I want to add a context-sensitive help to my interface. It's a complex of numerous screens and data fields, intended for the trained enterprise user.

Following this question and this one about why people don't use help of different kind, my fear is that adding a question mark or "i" button would not do the job either, due to the following reasons:

  1. The icon is missed, because it's small, or because we tend to ignore such decorations.
  2. Users won't believe they would get an answer to their question, either because help is rarely useful, and even if it does contain the answer, most of the time the user is bound to sift through a long help text or a heavy help mechanism, before they reach the answer.

I'm not sure if these are the results of my own experience with software, or that it might be that many are sharing these expectations. Anyone aware of harder fact proving or contradicting?

Do you have any advice or best practices of planting these little help providers in a manner that would actually be used?

I think I covered everything this site has to offer, but no question I could find addressed this particular issue. The two closest ones were about displaying the help text automatically aside the main UI. This solution is sometimes known as "micro-copy", or "hints". see e.g. this question, and this one. I believe it works mainly for form-filling.

3 Answers 3


When I see site-wide 'Help' links/buttons I tend to assume I'll be taken to a huge knowledge-base of articles where I'll have to search to find the answer to my question. I assume the search will be inaccurate and that it'll take me a while to find the answer I'm looking for, if it's there at all.

While working at Facebook I felt they had this issue, and I designed their contextual Help.

enter image description here

The user clicks Help, and is presented with options based on the page they're on. On their News Feed, they're given Help options of managing their news feed, sharing, notifications etc. On their Timeline, the help options are adding a cover photo, updating profile info etc. They can view FAQs from these topics and expand the answers all without leaving the page, and they can always visit the full Help Centre or search all Help articles if their question isn't covered.

However, most users won't get far enough to see this if they assume the Help will be poor. If you have space, your menu Help button/link could adapt to the page you're on, for example, "Help with profile".

You mentioned your UI has numerous screens and data fields. Although I ignore site-wide Help links usually, I sometimes use the "?" or "i" links/buttons next to or inside text inputs. When answers appear instantly in a tooltip and are tailored to the field I'm filling in, these can be really useful. If you don't want to have always-visible help on focus like this, and want to keep your interface clean, perhaps something like this?

enter image description here

Here we give more visual prominence to Help when the user is more likely to actually need it. When the input is focused, the '?' turns into a button, and after X seconds of inactivity we add the word 'Help' to the button to make it even more obvious where help can be found.

  • 1
    The context sensitive help menu on Facebook looks like a terrific solution, once you access it. But as you said, if you look at the options menu, and happen to spot the help option, you don't expect it to be very useful or targeted to your specific needs. How can we get users to click the "help" in the first place?
    – Dvir Adler
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 15:15
  • Regarding the second solution, it should be great for applications where you fill out forms and text boxes. Can you recommend a solution for less interactive screens, like dashboards?
    – Dvir Adler
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 15:17
  • 1
    Thanks for the upvote! Well one way would be to introduce all users to the Help menu when they sign up (or when it launches if already a user). You could darken the page, open the FB style contextual menu for them and explain "If you get stuck, our Help menu shows the most common queries our users have based on the page you're currently on. So, click Help when on the dashboard, and you'll see the top 10 dashboard related queries". If you have a top menu bar, in the top right you could have "Help with dashboard", to show it's FAQs based on the page you're on. Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 18:01
  • Could you expand on what your dashboard does and what sort of information it houses so I can get a better idea of what could work well. Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 18:02

If you can introduce your user to a consistent help experience, such as tooltips when you hover a label, you might use that across the whole application.

You mention you have a complex set of input fields. Adding a help icon to each of them would probably create lots of noise, and you want to keep it as simple and non-invasive as possible (specially since you will have advanced users you will constantly input data).

I'd go with a tooltip on the label of each field, only visible when you intentionally hover it, and with enough information to clarify the data field's use. I also think it's essential to keep it contextual so you don't interrupt the user's workflow.

You could also consider adding a short delay so the tooltips don't show up every time you move your mouse.

  • Now that you mention it, tooltips just might be the solution. In a recent usability test almost all the participants looked for and evoked those little helpers. One even complained it doesn't show fast enough. I think that tells us that everyone nowadays come to expect these (much like the right-click, which almost everyone are aware of). Thanks!
    – Dvir Adler
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 5:49

I recently wrote an in-depth article on the very same subject. You can find it here - http://academy.whatfix.com/contextual-help/. I know, it's a little complex to create contextual help and even more complex to make it fit seamlessly into a user's workflow.

You can consider using Whatfix for providing contextual help, it hardly takes any time, compared to the conventional method and is super easy to adopt.

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