New user tutorial

I know there are many good resources out there, but I haven’t found a good top-level entry point. I’m working on putting together a tutorial for my naturalist group here. Any advice?

Heh. How much advice can you stand? Not that I, in particular, can offer that much, but I bet all of us together could have a lot to say.

But since I’m here, let me tell you what I can. Some of it, anyway; I’m sure I’ll forget something.

  1. iNaturalist requires quite a steep learning curve, in my own experience and from what I gather from others. Not every potential user has the patience to learn the system, much less use iNat often. It’s easy to get discouraged, if you’re trying to teach people what iNat is and how it works, because you might have - I’m guessing wildly here - a 5-10% success rate. On the other hand, do we really want everyone to use iNat? (As an active identifier, I’m shuddering at the thought.)

  2. People learn and becomes interested in something in different ways. Some people can read a bunch of words and grasp the subject right then and there. Some people learn best from illustrations or videos. Some people need to be walked through a complicated process like submitting an observation one step at a time, maybe several times.

  3. Some people just want to know the name of an organism that they noticed. Maybe those people should use Seek, not iNat. Or they want to know what a flower in a garden is - there’s an app for that, too, but I’ve forgotten the name of it. (@arboretum_amy, could you help, please? Thanks!)

  4. I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a project for new iNatters in my region, where I’d offer a journal post every week for three months, walking them through as much of iNat as I know and giving them feedback on their observations. The 13-week series of posts could repeat over and over again. So far, I’ve managed to resist the temptation to start such a project, because yikes that’s a big commitment, but I got as far as writing up a few notes, which you’re welcome to. I’ll add those at the end of these comments.

  5. Some people want to learn about a group of organisms without jumping through the iNat hoops. Sure, one can learn quite a lot about a chosen taxonomic group via iNat, but iNat is not a complete substitute for, say, taking a course in wildflower ID in the field, or carrying a bird book in the field and trying to sort out the ducks in your spotting scope, or peering through a microscope at the dorsal and lateral spines of a dragonfly exuviae while holding the key open at the right page.

I’m not sure these comments are at all useful for your purposes, but I hope they might be. And here’s my long notes on a potential new iNatters project in New England, in italics:

13 Weeks of Posts
** Welcome to Project*
** The Basics of Making Observations*
** How to Learn Species*
** Your Dashboard*
** Maps and Filtering*
** Other Projects*
** Making GOOD observations*
** Where to Go*
** How to Learn More*
** iNat Tidbits – Forum, Taxa Info, etc.*
** How to ID for Others*
** Celebrating Progress and Cool Observations*
** Donating to iNat*

1. Welcome to the Project
Focus on new iNatters, but everyone’s welcome
Learning curve to using iNat
Join if you want to get notifications of weekly posts
Ask lots of questions
We’ll cover making observations, the ins and outs of iNat, etc.
How to add your observations to this project
13-week schedule of posts, then they will repeat with variations and updates
Links to iNat help topics

2. The Basics of Making Observations
One species per observations
Multiple photos are allowed
Concentrate on wild organisms
How to tell what’s wild
Always give a starting ID; using AI
Check your observations after uploading them
Check your notifications

3. How to Learn Species Identification
iNat can’t teach you everything, but it helps
Practice, practice, practice
Ask questions
Field guides – paper and online
Use iNat data to learn what’s out there near you

4. Your Dashboard
Forget Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. – look at iNat every day, or at least after you upload obs.
Following people
See what’s happened with your observations

5. Maps and Filtering
How to navigate in Explore
How to filter in Explore

6. Other Projects
What are Projects and Places?
Interesting Projects in New England
City Nature Challenge
Starting new Projects – why and why not

7. Making GOOD Observations
Good photos – close-ups, not fuzzy, but don’t have to be beautiful
Learn species characters and concentrate photographing them – 5 needles on white pines, etc.
Hints for photographing plants
Ditto insects, turtles, etc.
Remember that tracks, feathers, bones, sign are all OK to observe

8. Where to Go
Links to conservation areas – federal state, local
Look at iNat maps

9. How to Learn More
Native Plant Society
New England Botanical Club/Society
Eagle Hill
Bird Clubs
Recorded Zoom talks

10. iNat Tidbits
Taxon information
Year-end stats

11. How to ID for Others
Stats about how few IDers there are
Basic etiquette
Filter, filter, filter

12. Celebrating Progress and Cool Observations
Call out new iNatters who have made 100+ observations since they’re joined
Ditto those who make IDs
Cool observations in past three months

14. Donating to iNat
Why and how


There are several. I don’t know which is easiest or most often correct. PictureThis is popular. Or lot of people use Google Lens. A few years back the American Association of Public Gardens was promoting PlantSnap, which I tested (on admittedly obscure cultivated plants) and found it was incorrect often than I would like.


Not sure what you mean by ‘top-level entry point’ but will assume looking at your draft that more than just the many quick 3 - 10 minute videos that are available.

I think your tutorial will depend upon your aim and your audience (local v international), being aware of the factors that can discourage users (these may be specific to a region). One of the hurdles for my audience is the fact that here in South Australia there is a lack of adequate iNats data for many of our species with many having not been described. Of course, that has resulted in iNats suggestions from the Northern Hemishphere species and so put people off.

Personally I have found that workshops with an interactive element have worked well. (I’ve turned the first half of one into a video - - with a plan to update it from time to time.) This can be either in person or Zoom. An interactive element personalises the learning as the individual’s specific needs can be addressed. I realise this might be slightly different from your question.

Sometimes the obvious needs to be said, such as ‘It’s ok to be mistaken - that’s part of learning’ or ‘ABC - always be curious and photograph everything’, making sure they know how to contact someone for help (it took me a long time to find out that there was a help email address)

@lynnharper 's idea is good. Much more systematic than my own approach.

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I like your idea. You mentioned this as a potential New England project but could it not be international?

Thanks! It could be international, but I wanted to restrict it to New England for a couple of reasons.

First, if I’m the only administrator on the project, I think I might, possibly, maybe, be able to handle the project by myself.

Second, I live in New England and would be able to give useful feedback on observations by new users of the most commonly observed species. For example, a new user who has joined the project posts a photo of a rather ordinary tree trunk and IDs it as a Plant. I respond by commenting something like, “Hi! Most trees are easier to ID if you can post a photo of leaves or needles, or even acorns or other seeds if you can find them. Otherwise, the best I can do is ID this photo as a Dicot.” Or if a project member wants to learn about lichens (mind you, I’m not a lichen expert), I can give them some very basic pointers, list the field guides I’ve found useful, and point to places that offer classes in lichen ID. I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving that kind of feedback for anywhere else.

I think of this project as a way to help with the perennial on-boarding problem and a way to give individual help to new users who are motivated enough to join the project. (Before you ask, I’d invite new users to join by IDing their observations and commenting that if they want to know more about iNat, they can join Project X and here’s how to join a project.)

I recommend Seek, even “just for flowers”.

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I agree with a lot of this, especially the emphasis on patience. Most folks won’t become iNat experts (which is fine!), and those that do will generally find their way to this through a long period of experimenting and learning by doing (and making some mistakes). For most users, I think that the key is just to getting them past the most common hurdles so that they can enjoy using iNat and so that iNat enhances their experience of nature.

I think for new users, the biggest things to focus on are:

Making good observations that can be IDed - not getting IDs is very frustrating for new users, but knowing how to make good observations, especially for plants and non-commonly observed animals is not intuitive to most.

Adding an initial ID - this dramatically increases the chances an observation will be looked at.

Understanding the basics of how IDs work - so users don’t get frustrated at disagreements or the ID of an observation changing when other users also ID.

Being encouraged to make IDs as well, but at the appropriate level of their expertise - doing some ID work oneself is a key way to understand how iNat works, but many beginning users don’t do this or, on the flip side, ID a ton with overconfidence (though I think these are few but just much more noticed!). So I think doing some basic IDs of easy species/groups that individuals have some familiarity with to start really help them understand how the system works.

I think overall helping new users is a great topic in general and commend anyone doing this work!


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