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Preface to the GUI Design Handbook
Checkbox to Cursor
Dialog Box to Drop-down List
Graph to Iconic Label
Keyboard Shortcuts to List Box
Menubar to Message Box
Online Help
Palette to Pushbutton
Radio Buttons to Status Bar
Table to Wizard

14 Steps of GUI Design
Color & Pattern
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Online Help, Context-Sensitive

Help that appears automatically when the user presses F1, Shift-F1, or clicks a help icon. The user doesn’t have to go to the help menu. (Reference help, on the other hand, usually does require loading from a menu.)

According to the Microsoft Windows 95 specifications, context-sensitive help is "What’s This?" help. What’s This? help is actually expanded tooltips (a good idea, according to some usability experts—see Tooltip). In fact, tooltips and What’s This? help are functionally interchangeable.

In other environments, context-sensitive help is simply help for individual screen components.

Good for:

Finding out what a screen component is or does (Fig. 25).


Fig. 25. "What’s This?" help.

Checking the field-edit rules or finding out what the acceptable entries are (Fig. 26).

Quick help

Fig. 26. Quick reference box from Framemaker 3.0.

Not good for:

How-to and procedural information. Use procedural help instead.

Background and overview information. Use reference-style help or printed documentation instead.

Design guidelines:

Problems with context-sensitive help

Don’t rely too heavily on context-sensitive help. It has these limitations:

  • Neither tooltips nor What’s This? help (so far) let users link to online help windows if they need more information. And they are likely to need to: Usability experts say that most users want to know "How do I do this?" rather than "What is this?" Of course, you can write whatever you want in What’s This? panels—for example, you can explain how to do something instead of just saying what the component is.

  • If your specification calls for context-sensitive help only (every screen component must have its own context-sensitive help panel), where do you put the overviews? How do you tell users how to do operations that cross window boundaries? How can you do any task-oriented or goal-oriented help? You can’t, at least not without a kludge—for example, deciding that the parent window’s context-sensitive help will be a task overview.

  • Most readers will not be able to imagine a context-only help system, but they do exist. If someone in your organization starts to argue for context-only help, remind them that users need at least three types of information—descriptive, procedural, and background—and will be unhappy if you give them only one.

  • Some items don’t need any help. If your OK and Cancel buttons behave consistently, for example, a user doesn’t need to know much about them. Writing about self-evident components gets silly.

When do you need it?

You probably need context-sensitive help less often than you might think. First of all, most help is procedural, and secondly, mass-market applications usually don’t have to worry about field edits and business rules. (Tax and accounting software are exceptions.)

If you have a database application, you probably do need context-sensitive help for the fields. Nevertheless, think about using more descriptive labels or automatic (but unobtrusive) tooltip or status-bar messages instead of help. Even the best online help is hidden, whereas labels, tooltips, and status-bar messages are either visible or readily made visible. Also, using combo boxes or drop-down lists for as many entry areas as possible helps users avoid errors and precludes the necessity for help.

For applications with extensive business rules and data-entry requirements—for example, real-estate or insurance contracts—consider using artificial-intelligence techniques rather than help. In other words, if the person entering the information picks one type of contract, the system fills in most of the boilerplate automatically and carefully checks the variable information. You’d still include a help system, but it would explain the underlying business rules.

Accessing context-sensitive help

Help button

Fig. 27. The What's This Help icon in the Windows environment.

On Windows systems, pressing F1 usually opens the help system at the contents page and Shift-F1 opens context-sensitive help. The Help icon usually behaves the same as Shift-F1. On Windows 95 systems, both Shift-F1 and the Help icon open What’s This? help.

Many users don’t use or don’t notice the Help icon and many don’t know that Shift-F1 is supposed to bring up context-sensitive help. In fact, they often go straight to the help menu and select the Search option. However, this is a reasonable strategy since many systems don’t have extensive or consistent component-level help—when the user asks for component-level help, she often gets higher-level help anyway.

Note that you can’t count on training or marketing materials to let users know help is available. In a system the authors worked on, more than 1,000 panels of context-sensitive online help were accessible with a right-mouse-key click. Two years into the project, we discovered that most of the company’s employees didn’t know there was context-sensitive help. Although we believed that end-users knew about it, none of us was sure that they did.

Usability tests:

Mechanical issues

See if the test participants try to use the context-sensitive help. If they do, determine first whether the interface, rather than the help, needs to be fixed.

Also see how users access help—do they press F1 or Shift-F1, access the Help menu, press the help icon, or none of the above? If they don’t know they can get context-sensitive help, you might want to add instructions to your training classes and "Getting Started" manuals.

Do users get what they expect? For example, if a user presses Shift-F1 in a dialog box, is she looking for help on the box or on a component in the box? Is she puzzled if she gets help sometimes on the box and sometimes on a component? If inconsistency seems to be a problem, you might want to develop rules about which child components get their own help panels, and then retest on users.

Business issues

Use a talk-aloud protocol to find out what domain or business-rule questions the test participants have about the application. Include the identified topics in the online help.

Also find out what task information the user needs. Tasks with more than one step or that require more context should go into procedural help, but short tasks (for example, "To check a word, highlight it and press the spell-checker button") can stay in the context-sensitive help.

See also:

Online Help, Procedural; Online Help, Reference; Status Bar; Tooltips.

For information about hypertext, see Online Help, Reference

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Online Help, Procedural

Any help that contains procedures and how-to information (the second part of the help triumvirate of description, procedure, and background).

Good for:

Quickly learning a procedure.

Task help

Fig. 28. This help window explains how to sort a list.

Not good for:

  • Naming or describing screen components. Use context-sensitive help, tooltips, and status-bar descriptions instead.

  • Background and overview information. Use reference-style help or printed documentation instead.

Design guidelines:

There are two styles of procedural help, active (Fig. 29) and passive (Fig. 28).

Active help

Fig. 29. This active help window shows you how the procedure is done.
Note the "Show me" button. This button probably saves at least a page of text.

Usability experts and technical communicators have found that active help is far more effective (and more interesting to create) than passive help. The Windows 95 development platform comes with tools that make developing active help relatively easy. See Boggan, Farkas, and Welinske, Developing online help for Windows 95, for details (1996).

Making exploration safe

John Carroll (1992), Carl Zetie (1995) and other experts on documentation point out that human beings learn by exploration. A successful interface allows safe exploration through feedback, affordances, and error recovery.

Good screen design shows users the main path. Good help catches explorers before they fall over cliffs and puts them back on track.

You will know that you have succeeded if a significant number of novice users become experts—it means that your interface made it easy and safe to explore.

What procedural help looks like

In Windows 3.x, procedural help often appears as "cue cards"—pop-ups that appear automatically when the user accesses a dialog box or other task-oriented component. It also appears in standard help windows.

In Windows 95, procedural help often appears in secondary help windows. These windows are smaller (often because they replace text with "Show me," "How?" and other interactive buttons), and contain highly structured text. (See "How to Write a Procedure" below).

In other environments, procedural help is differentiated from reference topics not by window type but by title ("How To" or "Example") and by having numbered steps.

Size of help panels

Procedural help panels should contain only as much information as fits on an index card. If the user has to scroll or page down, the help topic is too big.

This may seem severe, if not impossible. However, development companies have found that if a procedure is hard to document, it is probably too complicated and should be re-engineered.

Also, users generally read only as much as they need to find out how to do the next step (User Interface Engineering 1996, 6). The implications:

    • Design the help panel so that each step is easy to spot.

    • Edit the text to the bone.

How to write procedures

How-to help

Fig. 30. Task-oriented help from Microsoft Word.

Title, introduction, step number, action, and feedback are required. Also helpful are examples, warnings, and notes. Table 3 provides descriptions of each part, in the order in which they should appear.

Table 3. Parts of a Procedure


"How To" is always a good start for task-oriented help (Fig. 30). Note: The Windows 95 guidelines suggest "To [do whatever]" as the procedure’s title and introduction.


Provide easily scannable one-line introductions or headings. Users read the instructions faster and make fewer mistakes if you describe the goal or endpoint. For example:

To process a work order:


Put warnings and cautions before the step. Note: If the program or equipment could be redesigned so that the warning is no longer needed, you should change it.

Always check with your legal department about requirements for warnings.

Step numbers

Number steps if there are more than one. Don't number a one-step operation.

Use 5 to 7 steps (or less) per procedure.


One action per step. "One action" is what the user would define as a complete action, and this varies with experience. For example, a novice user might see "Type your login name and press [Return]" as two actions. An experienced user would see it as a single action.

Start the step either with an imperative verb (Press F1) or with a trigger word such as To, If, or When:

To start the motor, turn the key.

If you want to save the file, select Save.
If you want to quit without saving, select Cancel.

Feedback, Error Recovery

Include feedback statements:

5. Select OK. You're returned to the main menu.

The feedback ("You're returned to the main menu") helps the reader orient herself in the operation and acts as error recovery information.


Use examples and counter-examples.


Ms. Marks has been a customer for 8 years and has had one warning notice in that time. Her payment history is good.


Mr. Jones has been a customer for 1 year and has had two warning notices. His payment history is not good.

Notes and tips

A note can either be embedded in the step or fall below it. Notes contain "nice to know" information.

Coaches and cue cards

Scott Boggan and his co-authors describe "coach help" as sequences of help topics that walk users through the steps that make up a task (Boggan, Farkas, Welinske 1996, 97). Users work with the application’s regular interface (as opposed to wizards, which provide a simplified interface—see Wizard). Also, coaches, unlike tutorials, are a productivity tool—instead of working on canned examples as they would in a tutorial, users work on their own tasks (Boggan, Farkas, Welinske 1996, 100).

Cue card

Fig. 31. A cue card (called "QCard") from Quicken 2 for Windows.

The helpfulness of coaches depends on how well their authors have identified their users’ goals. User Interface Engineering tested coaches, done as cue cards (Fig. 31), in four different programs and found that there was often a mismatch between what users needed and what the cue cards gave them. For example, one application told users how to open a file, but the users never read it because they already knew how to open files. Another cue card told users how to import a file, but missed the obvious (in retrospect) next step: how to view the imported records (User Interface Engineering 1996, 6). Mismatches like these can be resolved with early usability testing of interface and help prototypes.

Note: Make sure that users can turn off automatic cue cards. Novice users often feel put-upon; experienced users find them irrelevant and interfering.

Usability tests:

Use a talk-aloud protocol to find out what task-oriented questions the test participants have about the application. Include the identified topics in the online help.

Also see Appendix A, "Usability Tests," in this book; Managing Your Documentation Projects (Hackos 1994, chapter 20); and Human Factors for Technical Communicators (Coe 1996) for types of usability tests appropriate for online help.

See also:

Online Help, Context-Sensitive; Online Help, Reference (especially for information about hypertext).

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Online Help, Reference

Any help that contains background or "nice to know" information (the third part of the help triumvirate of description, procedure, and background). Reference help is often the paper documentation or actual reference books in electronic form.

Good for:

Finding out what is going on behind the scenes (Fig. 32). Learning more about the business context.

Reference help

Fig. 32. Reference help explains what’s happening behind the scenes.

Accessing technical information quickly. Examples:

  • Checking syntax for programming commands.

  • Looking at troubleshooting flowcharts and procedures.

Not good for:

Procedural or context-sensitive information.

Design guidelines:

Reference help should be used only as a backup for printed documentation. Users generally don’t like to read long sections of text online. However, having the reference text online has two advantages:

  • Users can often search the entire text for answers to questions rather than be forced to depend on the paper document’s index (although a professionally done index can be an extremely valuable tool).

  • The online book is always handy, whereas a printed book may stray from the user’s shelf (although online books may disappear from disk drives and networks).

Just make sure that users can print out desired sections of online manuals—text is often studied on commuter transportation and in other venues.

Rule of thumb

Put online what is done online, put on paper what is done off-line (away from the computer).

For example, setting up a computer or installing a piece of software is definitely an off-line project. Until the computer or software is set up, the user can’t access any online instructions. (A possibly apochryphal story says that Apple Computer once started their online setup instructions with, "Remove the computer from the packing box....")

But detailed domain information probably also falls into the off-line category. The concepts behind certain types of accounting practices or new structured programming techniques, for example, are best studied off-line. However, online help can and should state which of two formulas the program uses for an accounting procedure. It can and should include code samples that programmers can copy into their own applications.

Technical communicators have developed a variety of analysis and development techniques for task-oriented online help, including chunking, minimalist documents, and Information Mapping. Get professional help.

How to write command-reference help

Command help

Fig. 33. Word Basic help in an "API documentation" style (from Microsoft Word for Windows 6).

In general, use the same format as the development system or environment with which your users are familiar. For example, if you’re documenting an API for C++ programs, match the style of the printed C++ documentation.

However, if there is no good model or if you feel the model is insufficient, Developing Online Help for Windows contains a useful section on command topics (Boggan, Farkas, Welinske 1993, 56-61).

Hint: Include code samples that users can copy into their own programs and adjust for their own purposes.

Hypertext guidelines

Hypertext is good for jumping to another piece of information (site, page, paragraph, etc.). In help systems, hyperlinks are indicated with underlines and sometimes also with a color change. Color is good as a secondary signal, but keep in mind that colored lettering has less contrast than black and white lettering. For best visibility, the colored words should be a larger point size or bolded. (Your choices may be constrained by your help development system, however.)

In Web browsers, text links are usually indicated with underlines. Graphics can be used to create hyperlink pushbuttons. However, the linking methodology is the same—the graphic file’s name is surrounded with a cross-reference instruction.

In either case, since underlines now mean "link," don’t use underlines for anything but links. If you use an underline for highlighting (instead of italics, for example), users who try to select it, unsuccessfully, will think the "link" is broken.

Note that HTML (Web-based) help does not, so far, support pop-up information, definitions, or notes. Instead, links take users to a completely new page, frame, or browser instance. Then he has to get back somehow. As HTML help matures, pop-ups will no doubt be added to the toolkits.

Usability tests:

See Appendix A in this book, as well as Managing Your Documentation Projects (Hackos 1994, chapter 20) for types of usability tests appropriate for online help. See also Human Factors for Technical Communicators (Coe, 1996).

Hypertext testing

Test that users recognize the underline and color change (if any) as indicating a hyperlink.

Test that users can find their way back to their starting points. Hypertext systems such as Web browsers or online help systems have navigation buttons (Home, Back, History, and so on). See if users use those buttons without prompting, and what other strategies they devise to move through the document (use a "talk aloud" protocol).

Test help strategies: In many help systems, links can bring up either entirely different pages or short definition boxes that stay up only as long as the user continues to press the mouse button. The link indicators may or may not look different. Your technical writers can develop a layout strategy that prevents surprises—for example, they may define a rule that "any link in the body of the text is a definition; any link in a See Also section jumps to another topic."

See also:

Online Help, Context-Sensitive; Online Help, Procedural; Status Bar; Tooltips; Wizard

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