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


The archetypes of context sensitive help had the right idea, but a little like George Lucas, who needed to wait 30 years for technology to support his vision – didn’t have the design, UX and technology means at their disposal in order to really be what their users needed them to be.


But we do. And we can do so much more with those tools that pop up when someone can’t find the mail-merge menu. Context sensitive help is an untapped power that can do wonders in customer engagement if used smartly.


Increase Productivity in a Time of Chaos

The single greatest thing about context sensitive help is that it is in-app. It allows you to serve all manner of content to your users without disturbing their productivity, demanding that they venture out to other tabs and single-handedly destroy the user’s hard-built concentration.


In an age where tremendous effort and resources are being poured into teaching people not to check Facebook while they are working, this is no small feat. Bite-sized attention is commonly considered to be a millennial pandemic, but as a proud X Generation-er, I can assure you it is lethally contagious and just as dangerous to anyone else wielding a browser or smartphone.


If you’re worried about the disruptive effect of pop-ups and splash screens on your users, you can always mute/disregard that aspect of CSH and create an on-demand in-app help solution. Help is still one click away, thanks to help widgets and other indicators, but asking for it depends on the user now.



‘Context’ Can Mean: Everything the User Does  

Another thing we need to unlearn from years of mediocre CSH practices – ‘Context’ doesn’t only mean “a place on the page”. Back when Microsoft was one of two software corporations to loom in our skies, context sensitive help was usually a question mark icon that hovered on the page, which you could mouse-over and would then display a text box with explanations.


CSH ask icon

Today, context is anything a user does on a page; any interaction a user has with the page (clicks, scroll, enter text); any mistakes a user makes, using the software; any workflow a user takes throughout multiple pages.

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With that in mind, you can now begin to understand the scope of possibilities context sensitive help holds in store and just how sensitive ‘sensitive’ can really be. The ability to “sense” a user’s distress signal and respond to it proactively makes a world of a difference with regard to customer care and service.



More Data Leads to Better User Experience

Any self-respecting CSH software service needs to be accompanied by a set of analytics tools that offer insight into user actions.


Why is this important? Because user activity data is the only way to make sure your Help tools are carrying out their purpose in this world: being helpful. A CSH tool needs to be able to track, record and monitor user activity down to the level of each step in each guide, on each platform. Only through deep analytics is it possible to identify which Help elements are helping, which aren’t and what your users really need.


A great example we like to use from our own experience: one of our enterprise customers ran an onboarding guide as part of their digital employee training program, for custom developed sales software. The guides were showing great launching stats, but data entry in the new software was not improving. We sat down with their training analysts and went over each step in the guide.

It turned out that half way through the guide, one step was phrased confusingly, and users were abandoning the guide (and as a result – the software), by the dozen. A small textual fix was all it took – and a few days later data entry analytics were soaring.


Troubleshooting and QA are just one aspect of help optimization. Context Sensitive Help usage analytics can also help you find out where you barriers are and improve UX, learn about users’ habits and determine how quickly they are learning.



Bringing Down the Barrier Between Product and Help Software

We’ve discussed the need to maintain productivity by helping users stay in-app. Another aspect of this is the gradual disappearance of the barrier between software and help software. As software products and context sensitive help tools meld together, users no longer need to tell them apart. Help tools have become part of the software usage, just another action users can take.


This changes the way users perceive help. Help is no longer an additional, external action – it is inherent to ongoing work. Being in a position where you don’t have to actively ask for help does wonders to one’s confidence, with regard to software usage and work morale.


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Noa is Iridize's Head of Content. With a background in digital strategy planning and database management, Noa translates Iridize's vision, stories and data into words. Digital learning and user experience are a particular passion of hers.