User assistance (help) has three forms: inline help, signpost help, and contextual help.

Inline Help

  • Use inline help to give users quick guidance, for example, to explain options for check boxes or to list valid input formats.
  • Keep inline text to a minimum.  Don't make users read detailed information while they are trying to perform a task.  Use a "More information" link to open a contextual help topic that explains the details.

  • Use sentence-style capitalization.  
  • Use complete sentences and ending punctuation.

Signpost Help

  • Use signpost help to provide assistance on controls, set context, define complex terminology, and state rules for operations.
  • Don't use signpost help to provide assistance on text.
  • Place the signpost icon on the right of a control and open the window so that it doesn't obscure the control for which it provides information.

  • Open the window when the user clicks the signpost icon.
  • Don't use a large number of signpost icons on the same screen.
  • Use complete sentences and ending punctuation.
  • Limit the text to one to two sentences.
  • Don't include so much text that the window requires scrolling.

Contextual Help

  • Use contextual help to provide detailed instructions for completing a complex task.  Within a dialog or wizard, open the Help from a button in the title bar.  Elsewhere in the UI, use a link to open the contextual help topic.  Phrase the link in terms of the primary topic covered in the Help content.  Alternately, you can use "More information," as in signpost help.

  • Don't use contextual help for basic tasks or for general help.
  • Work with your developers to implement context-sensitive Help calls, which should be robust to changes in the documentation and update to the correct product version.

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