate more than it tells. The use of demo data are preferable. Incidentally, demo data, of a sort, recently created a little unfair App Review trouble for Simmons’ NetNewsWire. Demo data can be combined with a tutorial, if the app developer deems it necessary or useful, so long as the demo data can be automatically removed afterward. The best example that I’ve seen is Cultured Code’s Things to-do app, which does not need a tutorial, but has one for some of the app’s little shortcuts and gestures.

And, of course, all tutorials should be skippable.

Update: Brent Simmons writes more on the App Review issue:

The issue really is about the default feeds. They’re added by default on the first run of the app.


If a site provides a public feed, it’s reasonable to assume that RSS readers might include that feed in some kind of discovery mechanism — they might even include it as a default. This is the public, open web, after all.

Now, if NetNewsWire were presenting itself as the official app version of Daring Fireball, for instance, then that would be dishonest. But it’s not, and that’s quite clear.

I see very little difference between NetNewsWire’s default feeds and web browsers that include default bookmarks. Maybe popular web browsers like Firefox and Brave really have struck agreements with YouTube, Amazon, and Wikipedia to include their sites as bookmarks, but I doubt that, and I don’t think that ought to be a requirement. Likewise for feed readers.

If there is a good, non-arbitrary reason for this, Apple is apparently horrible at communicating it.

  1. For my future self: tap in the tweet compose box as though you were trying to copy or paste something. ↥︎