Upon the completion of developing a context sensitive help system for a new product, we have added a help button similar to this one (in addition to F1):

enter image description here

The current tool tip text on this is "Launch context sensitive help on ..."

My question is, does the phrase "context sensitive" mean anything to our users?(who are not developers)?

Update: The "..." refers to more copy that I cannot disclose, there is actual content there.

  • IS it not an option to instead specify what the help is regarding depending on context? That eliminates the technical wording and gives a more direct impression of what the icon will do
    – Zelda
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 16:40
  • 2
    I doubt that it would mean anything consistent among most non-technical people. Why no use something more human speak like "Help me with ..." or "Tell me more about ..."?
    – JohnGB
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 18:42
  • @JohnGB That's what I am trying about to do but it me and 3 trying to change it from 3 other developers, just getting some research to back my stance. :) Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 18:44
  • I often try to make the case that 'Mandatory' is another such term. Why use 'Mandatory Field' when nobody says mandatory in real life?
    – JonW
    Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 10:15
  • Are you saying the tool tip text changes or not?
    – e100
    Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 12:08

5 Answers 5


Google comes up with about 4.05 million search results (see note below), of which the following accounts for the vast majority of this:

  • context sensitive help 1.34m
  • context sensitive menu 800K
  • context sensitive line 578K
  • context sensitive design 164K
  • context sensitive grammar 136K
  • context sensitive language 109K
  • context sensitive information 101K
  • context sensitive user interface 95K
  • context sensitive spell/spelling 80K
  • context sensitive manner 73K
  • context sensitive button 64K
  • context sensitive text 56K
  • context sensitive learning 55K
  • context sensitive half-time or half life (medical) 50K
  • context sensitive area 48K
  • context sensitive linking 44K
  • context sensitive solution 23K
  • context sensitive reference 22K
  • context sensitive query 14K
  • context sensitive stuff 11K
  • context sensitive retrieval 10K
  • context sensitive street design 6K
  • context sensitive cr*p 114
  • context sensitive sh*t 53

The majority of the rest is taken up by use with conjunctions and other mid, or end-of-sentence formulations, for example:

  • ... context sensitive and ... - 600K
  • ... context sensitive. The ... - 115K
  • ... context sensitive, but ... - 58K

I have not investigated these further.


A very high proportion of these references are in relation to user interfaces, help, menus, buttons, computer related linguistics and translations, so I'm inclined to say that it is not very common at all outside the computer science realm, and extremely limited indeed outside of any technical scope.


The overall estimated number of uses of the term "context sensitive" is noted as being less than the sum of the parts. And this doesn't even include the significant smattering (i.e. the long tail) of other terms that I've not listed eg: context sensitive... item - part - type - device, etc etc.

Google gives us an explanation of the total result numbers that it really is an estimate and also removes duplicates. However, I believe the above conclusion still stands in relation to the terms themselves, their relative frequency, and their areas of use;

  • +1 A very in depth answer as usual Roger! Thanks for the info! Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 11:34

Very rarely understood.

I'd have a context-sensitive line of text visible at all times instead of an icon: "Help on {current process/screen/step}". Your users should then notice that the text changes as they move though the app - i.e. that it is context sensitive - by demonstration.

At the moment, your users have to hover over the icon to read the tooltip text, let alone notice whether it's changed.

  • That's what I am doing, and you aren't answering the question. Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 11:33
  • @Matt - fair enough, I've expanded my answer.
    – e100
    Commented Oct 11, 2011 at 12:07

"Context sensitive help" is known by most power users on Windows but I think with non-savvy users not so much.

If you are actually providing a specific description in place of the dots, I feel that would be sufficient: "Help on sending an email" or "Read more about formatting a document" is very specific, and it is already clear that this is about a specific context. Adding complex terms like 'context sensitive' doesn't add anything to the message but will confuse users (if only for the longer text.)

A common phrase used in several applications that do not want to fill out the title is "what's this?"


Research - my son says he would "skip over it". I think that says it all, that most people would skip it, because it doesn't mean anything. Some would probably misunderstand it, and a few would understand it.

I think it is better to remove it, and just make it "help on ....". They will see it as context sensitive without knowing the words, and will understand and interpret it better without the extra words ( less is more, as Steve Krug often seems to say ).


Although the term is used in other fields, in the context of an app it is meaningless to the end user.

"Context sensitive" means something to the developer who has to work out what the context is, but to an end user it is just "help".

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