Game developers in the 1980s didn’t just need to teach people how to play the games they made, they needed to teach people how to play video games generally. For many, the classic Nintendo games of the ’80s were the first games they ever played, and where they fell in love with gaming.
Think back to that time—like, say with virtual reality right now—there were no guarantees that video games were going to be a household phenomenon. They could have just as easily ended up a totally niche or temporary fad. It was absolutely essential to their livelihood and the existence of the industry that they made games that would be easy to pick up and that would stick.
That’s why there was so much at stake with user onboarding in classic Nintendo games, and why so many of the time-tested truths from that era still apply today. Lets dive into the 3 absolutely critical lessons for you to learn, along with with how you can use them to level-up your app.
Teach the game by playing the game
Super Mario Brothers, released in 1985, opens with level 1-1, perhaps one of the most iconic video-game levels of all time. It’s also a master class in user onboarding, explaining how to play the game through gameplay itself.
Legendary game designer and creator of Super Mario Brothers Shigeru Miyamoto explained that the goal of 1-1 was that “within that one section…the player would understand the concept of what Mario was supposed to be and what the game was about.”
The level starts with a menacing Goomba moving towards Mario (pictured above)—however, it turns out that the Goomba was a late addition.
Originally, the designers had a Koopa Troopa that came towards you. If you remember, killing a Koopa Troopa was a 2 step process: (1) stomp on them and they’ll go into their shell, and then (2) kick the shell. After thinking about it, designers decided that it might be too complex for a first enemy encounter to have players master both the jump and the kick.
Miyamoto and team explicitly invented the Goomba as an enemy that you could kill with the jump alone. Because conceptually, turtles can’t be killed by a single jump alone given their protective shells, they decided to create the Goomba as a “bad mushroom” which gave the Goomba its distinctive waddle and angry eyebrows.
Later in 1-1, the game designers prepared players for the more advanced concept of the B-Dash—where you could hold down the B button to run. They created two nearly-identical formations with gaps in between that would inspire you to build up speed to jump across. If you fell into the first gap, you would land safely, but falling into the second gap would kill you.
As Miyamoto describes it, “We added a hole that you’ll need to speed up for and then jump. [However,] we made sure that there were some parts that even if the player fell, it would be safe. By doing that, we wanted the player to gradually and naturally understand what they’re doing.”
To Miyamoto, it’s incredibly powerful to teach a player how to play the game, in-game, because that way they quickly take ownership over what happens. While walkthroughs or tours explain how the game works, interactive tutorials to get you doing it yourself. “Once the player realizes what they need to do, it becomes their game,” Miyamoto emphasized.
And once the player gets invested, that’s when they start having fun
Say hi to Slackbot
The popular team-messaging app, Slack, onboards new users by getting them to jump right in and chat right away—with a computer named Slackbot. It’s through the interaction with Slackbot that you set up your profile, rather than having to go into a settings panel and fill out a series of fields. What makes this misdirection so powerful is that you’re getting comfortable using Slack at the same time.
- How to chat generally
- How to read direct messages
- How to send direct messages
“We think we’re chatting to a nice, friendly robot when we’re actually learning things,” Brandall observes.
That’s the power of the in-game tutorial—you get to interact and experience the app immediately, and that gets you learning by doing
- Dropping users into an empty dashboard is one of the biggest, most common mistakes that startups make. That’s akin to dropping gamers into World 4-3 of Super Mario Brothers without teaching them first about jumping and B-dashing. As user onboarding expert Samuel Hulick explains, you can’t “count  on the interface to explain the value of your product.” You need to actually onboard your users for them to learn how to use the product and become experts.
- Don’t present all of your features up front in a massive wave of modal windows and tooltips. Like in games, few people read the instruction manual before they get started—they want to learn this stuff by playing. Know what core features you want users to be fluent in, present those 1-2 key things up-front, and focus 100% of your energy on hammering them home.
- Ramp up complexity progressively, over time</b>, when users themselves discover the value for it. B-Dash in World 1-1 is a nice to have, but World 4-3 is impossible without it. A progressive ramp up in difficulty that corresponds with a progressive ramp in complexity is a common game mechanic, and it’s something you should understand in designing feature discovery in your app. Teach users advanced features with tooltips, hotspots, and modal windows using Appcues when they’re ready to get more power out of your app.
Design for the naive user
In Contra, released in 1987, you had to get through 8 stages of insanely difficult guerrilla warfare on just a total of 12 lives, where touching a single bullet was enough to kill you. It’s often recognized as one of the most difficult games ever made.
Classic Nintendo games in general were often absurdly hard. When games today are built to evoke a retro feel, they’re often purposely designed to be hard—but that wasn’t a conscious decision for game designers in the ‘80s.
To former Nintedo president Satoru Iwata, games ended up impossibly difficult as a result of a quirk in the game development process. And it’s something that plagues product teams of all kinds to this very day.
“Video games from that era are abnormally hard. Back in the NES generation, for example, let’s say everyone debugs a game after it’s finished. Everyone involved in the production would spend all night playing it, and because they made games, they became good at them. So these expert gamers made the games.”
When you build a product, you become an expert in your product—and that makes you blind to the difficulty of a naive user in getting started with it. You confuse your knowledge and experience using the product with inherent intuitiveness in the product. You can’t understand how anyone else wouldn’t immediately understand how to use the product.
Take a cue from Iwata and Nintendo’s learning. Don’t make your SaaS product as hard to master and as frustrating as Contra. Design your user onboarding for the naive user, not for the product expert, and you’ll retain far more of them on the path to making them experts.
How HubSpot does user testing to 4x its onboarding
When marketing company HubSpot redesigned its new user onboarding flow, it extensively incorporated user testing sessions with real users—and it was able to 4x its target metric as a result.
Rather than just run user testing internally with an in-house UX or QA team, it reached out to people outside of the organization, expressly intending to talk to unengaged trial users—naive users for whom the current new user onboarding flow had failed.
At each step of the user testing process, HubSpot UX researcher Rachel Decker placed extreme importance on making users feel comfortable to make mistakes and show where they’re getting tripped up. Those are exactly the areas that you’re overlooking as an expert in your own product and where you’ll find your opportunities to improve.
While conducting user testing, here are three key areas you need to get right:
- Reaching out via email: Make it very clear that it’s not a sales call. This will improve your response rates and get the user to lower their guard, which will get you the most honest feedback on how you can improve.
- Background questions: During the interview, ask open-ended questions, not yes/no questions or leading questions. This will get the user to open up about their experience with the product. You may be surprised about the unexpected directions in which the conversation will go—those are your opportunities to learn.
- Task-based walkthrough: Tell the users you’re testing your designs, not them—and have them go through the different tasks without intervening in any way. You’ll be tempted to prime users to succeed with your design, because it’s human nature to want your work to pay off. But if you want to learn how the naive user thinks about your design, give them room to try and fail with it.
Design for keeping your expertise out of the user testing process, and you’ll maximize your opportunity to learn the most from the people who know the least about your product
- Run user testing with people outside of your organization to minimize the Contra effect. Services like UserTesting.com make it easy to set up a HubSpot-esque, task-based user testing flow, record the session, and easily play it back to see where users tripped up.
- Target reaching out to users who aren’t experienced in using your app. These are the people who will give you the best feedback on how to improve your onboarding. Services like Customer.io make it easy to send targeted email to users based on what they’re not doing in your app.
- Ask users to accomplish a series of tasks in your new onboarding flow. It’s not enough just to ask questions. You need to watch them actually try to use your flow. However, don’t wait until the new flow is built before running user testing—sketches, interactive mockups, and anything else all do the trick. InVision is a great tool for rapid prototyping and quickly producing mockups that users can play with.
Inspire users to progress
The “need to complete” is one of the most powerful psychological drivers of video game engagement, and no classic game embodies that better than Tetris.
In Tetris, puzzle pieces fall from the sky—organize them neatly to create complete horizontal lines, and the blocks will disappear. Otherwise, the blocks stack up until they fill up the screen, and then it’s game over. What sounds like a very simple mechanic actually becomes incredibly addictive as a result of a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
Back in the 1930s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that waiters had amazing abilities to remember a large number of complex orders—but once the order had been fulfilled, something interesting happened. The waiters instantly forgot what it was that customers had ordered as soon as the food and drink hit the table.
This inspired Zeigarnik to study memory, and what she discovered explains the addictive power of Tetris and teaches important lessons for how to design your onboarding process in your app.
Zeigarnik found that people remember uncompleted tasks stick in your memory, while completed tasks are more easily forgotten. When you pursue a task but leave it unfinished, your brain will keep bugging you about it until it’s done.
“Tetris does this wonderfully…[because] it presents a world of perpetual uncompleted tasks,” according to Tom Stafford, psychologist at the University of Sheffield. You get totally hooked as completed tasks disappear and they’re instantly replaced with more uncompleted tasks.
Modern game and app developers have taken this lesson and applied it to the very earliest stages of the user journey, where it’s most critical that you hook the user on your product—user onboarding.
Open world games like Grand Theft Auto V, for example, show an overall percent completion meter, plus a number of progress bars to guide your in-game progress. Beating the game’s primary storyline will take you a few weeks, but that will only gets you about 60% of the way to completion. You’ll play potentially hundreds more hours doing a ton of random side missions just to see that progress meter hit 100%.
Make your user onboarding as addictive as Tetris, and that means getting more users to that WOW moment where they see your app’s core value and they become customers for life.
Ghost’s progress bar improved conversion by 370%
Blogging platform Ghost noticed that when a user added a custom theme during the onboarding process, they were 1,000% more likely to convert to paying customers. That was a massive insight, which prompted the question: how do we get more users to add a custom theme.
They turned to the Zeigarnik effect to inspire users to make progress on their blogs.
Ghost added a simple progress bar to its onboarding flow. There were 5 steps, one of which was to replace the default theme with a theme of their own choice. This simple design choice allowed users to take ownership over their blogs and feel like they had created their own small space on the World Wide Web.
Completing each step would add a bit more orange to your progress meter, until it was all filled up. On the surface, this is a tiny, insignificant incentive—but if you understand the Zeigarnik effect, you could probably predict that this little progress bar had a huge impact.
Each incomplete step was reinforced with the negative space in the progress meter, a checklist of remaining steps, and email reminders that would get triggered when users hadn’t signed in for a couple of days.
Prior to creating the progress bar, only 7% of users had added a custom theme during their trial period. After they added the progress bar, that number jumped to 26%, a nearly 4x increase of trial users primed to buy a full paying subscription.
- Add progress measurement to your onboarding process. Without guiding users on how to make progress, they won’t know what steps are important for them to achieve to succeed using the app. Startup founder Hugo Liu quotes game theoristsSalen & Zimmerman on this point from their book Rules of Play: “Without a measure of progress to give a player feedback on the meaning of his or her decisions, meaningful play is not possible.” The same goes for getting meaningful usage out of your app.
- Reinforce the incomplete tasks throughout your app. In-app, make the progress bar and the uncompleted steps a visible part of the experience. Use tooltips and checklists with Appcues to remind users of their progress and what’s left to accomplish. An email platform like Customer.io can help you target and re-engage users who haven’t logged in for a few days with reminders.
- Weave incomplete tasks throughout your entire user journey. More and more apps are creating ongoing progress meters that extend beyond the user onboarding period. This provides a way to perpetually inspire re-enagement via incomplete tasks.
Onboarding users to a new superpower
Your product’s onboarding process is where users will learn how to use their newfound powers. Do it right, and your users will be running around, shooting fireballs and saving the Mushroom Kingdom in no time.