Redesigning the Blank Slate

Every software application has a learning curve. Users have to learn concepts and workflow before they become proficient and comfortable using the app. One of our main challenges here at FreeAgent is not only introducing users to a new application, but one involving potentially confusing accounting concepts.

We know most of our users aren't accounting experts, and helping someone overcome any trepidation or confusion they might have is crucial for a good user experience, and therefore our success.

We've recently introduced a new series of 'blank slate' designs throughout the app, which we hope will help users as they get started with FreeAgent, and possibly educate into the bargain.

Blank slate?

'Blank slate' is a phrase used to describe the empty state of a section in an app: when it's yet to contain any data. Like a message board with no messages, or an address book with no contacts. Creating a good blank slate can dramatically improve first impressions of an app; helping the user understand what they can do and how they can do it. With so much time spent developing new features and testing them with plenty of data, blank slates are often created as an afterthought.

We were pretty guilty of this, here's what our old blank slates looked like:

Bills information box

Not especially helpful or pretty, unless you're totally comfortable with our concept of a Bill. When we wanted to improve this, we had a clear idea about what was needed:

  • Explain what that section of the app is for
  • Explain what isn't it for - often just as important
  • Clear up any confusion with similar terminology
  • Provide examples of when you would use this part of the app
  • A main call to action

Define the problem

If I had one hour to save the world I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem
- Albert Einstein

One of the biggest barriers when it comes to understanding accounting is the jargon: it's confusing and people can have different ways of saying the same thing (is it invoices or accounts receivable?). One of the things that sets FreeAgent apart from our competitors, I believe, is the lack of "accountantese".

With this in mind we thought the metaphor of the dictionary was a relevant and fun concept: define the "thing" in question, along with synonyms, and then a breakdown of when it should and shouldn't be used. For many sections of the app, this is probably overkill but for areas like Bills and Expenses, where it's often not obvious when one should be used over the other, the new blank slates set a positive tone, with informative examples and use cases.

Here's the new blank slate for Bills, one of the parts of the app people struggle with understanding when to use:

Blank slate for Bills

Much better don't you think? Visually more appealing and informative with a clear call to action. We've also linked relevant articles in the Knowledge Base in case people need more information.

Getting touchy feely

The primary driver here is quickly getting people comfortable and productive with the app. The secondary benefit is less tangible, but arguably just as important: making people feel cared for as they take their first few steps throughout the app. Hold the user's hand through those first awkward steps and you're much more likely to win a customer out of them.

It's as much about setting a tone and character for the app as it is getting someone through a series of steps, and when you're dealing with the intimidating world of accounts, having a welcoming first experience is key.

We've started implementing these blank slates throughout the app, but we'll be adding more in the thornier areas, over the next few releases.

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