Simple enough - is there any user research which suggests the best of these options. In my limited experience I could see how some users might find a tour irritating (but Twitter still uses one). Sometimes tooltips can't easily highlight useful functionality that's buried in the application. It's not always appropriate to bring this 'useful functionality' to the fore.

(I accept the ideal set up is to have your site so intuitive that a user immediately knows how it works just by looking at it - but my user base will vary between tech savvy young academics to fuzzy old professors)

  • 9
    Haven't looked for research, but they're obviously not mutually exclusive. You'll likely want to provide tooltips regardless, not least because you'll pretty much need to write them anyway to make your page accessible.
    – calum_b
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 11:27
  • 2
    Tooltips are not available on mobile. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 16:12
  • 7
    I despise "tours" - they are a stupid passing fad. Tours are a marketing thing, not useful UX!
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:42
  • @SteveMoser That's not universally true. On my Android phone, I can never remember which icon is copy and which is paste, and sure enough, if I hold my finger on the icon, I get tooltips. (That doesn't mean that they're universally available, or even convenient, but they're not impossible, not completely absent.) Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 21:10
  • 4
    I am reminded of the classic quote "UI is like a joke; if you have to explain it, it's not very good."
    – zzzzBov
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 17:43

7 Answers 7


Tooltips are useful. They should be present on devices where hover is a thing. But neither you nor your users should need to rely on them.

Tours are sometimes useful. They show what's new or highlight the key features. But neither you nor your users should need to rely on them.

But let's say that some users will use neither. Or even if they do, they forget the information presented. That's especially the case for tours shown at sign-up since they provide up front information when it's not necessarily clear that it's going to be useful.

The problem with tours is that the user may not have an idea of what the workflow looks like and so cannot relate what they are being told to what they are going to do.

Much more useful is just-in-time guidance and access to contextual help if required. So for a reasonably simple application like you describe:

  • make the tour at sign-up optional - perhaps with a 'Remind me later when I've had a look round'.

  • provide direct access to a tour at any time the user want it

  • provide piecemeal access to sections of the tour depending on the current context - until such time as the user doesn't need to see this any more

  • still use tooltips anyway - what's to lose!?

This will all help the process of gradual engagement that transitions users from novice to expert, but also caters for those users who may never transition fully or use the software infrequently.

  • Very hard to say who is right here....its all so subject. I have marked this as correct simply because its the most comprehensive AND it gives me a very clear course of actions with regard to how to design this final stage of my app. Many thanks
    – GhostRider
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 13:18
  • 6
    I don't think I've ever followed a guided tour. They're like IKEA instructions to me. I throw them out as soon as I get them and figure I'm smart enough to figure it out on the fly. Then, when I realize I cannot, I'm there hoping for a tooltip to point me in the right direction. I'm too lazy to read the full directions - I just want a hint when I mess up. But hey, that's just me.
    – dberm22
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 13:58
  • And for the love of god, let me quit your 11 step tour. That's just infuriating.
    – ecc
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 13:44

Tooltips and tours address different issues.

Tours are for newcomers. The goal of a tour is to introduce a user to the basic features which are absolutely vital for application usage. A user is expected to need those features almost every time; and that's the whole reason for a tour - people can't learn the basic by using the application because without the basics the application is unusable. Tours are meant to be seen only once, because users will be reminded of the basics every time they use the application. Tours are never expected to show every feature; that would actually be bad because the time users are ready to spend on it is limited.

Tooltips are meant to be there the whole time. They are not supposed to guide the user - that would be way too intrusive. Instead, the user already knows what feature they want to use, and all they need is a small reference to remind them of all the details. Unlike tours, tooltips work best for rarely used features users tend to forget about.

If you're specifically concerned about cool features that users might overlook, do NOT include them in tour. Users will be overwhelmed with information and most probably will not remember these. Worse, they will feel lost and decide that your application makes them lose time, not get things done.

Announce those features to new users after a while, or use "did you know..." one-liners. And I don't mean those annoying modal dialogs which pop up on start-up. Just reserve some space on several pages to advertise relevant features there.

  • Putting a Did You Know element beside normal content is better than doing it in a modal popup; but if it's eating space on a page that I could use to see more data without scrolling my content blocker (ABP, it's not just for blocking ads) will probably get another rule in short order. OTOH I regularly use ABP to obliterate non advertising related parts of a site that get in my way. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 15:39
  • I've been using midnight commander for 10+ years now, and from time to time I say to myself that I should get rid of the "Did you know..." line which eats valuable console space. But that line just keeps proving useful. In web apps this can be even less intrusive, e.g.: Learn how to deal with voting abuse Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 7:36

This depends on the complexity of your website.

The question you need to ask is:

Is my website simple enough to tour the user through all the features in <5-7 steps?

If you think it is simple, you could go ahead and use a Tour.

Tooltips are generally used for a User Interface which is far more cluttered and difficult to incorporate into a tour.

For example, you couldn't have a Tour to explain how to use every tool and feature in Adobe Photoshop, it would take years.

However, small and minimal applications could use a Tour to get the user easily accustomed to it.

Tours are important and intuitive, but an extensive one may get the user irritated when they need to quickly get work done.

  • I think, really my site is very straightforward and I am leaning toward creating a tour. Do you think a button that allows initiation of the tour ("take a tour") is good or something that the user only encounters at sign up (or both)? Many thanks
    – GhostRider
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 11:33
  • 1
    For the First launch - You could begin straight up with a tour with a Skip option to the tour. If someone has already taken the tour, they'll skip. "Take a Tour" most people do not necessarily click, since they feel it's a waste of time. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 12:03

What platform will users use?

A key distinction is to consider the platform your users will be using primarily. Mouseover tooltips may work fine for desktop/laptop applications - but smartphone/tablet users may never see these.

This is perhaps part of the reason sites like Twitter or other "often navigated on mobile" sites use tours. A tour is considerably more friendly for a mobile device. It also explains why they often have "panels" you can switch between. On a computer this seems a bit awkward, but on a mobile device, being able to swipe between the pages is very natural.

Who are they and what will they do with the tool?

Who are your users? Are they "Internet savvy" people who will skip a tour entirely and just figure things out themselves? If so, just skip the tour. Is it older people or otherwise disconnected people? Then perhaps the tour is useful.

Also consider, are you designing a site with considerable interactions? If so, perhaps tooltips are useful. Is the site designed to be a consumption source? A tour may guide users into where/how to find information much more easily than tooltips.

The point of this is: figure out what your user needs are. Then design the solution to meet those needs. You can't pick "which is better" without a clear understanding of the types of tasks your users will be using (as well as platform).The better UX may be clear, understandable tooltips -- depending on your use cases. Or it might be a tour.

A note on tooltips

Regarding tooltips, it is absolutely critical when using tooltips that they are user decipherable, consistent, and not hidden. For example, consider on Stack Exchange:

  • Mousing over a tag is actually a tooltip, presenting the tag description
  • Mousing over up/downvote buttons show tooltips
  • Mousing over the star shows it's a favorite tag
  • Mousing over the "edited 2 hours ago" link shows the exact time that action occurred
  • Mousing over the sort options on this page shows what the criteria means

How many of these were you aware of? I'm sure there are tons of others too. I have been using Stack Exchange for years and still find new ones (go to chat if you want to go on a hunt for obscure tooltips).

Tooltips are relatively natural and expected by users, this research (Heidmann, 2003) discusses map navigation, emphasis mine:

The results of our two usability tests show, that the tooltips itself are a very easy-to-use interaction style that was immediately adopted by the users. They could retrieve object labels without leaving the small-scaled overview. The results also indicate that hidden labels for map objects are sufficient for some tasks. In the usability tests, some tasks required to get a general overview of a spatial configuration, like identifying problematic, unfavourable parts of a route, or learning the route in order to sketch it afterwards. Most subjects used tooltips to complete these tasks, even when other possibilities were available. It seems that users preferred not to leave the general view and to read additional information in the tooltips to build up a mental model of the spatial and temporal structure of the tour.

Note that in map navigation there is a user expectation to be able to mouseover and see a tooltip. This expectation may not exist in other applications.

Closing thought

Again, the key is identifying your user tasks and designing based on those. Do not just design a great site and expect users to figure it out. Identify their tasks, needs, and background - then design your interactions and functionality.


Leaving aside the question of availability of tooltips on mobile (just one more useful standardized UX piece from the Windows Architecture Guides gone bye-bye ?). What I believe to be useful is the ability to turn on and off the tooltips from an options screen. Oh, I know that it requires that an actual developer write code to implement but ... Having the tooltip until one gets used to the app is so much better than the 'blank stare' most mobile applications provide and the ability to streamline once the user has developed proficiency is equally 'more better'. That said, over fifteen years ago, I wrote some software for a 'group' of potential users not known for being the sharpest crayons in the box (politicians) which had a 'status bar help prompt' which ran off a timer, watched what the user was doing, and then provided various hints... This was, of course, a million dollar idea and it was very cool. It gave the software a level of AI hardly known that long ago and a user friendly feel that is seemingly lost in the 'App' world of today. However, again, it did require a developer to code it.


tooltips are intended to provide extended information on a term or action on a page. They are available on mobile. Zurb's foundation framework has good examples of these.


They weren't intended to give guided tours. Now Zurb again has a ui componet called Joyride.


The difference being the user can choose to continue or dismiss the item.

In terms of should we even use a tootip? Well, you can put analytics on them to see if they are used. You can release without them and test and observe your users to see if there is an actual real need.


Research on designing tooltips for data fields from 2017 can be found here :

What platform will your users consume your application on primarily?

It's not always appropriate to bring this 'useful functionality' to the fore.

Twitter's tour crosses the mobile device barrier and is for primary feature content. Tooltips aren't necessarily for prime content only, however, tooltips and tours aren't mutually exclusive options, either.

I accept the ideal set up is to have your site so intuitive that a user immediately knows how it works just by looking at it

The user's experience is not largely hampered if they don't need to refer to documentation or external assistance. If your application benefits from mobile first design, I would encourage the use of tooltips in conjunction with other on-click events.

On-click events can present information that corresponds to a control for all users, in a similar tooltip fashion. This could be placed over readonly fields and labels, rather than over controls directly.

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