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I'm looking to use "?" as my help button icon in a desktop application but I'm unsure how universally recognisable this will be.

I can localise this for different culture if necessary.

Any ideas?

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You're wondering whether the question-mark icon is universally recognised. There are two parts to this:

  1. Do your users have prior experience with a question-mark icon?
  2. Will your users recognize YOUR question-mark icon as offering Help?

I can only answer the first question. I did a quick search of the various style guides. To sum up:

Many people worldwide have been exposed to Microsoft products (edit) and Apple iOS products for years. Then again, many users are first exposed to technology via their smart phone where, despite the standard Question mark, the Help itself is less commonly provided.

As is often the case, the answer to your question is "it depends" because you don't identify the type of user, their prior experience, the type of device, and so on.

I hope these thoughts help you make a decision, or help you to focus your research.

You can do some quick research, for example by posting an image of a series of icon choices in Chalkmark, and asking people who represent your users to identify which icon signifies Help to them. Research is the best way to answer this kind of question, because when it comes to predicting usability, opinions—even of experts—are only correct part of the time.

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    Thanks for your detailed response. After a bit more digging I've seen that os x also uses the ? as a help button. developer.apple.com/library/mac/documentation/UserExperience/…. I'm going to keep the question open for now as this doesn't quite answer the question in the title. – Dave Baldwin Jul 6 '15 at 11:43
  • Thanks for posting the info on the "?" for Help in OS X. That just leaves Android. If the major platforms use this, then it becomes less a question of "Will this be recognized internationally" and more a question of "Do we follow the standard on other things but not on this?" A UI is full of things that not every member of every audience recognises or knows how to use. That's a different problem. I favour following the standard, as you might guess. :) – JeromeR Jul 7 '15 at 10:01
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    There's an argument to say that an application shouldn't need help as it should be intuitive enough. I see it as a place for workflow tips and usage scenarios. – Dave Baldwin Jul 8 '15 at 11:00
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    Android uses a "?" as well: google.com/design/icons/#ic_help – wersimmon Jul 8 '15 at 13:36
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    @DaveBaldwin: In addition, an application can be as intuitive as it may, as a user, I still occasionally wish for a readable confirmation that a particular feature actually does exactly what I have figured to be the probable (intuitive) way it works. Moreover, every software has its limits, so in a way, no software will ever be intuitive, as there will always be a boundary of the featureset that I will run into (from a user's PoV, "intuitively", their particular use case should always be completely supported), and help is the place to get informed about all of these limitations beforehand. – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '15 at 6:32

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