The Help Page — What Every App Inventor Needs to Know

photo 2One of the things you hear a lot from people who like to complain about digital magazine apps is “If you have to tell me how to use it, you’ve already failed.”

I think that’s completely insane.

I had to read instructions for Candy Crush (and Doodle Jump and Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja) the first time I played it; that doesn’t make that game a fail. Consuming content on a touchscreen canvas is completely new world, new interface, new paradigm. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling people how to use your app. In fact, if you don’t, you’re driving people away by making them feel stupid. People would much rather be reassured that they do know how to use an app than feel dumb because they don’t instinctively know everything about your app. That isn’t an excuse for bad UI, but no matter how simple your app, it’s unlikely every user will just get it.

So, here are four things we recommend every app inventor implement:

1)    Embed a help page in your app. Mag+ apps make this easy with a dedicated menu item for it (which is optional, in case you are in the “no help page” camp). Make it simple. Establish a clear set of icons. Highlight the basic gestures. Check out Mental Floss for a really clean and simple example, or check out the brilliant Unlimited, which does unique help pages in each issue, including video.

Whatever you do in that space, you can even choose to have the app open directly into it (under Build Options in your App settings).

But that’s not the only place for a help guide.

You can use the new overlay layer to have a persistent help icon sit on top of your issue that can bring up a popup how-to graphic or jump to a help page. If you use Localytics as your analytics option (free if you have less than 10,000 users), you can use its in-app messaging capability to pop up a how-to graphic the first time a user opens the app or opens an issue. Check out Outside magazine for an example.

2)    Don’t be afraid to nudge your users in the issue with arrows and directions—don’t assume people will know to swipe or tap. Particularly in the first few pages of a document or issue, make the icons clear and visible—they can get more subtle as you get into the issue. You can even use the slideshow feature to create a subtle animation on the icons, like a bouncing or glowing effect.

3)    Add an FAQ to your help section. Chris Tarrow, who runs digital for Shape, Men’s Fitness and others, recently added an FAQ at the bottom of the embedded help page for Shape and saw his support emails decrease by 75 percent almost immediately. Since Shape is a standard Mag+ app, many of the FAQs there will likely apply to your app as well.

4)    Finally, if none of your embedded resources are enough—or if a user just doesn’t like to read instructions—provide plenty of easy mechanisms for them to contact you. The simplest way to do that is to put a pre-populated email link. I’m a fan of including these all over the place. An even more seamless option is to use our add-on Appboy service, which provides a Feedback window directly in the app—through your Appboy dashboard, you can reply directly to users by email or even push message. All the feedback you get through these mechanisms reduces the negative reviews users leave in the iTunes store.

Seen any help pages you like? Have other ideas for guiding users? Share them with us in the comments below.