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We have a screen that has a form that gathers a lot of input.

Many of the terms and questions are confusing so we have help for them.

We are trying to put a little (?) help icon for each line.

We are struggling to find the best place to put it.

This is 'neat' but the icon can get far away from the content:

term001                                           (?)
thing002                                          (?)
a third thing                                     (?)
a third and final things for everyone to study    (?)

Whereas this is 'next to content':

term001 (?)
thing002 (?)
a third thing (?)

and this uses hyperlinks:

aaa
thing002
a third thing

Does one way generally work better for end users or is there a 'third way' ?

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What does the help icon trigger? A modal? A tool tip? A new page? –  Charles Wesley Apr 4 '13 at 20:29
    
Anywhere from 2-3 words to 2-3 paragraphs explaining the term. –  Michael Durrant Apr 4 '13 at 20:56

5 Answers 5

You can use tooltips and subtle help icons, however... If you need to explain each of the objects your labels are not doing their job.

The input field labels should intuitively represent the field. If this is not the case you should think about updating the labels instead of overloading the page with help icons.

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1  
I agree for the most part, but unobtrusive contextual help can be a great way to get more details on a particular option that may have subtler implications that are hard to convey in a simple label. –  devios Apr 4 '13 at 22:51

I'm adding another answer as this is a different solution from my original one.

Gmail does something quite smart to handle multiple tooltips and information overload. It doesn't display the helper text until the field receives the focus, which is non intrusive and reduces clutter.

enter image description here

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Have a big help box next to the form and display the information for a certain input once the user has focussed (or on mouse over, but only if no input has focus) the input field.

The initial message in the help box should be something like "You can click on a question/label or an input field to get further information about the question/input shown here."

Depending on the size of the form, the help box should be always visible next to the selected input. Just let it scroll with the content or it can be repositioned on the next user action.

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1  
Oh my god, no. Have we learned nothing since Windows 3.1? –  devios Apr 4 '13 at 22:49

Contextual help is a big deal and I'm a big believer in it. However I'm also a believer in not overly cluttering a user interface.

Of your two options, I definitely prefer the help icons to be immediately beside what it is they are describing. After all, they are contextual.

However at the same time they should be subtle. Monochrome, low contrast is likely the best way to go.

I would also suggest to avoid putting contextual links on every single option (you might be tempted to out of consistency). Options that are already quite obvious from their labels won't benefit from having a wordy explanation that essentially just repeats what the label says. This will also help to reduce clutter in the UI, and can visually indicate to the user which options they might actually benefit from reading more about before using.

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Dozens of tooltips represents a fair amount of information to process and eventually memorize and repetitive rollovers increase friction.

What about having a very obvious single link which opens a helper pop-up on which all labels are described? The question mark in your example is an anchor link pointing to the right location in the popup. This way users could access all the documentation they need with a minimal amount of effort.

If you can't do the single link solution, then Next to the Content works best as it reduces the distance users' eyes have to travel to see the tooltip.

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I disagree with the single help link. This is little better than having a single giant manual for the entire program. Contextual help is the way to go because it makes it dead simple for the user to find what they want. –  devios Apr 4 '13 at 22:58
    
The question relates to a heavy-loaded screen, not an entire application. I don't see how forcing users to rollovers dozens of elements to get more details and understand/memorizing the nuances is better than having everything in one place, with each description is quickly accessible by anchors. Take a look at Income Tax Forms for example. –  TotemFlare Apr 4 '13 at 23:08
    
You have to consider the use case you are trying to improve: If the user is wanting to learn everything they can about the screen in question, then yes a manual page would be relevant. However, it's more likely that they simply don't understand a particular option and want the program to elaborate on it. Contextual help is the clear winner in this scenario. Besides, clicking a few help icons is arguably still easier than trying to find what you're looking for in a help file, even if you do want to read them all. –  devios Apr 4 '13 at 23:45

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