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For what widgets would you want to have a tooltip? I can see the case for icons in toolbars without text. What about for buttons with labels? Hopefully the label clearly communicates what the buttons does, but what if you want to give more info about the button?

If you do use them, I'm concerned that the user will expect other UI widgets have them. If the mouse over something and there's no tooltip, will this lead to a bad user experience?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

If a button, label, or icon has little to no descriptive text or needs some short explanation, then a tooltip works well for this. You can see examples of this all throughout this StackExchange web app, in fact. If we didn't have tooltips on all these up & down arrows next to each answer, some people might think they're for scrolling.

But if the text you use in a tooltip is a redundant rehash of the label, then it's pointless. The unfortunate thing about tooltips is that they cover up the area underneath them. So excessive tooltips can become annoying to the user, especially if the user is trying to ignore them anyway.

Also, if the tooltip is beyond a certain length that the user is going to read, then you really need some other mechanism. After all, the tooltip is only going to be visible for a few seconds.

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Voted for this answer, but I wanted to add that tooltips can also be really useful in cases where you have elided content elements. For example, in Kiln (the source control app that I work on), commit messages can get long. Depending on the width of your browser, we overflow: hidden and elide the text. The complete message is available in a tooltip if we do that. –  jasonrr Sep 3 '10 at 17:02

Microsoft offers some useful guidelines for tooltips—when to use them and when not to.

In the Windows User-Experience Interaction Guidelines (a great resource, by the way!), if you look under Tooltips and Infotips, you'll find the heading Is this the right control? and, below that, the heading Design concepts.

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Although consistency is important, you don't have to be fanatic about showing the tool tip in every single place.

Have a look even at this page - some of the elements have tool tips and others don't. Actions have tool tips, as the user might need more info before doing something - but not always (for example, the self explanatory "questions", "badges", "users"... don't).

Other elements like "asked Today" are not actions, but it's very reasonable to show a tool tip showing the exact date.

What ever you do, don't forget that touch devices can't use tool tips...

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I find tooltips to be more hassle than they are worth. Hard to read, disappear when you are trying to read them, too little room to say anything sensible. I'm not a fan, yet, truth be told, I still use them anyway in certain places.

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I, on the other hand, hate it when they are not there. –  Bart Gijssens Oct 1 '12 at 13:03

By widgets, I am assuming you mean page elements. There really isn't any harm in using tool tips as long as you don't use them to convey vital information. Your example of the label on the button providing more info is right on the ball. If I have a tabbed interface, I often will include a tooltip in addition to the tab's label to describe what is in the section. Just make sure that the information is available somewhere else or that it isn't essential that the user sees it.

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