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What Is Context Sensitive Help?

M.J. Casey
M.J. Casey

Context sensitive help is information provided by a software application to users based on the activity of the user. Its purpose is to provide relevant information quickly and efficiently. The factors to consider when designing a context sensitive help system are the trigger mechanism, the user interface, the content, and customization options. The primary challenges include understanding the user’s intent and the cost of the help system.

Trigger mechanisms are the means by which the user asks for help. Typical triggers include the F1 key, a symbol in the application toolbar, and a right-mouse click. Triggers may also include custom key combinations, certain spoken commands using speech recognition software, touch screens, or other access-friendly interfaces.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

The user interface can take the form of pop-ups, tool-tips, or a multiple-choice screen asking the question: “What were you trying to do?” Embedded context sensitive help attempts to answer the most likely questions at any given point in the software by providing instructional text as the user works. Customization options give the user the ability to turn off features that are unneeded or annoying.

The content is critical to the help project. Traditionally, the software directed the user to the complete, official documentation. This documentation often had walk-through examples, syntax rules, and cross-references. As the Internet has become available continuously to many users, software companies have put their help systems online. Some companies abandoned writing their own help content and directed the user to a search engine instead.

In 2011, some observers believed the development of context sensitive help to be declining. Instead of documentation, software vendors began to offer question-and-answer or how-do-I-do-this formats. In these cases, the user learns a task but is likely unaware of possible refinements. As a result, many users may have been using less than the full functionally of the program.

Other experts have argued that users stopped reading manuals. Their focus groups indicate users preferred information delivered in a conversational style. These experts described full documentation as a waste and said it hindered their ability to compete. The lack of documentation spawned a publishing industry specializing in third-party software manuals.

Web sites employing content management systems (CMS) may be positioned to add useful context sensitive help systems. CMS sites store the content in databases, and Web-site formatting and layouts are separate from the content. While these sites are not applications, context sensitive help may be useful when navigating large sites. CMS used as user interfaces for applications or other database-driven solutions might help reduce the cost of these labor-intensive systems.

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