"What's this?" help or context-sensitive help* used to be commonplace in Windows applications a few years ago. Dialog windows had an additional "?" button in the top right, that when clicked, gave you an arrow cursor with a question mark. When you then clicked on a control, you would get a popup with an explanation:

Example of "What's this?" help

From http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa975791%28v=vs.71%29.aspx

Alternatively, you could right click the control and select "What's this?" from the context menu. In non-dialog windows, you either had a toolbar button, or an item in the help menu to get the help cursor. And on Mac keyboards, there is actually a help key that gives you a question mark cursor. (I don't know if it ever worked in this way, however. It works in no application on my Mac.)

I find this feature immensely useful. Especially in complex configuration dialogs (browsers, office programs, system utilities), where you often have lots of checkboxes with cryptic labels. It's also helpful if you have a strange toolbar icon and want to know what it does.

Why did this kind of help become unpopular? What are arguments for and against it from a UX perspective? Should I provide it in new applications?

Personally, I think the half-hearted implementation of "What's this" in many applications was one cause of it's demise. A lot of programs would open the help window (Windows help) when you clicked the question mark or selected "What's this?". That takes a while, creates a distraction, and sometimes even moves your windows around (in case of Office). Since this is the opposite of the unobstrusive tooltip I wanted to see, that discouraged me of trying this at all (as a user).

*) Context-sensitive help is now used in a much broader sense, e.g. opening a webpage with a description of the current dialog. However, I remember Windows books specifically refering to "What's this" popups as context-sensitive help. By the way, in other languages (e.g. German), the popups are refered to as "direct help", which I find much nicer to write than "'What's this?' help".

  • Interesting question....thanks for pointing it out, never realised it has absolutely vanished from new Windows versions.... following up on this one.
    – Mohit
    Jan 8, 2013 at 9:47
  • Related question (not a duplicate) Why is embedded help not popular? Jan 8, 2013 at 9:48
  • @Mohit I think that's why it vanished. Few people relied on it to the extent that they'd even notice it was gone.
    – kontur
    Jan 8, 2013 at 10:14
  • 1
    @kuntur - I believe it was a wonderful tool for beginners! I didn't notice it because I am a pretty advanced user (at least I think so) and used to Windows interface. I still remember seeing it in Windows Me and in fact using it!
    – Mohit
    Jan 8, 2013 at 10:17
  • Interestingly, LibreOffice has a "What's this?" toolbar button, which I think would be immensely useful if it always worked... but I have rarely seen it work. Nov 19, 2023 at 2:21

2 Answers 2


Users are often more interested to know How do I go about to achieve this goal that I have, rather than investigating the purpose for random actions and CTA's that they currently see in the application.

The reason it was removed was simply that it was found more efficient and helpful to focus on finding "good" solutions for letting a user search the answer of a task they wanted to complete, rather than hoping the user accidentally stumbled upon it. Thereby their tireless efforts trying to expand their Knowledge Base feature.

enter image description here

The "What's this" feature was dependant on WinHelp which was phased out in Windows Vista. As expressed by Ted Dworkin (Partner Director of WinHelp Experience):

WinHelp does not meet the code standards established for Vista. These standards include security, reliability, and performance. We would have to rewrite it from the ground up to meet the Vista code standards. And that approach doesn't make sense given that we have two other Help systems in Vista. [1] (Look under "End of support")

Think about it, the "What is this" is not really that good of an approach to lean on. Trying to design an interface where this is not needed, an interface with good affordance that is, is a much more positive UX approach.


Microsoft still supports context help, and there is no real reason not to use context help. The article Designing Context-Sensitive Help (Windows) from april 2012 shows that this is still valid:

You can create context-sensitive help for many of your program's interface elements. In dialog boxes, users can display help by clicking the question mark in the title bar of a dialog box, and then clicking an item within the dialog box. In Windows, users also can display help by right-clicking an item, clicking What's This?, and then clicking an interface element.

The same reasoning is advocated by Stacy Crisler in her blog Web Usability Best Practices: Help and Forgiveness where she states:

Based on our experience, we have seen that taking the time to offer in-context help at the point where users need it and a path for them to easily undo any mistakes made can save you from having a customer give-up or, worse, go to a competitor.

I would say it is not unwanted, nor unpopular. I see in context help in my Windows 8 PC and in my Office 2013 Preview software. It may be debated, and even costly as suggested by Fresheyeball in the accepted answer to the question Why is embedded help not popular?

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.

This is also my experience when I use my Windows 8 - when I need it (when I make errors, or are about to make errors) the help is nearby! You just hover a control - and you will get the contextual sensitive help below the ribbon. In previous Windows versions, you had to press [shift] + [F1] to get this help. Image below shows a screenshot of Outlook 2013 preview - with context sensitive help showing on hover.

a screenshot of Outlook 2013 preview - with context sensitive help showing on hover

  • 1
    I can't for the life of me figure out how to activate a "What's this" helper in Word 2010. Is it supposed to be there, hidden somewhere? Jan 8, 2013 at 10:37
  • @AndroidHustle If you go to the Options in word you'll see the (i) on some of the topics, which are the ones you're really looking for? See Excel Options for reference! Jan 8, 2013 at 12:52
  • ahh, yea. But those are contextual help on hover. I wondered if there was any instance of: Click here and then click on any CTA to get an explanation of what it is, as with the old "What's this" in Word 2010. Fun fact btw that I discovered now, the question mark is still present in the Word options window, right next to the close window button. But instead of setting the pointer in a What's this state it opens up the Knowledge base. Jan 8, 2013 at 13:02
  • @AndroidHustle Now I know what you're after. Just hover any control and you'll get the contextual sensitive help, just as in the old days. Back then you needed to use [shift] + [F1] to get a special pointer, which is unnecessary today. Jan 8, 2013 at 13:30
  • Aye, so the purpose for that was really to cover the feature before the hover state was introduced? Ohh.. never really thought about it in that way back when I sat down by a computer at that age. Jan 8, 2013 at 13:40

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