I'm wondering why modern help systems are more passive than active? For example, each good guide through something look like this: enter image description here

enter image description here

So why we don't see this directly on website (service provider), but have to search for another guidelines somewhere else?

Looks like Google Adsense Help is more static (with no images or interactivity) rather than active and interactive.

Context Help:

enter image description here

Steps in Help Center:

enter image description here

Is it a better approach then directly navigate user through interface? And show him at (least once) what buttons to click in order to do something?

  • 2
    The idea of good UI is to not need help to begin with. Either out of habit or necessity, we still have help. But the goal should be to not have to use it. In your screen shots above, I do see contextual help links everywhere, so it does appear there is active help a click away.
    – DA01
    Jun 7, 2012 at 23:11
  • Can't agree with you. Even if I have a help in click away, it still requires me to read all the steps, remember them and then try to find mentioned links/buttons and click on them in some order. (see 7 steps from Adsense Help screenshot) So why not simply guide user through the interface in interactive mode (see first screenshots)? Jun 7, 2012 at 23:52
  • I'm assuming it's CONTEXTUAL help--meaning the help is right there on the screen. I could be wrong. Just making an assumption based on the screen cap. If instead it links you to some sort of step-by-step document, I'd say the problem isn't how the help was implemented, but rather the problem is a confusing UI that should be redesigned.
    – DA01
    Jun 7, 2012 at 23:57
  • familiar screenshots :)
    – Ades
    Jul 4, 2012 at 15:16
  • This post compares the costs of implementing the different formats, which can be one reason why you see more passive than active help systems: An overview of context-sensitive and embedded help formats It also has some examples of existing embedded help in different applications.
    – user87550
    Jul 17, 2016 at 0:18

5 Answers 5


Here is my theory:

Its about the ROI. Its not that there is a good reason for the passive ui for help sections, by all rights every part of a system should have an excellent and active ui. But we tend to focus harder on the core customer experience, because that's where the money is. And just tack on documentation / help sections. The effort that help sections deserve is absent because there is not enough of a business driver to do so.

Have you ever stopped using a web-app because the help section did not have active enough ui? I haven't. But I certainly have rejected web-apps because of the core ui.

As for embedded help, it has to be passive. If it was more active it would be distracting and get in the way of UX rather than helping it. Embedded help should be like a good waiter: out of the way, there when you need it, and off your mind when you don't.

Hope that helps.

  • I agree. There's also a huge cost burden associated with keeping help content up to date following changes to the UI (which I can only imagine would increase with more active help). If the friction of changing help prevents rolling out improvements to the UI, it's a UX step backwards. It may also be a practical consideration since the tech writers are often totally external to the project team and this way their domains can be isolated more clearly.
    – Kit Grose
    Jun 12, 2012 at 3:56
  • Contextual help is more expensive to develop and especially maintain than "plain old help" is. And you're probably not going to ditch your plain old help, so you end up with the help page/manual/document for general reading and either tagging or a copy to support the contextual snippets. This is hard to do well and more expensive than just publishing the doc as a unit. Jan 8, 2013 at 22:47

I already have seen different kinds of interactive help at multiple websites. However, it were always used in context with a guided tour to introduce the features of a system to a novice user. One example is an online route planner - the tour can be started immediately after the page is loaded. Furthermore, facebook usually makes a short interactive tour when new features are available.

You can observe that these tours are quite restrictive: the features are explained step by step and sometimes you will struggle to keep pace with the explanations. A help system might allow the user itself to determine the pace of the tour. However, the user has no chance to diverge from the given order. In contrast, help texts allow you to see the necessary steps at one glance - they provide a better overview of what has to be done. This can be advantageous for some reasons:

  • Better dealing with existing knowledge: usually not all steps are explained in detail - some steps are collapsed or links to further help contents are provided. So you can leave out steps you are already familiar with.
  • More flexibility in the use of the help: you can quickly scan the instructions and decide which parts to read carefully and which parts to ignore. Consider, for example, you have forgotten a certain step and want to find it again. Having to click through the interactive tutorial would be very frustrating.
  • Better handling of uncertainty: sometimes you even do not know the correct terms to search for. So you try some keywords and scan the help entries to find out, whether the explanations address the topic you are interested in.

These requirements cannot be achieved with interactive tutorials. Consequently, they can at most be an additional feature.


Embedded help needs very very close interaction between the code developers and help authors - something always amiss in a typical project team.


Embedded help is only not popular when it gets in the way of the user trying to do their work. No one is going to complain about embedded help on their page when it's actually truly helpful to them And it doesn't prevent them from doing their job.

I interact with online embedded help all the time on web sites I visit. Most of them are done in a very nice and classy way (but some of them are not…). Inline help icons, text, buttons or even dialog boxes that pop up once in a while with critical information that I would not have known about otherwise. If done in a tasteful way, it all helps ends up helping the end user in my opinion.

inline help in Google Analytics

Active help versus passive help both have their place. Active help can get annoying if it's not helping anymore and just being intrusive and getting in the way. However, there are definitely ways of embedding active help in an application that truly helps the user. Example that comes to mind is how a tooltip that appears in Upwork when I put my email address in a conversation.

Tooltip that comes up automatically when you put an email address in an upwork conversation

The tooltip is letting me know that protections provided by upwork differ if I take my conversations outside of the platform. That's useful to know for an employer like myself just in case if there is any conflicts that later arise with the contractor.

At the end of the day, the simple rule is that embedded help has to be helpful for it to be perceived as useful and not intrusive by the end user.


I would agree with @Fresheyeball that it is a lot to do with ROI and most time during design is spent on making core UI usable avoiding the need of any help. Interactive help sounds much more fun that just reading through lengthy steps but the cost of producing such help would probably also be quite high and it will have to be updated whenever the product changes. It is much cheaper to change the text vs. changing the interactive UI. With limited resources I would pick implementing contextual help first since the user can focus on a task and not be directed to a separate UI.

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