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Are there good UX reasons for not putting a "help panel" within a web application? (one that can be shown or hidden).

Most applications open help in a different browser tab. I'm thinking of just embedding it somewhere in my application but I'm not sure if that's horrible ux design.

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5 Answers 5

Ideally app should be intuitive without help, but when it is functionality new to user than I would use very short help copy or tooltips right on the spot for two reasons:

1) user doesn't have to click and go away from the page

2) user doesn't feel stupid (there's a significant amount of users that psychologically avoid using Help buttons or pages, because it makes them feel not so clever. But they are ok if the help information doesn't look like help section)

I saw it while conducting usability studies, as for psychology behind this - here's some explanation http://www.science20.com/spiritlinks/m_nora_klaver_5_reasons_we_dont_ask_help

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This is an interesting hypothesis: 'significant amount of users that psychologically avoid using Help buttons or pages, because it makes them feel not so clever' but do you have anything to support it? That would really increase the validity of your answer. –  JonW Apr 25 '12 at 7:42
    
First I noticed it in my usability studies when some test participants sitting next to me asked me - is it ok if I click help button? I don't want to because it means I couldn't get it myself, I'm too dump, and anyway this button leads to long boring text which I wouldn't understand and feel even more dump. Later I found out that asking for help is hard in individualistic cultures, Hofstede speaks about it I guess, though I don't remember exact source. But browsing the web you can find some info - science20.com/spiritlinks/… –  Ardine Apr 25 '12 at 8:37
    
I'd add some of that experience into your answer, and that link. You can use the Edit button at any time to improve your post :) –  Ben Brocka Apr 30 '12 at 15:43
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I would say it depends on the type of application. Is the help an important module for your functionality? Will people use it frequently enough to have a predominant presence? If so, then I can't think of any negative implications (as long as it's not huge or has nothing to do with the application). Also, I instantly reject the idea of having a help panel in a different tab, it defeats the idea of "I need help in this particular step".

It would be interesting, though, to see which place is the best for it according to the rest of the design.

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Embedding help I think could have more value to the user because it allows help to be context specific. Usually global help links that I've seen take users to a general Help site where the user has to dig for answers. Help tips could provide specific information that the user needs at the spot without searching and interrupting the task. An I also agree that ideally UI is intuitive without help, but in some cases help is needed.

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Embedded help can be effective is designed carefully, as part of the overall user experience. The advantage of embedded help is that it can be contextual, concise and applied using different affordances to the user as and when needed.

For example, an HTML5 style in-field text placeholder can advise of date, time, currency formats required BEFORE the user completes the field, or an icon outside the field can explain what the field is for, etc. The idea is productivity is enhanced and task flow completed without navigating away from the page or having to refer to other sources.

That said, the help needs to be applied selectively and carefully and only when needed to assist task completion. You may even mix different affordances of embedded UI help on the same page to be effective. See the following design pattern set for embedded help ideas: http://www.oracle.com/webfolder/ux/applications/fusiongps/patterns/content/embeddedhelp/index.htm

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You're right to brainstorm new ways to present Help. Traditional Help links that open in a new browser tab have two problems:

  • It's more difficult to digest the Help information when you don't have the original context to look at. See notes on Andrea Ames's Embedded Assistance talk
  • Opening a new window can be disorienting for non-savvy users. See the discussion here

I'm not sure a Help panel that takes up space on the page is the right approach though. Even if it can be hidden, when shown it can clutter the design, and can be frustrating if users want to maximize the amount of information on their screen.

How about a panel that is hidden until the user clicks the Help link, and overlays the context? You could even make it context-sensitive.

For example, user sees login topics when clicking Help on the login page: User sees login related topics

And the user sees setttings topics when clicking Help on the settings page: User sees settings related topics

I think this approach has the benefits of your Help panels without cluttering the design.

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