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When learning something new, do you prefer a walkthough, or instructions?

For example, if you were wanting to learn Vim, would you prefer something like this (walkthrough):

Using Vim is fun.

It can be hard to learn but it is worth the effort!

Move your cursor to the beginning of the 'h' in hard (using the hjkl keys) and press '4de' (to delete 4 words) and then type 'ifun and [escape]'.

or just simple instructions (imagine a better written version of this):

You can use delete to the end of a word with 'de'

You can put a number in front of a command to delete more than 1 word (example '4de')

etc... (again, imagine this is written a bit better, but hopefully you get the point).

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What about instructions during a walk-through? –  Chris Dec 3 '10 at 19:59
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closed as not constructive by Yannis Rizos Jun 3 '12 at 2:03

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10 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Doesn't matter, as long as it is well and interestingly written.

Otherwise, both can be terrible.

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Right on, either way can be a terrible experience and either way can be a great experience. It just depends! –  Chris Dec 3 '10 at 19:59
Sounds like a little bit of everything is needed to capture everyone's learning style. –  NotDan Dec 6 '10 at 16:52
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Just don't use any stupid talking dogs or peppy paperclips!

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It depends partly on how similar the new thing is to something I already know.

If it's new to me, but has a lot of similarities with something I already know, then the second style will let me just scan through quickly and pick out enough to get going fast. I can then dip back in when I run into issues.

If it's totally new - then I definitely benefit from a walkthrough, at least at the start. It helps me get in context for the new stuff. However, in order to be of benefit the walkthrough does have to explain, rather than just getting me to trot through mindlessly repeating stuff.

I guess, looking at your examples, that would make it a combination? I'm not sure when reading your question whether you intend to convey this, but the walkthrough doesn't give you general principles (you can use numbers in front of commands in vi, and that will apply the command to that number of items - words, lines, letters, whatever), and the instructions do. Was that distinction intentional?

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It's the old true novice vs. experienced but just needs some minor help question that you run into with any UX. –  MIA Dec 4 '10 at 1:21
+1 Exactly. If I'm learning a new IDE I just want a reference to look things up in. –  Michael K Dec 5 '10 at 0:28
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Screencasts every time

A quality screencast does everything: it provides a walkthrough, shows you how to do something and tells you background information (with hints and tips) at the same time. It's like having the expert at your shoulder.


  • vim - Provides good feedback
  • emacs - Very basic set up procedure

A bad screencast (like any bad instructions) can be truly awful.

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The problem with a screencast is it can't be quickly scanned. –  NickC Dec 3 '10 at 23:00
There's always turbo mode. –  VirtuosiMedia Dec 3 '10 at 23:04
When first learning, yeah, good screen casts please. The problem with screen casts is they are very hard to scan through quickly. They are useful for tutorial and not later reference to oversimplify it a bit. –  MIA Dec 4 '10 at 1:21
Agree. Any written instruction always need you to decode something, and this can be tedious, and perhaps even wrong for newer version of the software. –  user1249 Dec 4 '10 at 9:02
@Jim, teaching is an art, and some people are simply better at explaining than others. Screencasts are vastly better if the author follows a script! –  user1249 Dec 4 '10 at 9:05
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I have to say I like both. I need a reference that is comprehensive and practical scenarios/walkthroughs that show how the product is used in real life. If I had to make a choice, I'll take the reference and figure it out myself.

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First, the walkthrough. Shows me what I have to expect and I will soon be able to make a decision if it's worth learning or not (if the decision is on me).

Then, the instructions. The walkthough won't show me everything and of what it shows me, I won't remember everything. Instructions make a better reference, obviously. (A reference manual makes an even better reference ;-)

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Since there's no chance the instructions will give me a full picture of something as complex as vim, I'd go with the walkthrough so I have some sense of direction (and accomplishment). I don't think this can be generalised, however. Pick a concise and direct style, which should free you to work on the structure and the content.

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In my opinion, if there is a need for any of those, then the user interface is not clear enough.

Anyway, I would prefer instructions in a help file for some serious software and walkthroughs in a tutorial of a computer game.

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I'm not sure I fully understand the distinction, but from what I think I understood:

The walkthrough will explain how to to replace "hard" with "fun", requiring me to understand the underlying mechanics by studying its examples in order to also be able to replace "give" with "teach".
Instructions, OTOH, will explain the underlying mechanics right away.
Give a man a fish...

My mother would prefer the walkthrough. But I'm a programmer by heart.

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If you tell me, I forget. If I do it, I remember.

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