Context Sensitive Help

Write Better Help Documentation with These UX Tips


For a while now, there has been some attempt to reconcile the need for help documentation with the growing desire to improve product UX. True to Don Norman’s famous statement that “If you have to hang a sign on it, you’ve lost the battle”, many user experience professionals try to solve interface challenges using purely design solutions.


Today we know that product reality is more layered than that. Not everything can be solved through design alone, and almost nothing can be learned without any text. In a sense, we are no longer simply writing the support documentation – we are designing the support experience.


As part of that process, help documentation was brought out of its exile in forelone knowledgbases on the fringe of things and now resides in the heart of the user experience: in microlearning, onboarding flows, quick-tips, mouse-over tips, lightboxes and help widgets.


But we’re not quite there yet. There is still some way to go before the melding of help content and product UI is complete. I hope these UX insights and tools improve help documentation and user engagement with it.


ux tips for tech comm stock woman in front of color board

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Why You Should Start Engaging Users with Context Sensitive Help

We’re used to thinking of context sensitive help as those archaic, painful-to-behold dialog boxes that would pop up on top of an error message or of Clippy, Microsoft’s over-eager and perpetually mistimed Office assistant. Thankfully, the practice of unhelpful help, or context-insensitive help, is gradually slip-sliding away.


Clippy’s demise, it turns out, is not only the result of its overbearing and interrupting presence, but can also be attributed to the fact that women found him creepy and leering. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about gender and customer listening, I’m sure.


clippy old CSH

Clippy and  friends

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How to Create Truly Context Sensitive Help

Context sensitive help is a leap of effectiveness for user help and product documentation: it provides on-page help, allowing the user to stay in-app, instead of wandering away to another tab/window and breaking her concentration by leaving “the zone”. Today, any competent technical communicator can create context sensitive help with a little help from developer from the R&D team.


The DIY options for creating CSH are here, but they are not perfect. We wrote a 5-step guide, with some of the process’ shortcomings, so you know where you stand when approaching the operation:


  1. Create a map file
  2. Write the help topics outlined in the map file
  3. Integrate the context sensitive help into the code base
  4. Publish the help topics
  5. Test


Let’s dig a little into each and every one of these steps:

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3 Problems with Context Sensitive Help Today

Time and again we are approached by technical communications experts asking if it is possible to create Context Sensitive Help (aka CSH or contextual help) using the Iridize training platform. The first time this happened I had to look up Context Sensitive Help, as the term was completely new to me. When it happened again and again it got me thinking:


  • Is there something missing with existing context sensitive help systems?
  • Can our own training platform provide a better solution to any of the existing problems that technical writers currently face in this arena?
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The Challenges of Customer Support Forums: What are the Alternatives?

Once upon a time, at the dawn of the internet when everything was still new and uninhibited, forums were your best way to get any kind of software support. Forums were used not only for support but also for socializing and expanding one’s network.


We’ve come a long way since then.

Peer forums have been replaced by Facebook groups and most software providers have since realized the significance of responsive, visible customer support for their brand and positioning. Surprisingly, that didn’t catalyze the demise of support forums. In fact, support forums are still a widely popular choice for many brands.


The advantages are obvious: support forums allow for a more personal touch in technical issues – support representatives write under their own names, often with their picture attached and are able to address a large number of users at the same time. Forums showcase the brand’s level of customer support and are a terrific keyword-based source for easy web search solutions.


But even with all these benefits, support forums still present a myriad of challenges that call their effectiveness as a support tool into question.


alternatives to online support forums

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How to Make Your Tutorial Stand Out in the Crowd

Many instruction and guidance professionals are faced with the Holy Grail of online marketing questions – how to differentiate yourself in an already flooded, highly competitive marketing environment. Advertising is costly, SEO requires an arguably worthwhile amount of work (unless you employ a fleet of writers). Instructors and Guidance professionals, however, have two advantages over most businesses trying to market themselves online:

  1. Your product is your marketing strategy: instead of having to come up with figures for a fancy infographic or pay a designer for a witty cartoon, in the hope that it will go viral – instructors can just put a taste of their stuff out there and let the search words do the crawling. The trick is, of course, to find a niche that hasn’t been exhausted, where people still look for tutorials. Or else be the early bird on a hot new topic.
  2. Use the most trivial, existing platform: youtube – instead of slaving away on another page for your website or trying to get noticed by prominent opinion-makers’ in your field, create a channel and upload your tutorials onto it.

What makes the popularity of youtube tutorials so fascinating is the fact that you can find a tutorial for any subject that comes to mind, including functions on widely popular websites with their own extensive knowledgebase or FAQ. Tutorial videos on youtube like How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, for instance, have garnered nearly 130K views. Granted, it was posted 4 years ago, but even then LinkedIn was a globally leading professional network with some kind of Help or How To page.

So how come so many users flock to youtube instead of using on-site resources, written by the product pros?

  • Accessibility to the website’s help tools -and this relates to no single website or app in particular- isn’t smooth enough, in terms of UX. After one click too many or upon encountering a complex or elaborate knowledgebase, the user opts for a system s/he is more familiar with and as such, navigates in with more ease.
  • Old habits die hard but live long and prosper – This has less to do with the website’s navigation and more to do with users tending to default to familiar browsing patterns. It is quite possible that many users simply prefer the half-automated open-youtube-search-click routine to treading an unknown terrain on a yet unfamiliar website, in terms of UX. The youtube platform is, again, comfortably familiar, no effort required to navigate a new UI.
  • Content standardization – users have come to depend on peer review, in some cases far more than on professionals. The general assumption is that your peers share your perspective and challenges and that from that POV, someone has provided the perfect guidance solution. By now, most of the top rated and most viewed tutorials on youtube are done by professionals, but the peer review assumption, most likely, prevails.

The best examples I found for good youtube promotion for instructors and guidance professionals are, unsurprisingly, in the realms of excel: A search for “how to VLOOKUP” lead me to this tutorial and from there on it was a short ride to the instructor’s About page and then to his website.

MEGAcomm: Good Times at the Local Tech Comm Convention

There is a certain kind of hype that comes with good conventions. A Flare, if you’ll pardon the pun, of intellectual and marketing energy that surges and peaks during the convention day. The cutting edge innovations, the intensity of the program, the adrenaline rush that comes with meeting so many new people – all of those coalesce into a sensational meeting of minds and ideas.




MEGAcomm was brimming with that. In terms of personal experience – I would like to especially mention Julian Weiss’s outstanding talk on Product Education. I also enjoyed Maya Irving-Regev’s excellent overview on creating content for mobile devices. A standing ovation goes to the panel “Future Trends”, moderated by Rayne Wiselman: the subject of content curating gradually trickling into technical writing was discussed with much perception and the need to globalize content for translation’s sake gave much food for thought.


I was also reminded of something easily forgotten in our online work: the tremendous added value face-to-face networking has, especially in our local, intimate technical communications community. Lior Cohen of Net-Translators graciously pointed out the merits of combining forces – a context-sensitive online help service like Iridize would mutually benefit from teaming up with an SEO consulting service, maximizing the conversion rate potential.


All in all, one theme seemed to be interwoven throughout the panels, lectures and conversations heard in MEGAcomm: Change. A change in the atmosphere, attributed to the economic climate and to the ever-growing speed with which our technological landscape is changing. This ongoing need to stay in motion requires dynamic adaptability. It requires professional flexibility. Content, communications, user assistance, lean software – all of these intertwine and are gradually becoming interdependent.