November 2010
By Tony Self and Nicoletta A. Bleiel

Nicky Bleiel is the Lead Information Developer for Doc-To-Help. She has 15 years of experience in technical communication; writing and designing information for software products in the documentation, media, industrial automation, simulation, and pharmaceutical industries. She is a Director at Large of the Society for Technical Communication. 


Blog: “Technical Communication Camp”

Tony Self has been involved in documentation for 30 years. In 1993, Tony founded HyperWrite, a consultancy company specializing in hypertext. Tony also lectures in technical communcation at Swineburne University and Vancouver Island University. He is a member of the DITA TC. 


The history and future of embedded user assistance

Embedded User Assistance (UA) has always been considered a "Holy Grail" in software user assistance because it improves usability. Its immediacy makes embedded UA more relevant than ever: a new generation of software users want their answers quickly – and embedded UA fulfills this need.

The history

hat we now collectively call “user assistance” has also been known as “Online Help”, “wizards”, “bubble help”, “What’s This? Help”, “diagnostic Help” and “decision support”.

Online Help made its first mainstream appearance in 1988 (with the Help in Microsoft QuickBASIC, a DOS application) and has been in refinement ever since. One early feature was “context-sensitivity”, which enabled Help systems to predict the most appropriate topic to present by providing hooks or cross-references between the application user interface and topics within the Help. Help systems have evolved over time (WinHelp, HTML Help, and browser-based Help), introducing various improvements that enhance the user experience, but they all have one thing in common – they open in a eparate window of the software application.

A logical progression was therefore to “interactive” or “dynamic” Help, where Help panels are embedded in the application window, and use context-sensitivity to automatically display relevant topics in the Help panel as the user moves from field to field in the user interface. The Help was still created as a separate, parallel project to the software development. As user interfaces became richer and richer, other forms of assistance for the user started to appear in the interface, such as self-explanatory field labels, and the term “user assistance” (or “UA”) was coined to describe all the manifestations of content aimed at assisting the user to use the application.

“Embedded user assistance” is the UA that resides within the application window. It does not replace separate Online Help systems, but supplements them instead.

User assistance is now far more tightly integrated within the application than simple context-sensitivity. Some of the types of integrated user assistance that have appeared are Cue Cards, What’s This? Help, tool tips, Show Me Help, and Office Assistant (AKA “Clippy”).

Cue Cards: These were embedded panels that guided users through tasks step-by-step. The user would have to click an arrow to advance to the next step. Cue Cards had their roots in eLearning.

What’s This? Help: These were text tooltips that displayed after the user clicked a ? icon in the interface, then clicked on a field. While the tooltips were informative, the method was not intuitive.

Tooltips: These are the familiar yellow text boxes that display in dialog boxes when the user hovers over a field. They are useful and easy to discover while exploring the interface.

Show Me Help: This form of user assistance was introduced with Windows Vista, as part of Assistance Platform Help (originally Longhorn Help). Show Me Help gave users the option of “do it yourself” or “do it for me.”

A reader's perspective

Embedded user assistance makes information more accessible and more relevant, and reinforces the reader's expectation that UA is part of the application. Embedded user assistance meets these objectives:

  • it is immediate
  • it is task-specific
  • it encourages learning
  • it takes the initiative for the user

The present

Although tooltips have stood the test of time, there are new types of embedded user assistance being used today that provide Help without any effort on the part of the user.

  • Descriptive Links and Overviews: These are text labels in the interface that direct users where they need to go. These hyperlinks describe a task, but don’t open Help — they open the dialog box that is used to complete the task, such as uninstalling a program. One example of descriptive links and overviews is the Control Panel display in Windows Vista.
  • Super Tooltips: These updated tooltips display when the user hovers over the interface, but they no longer appear as unformatted black text on a yellow background. Today these tooltips have formatting, and they can include spacing and graphics. They were introduced with the ribbons in Office 2007.
  • Static Information in the Interface: This is commonly seen in e-commerce applications. It is text that describes the correct input needed for each field (i.e., correct format for a phone number).
  • Embedded Wizards: These wizards are part of the interface, but don’t open until the correct button is clicked —one example is the Mail Merge wizard in Word 2007. It opens when you click the “Start Mail Merge” button.

The future

The future offers a variety of options – some of which allow us to use existing online Help projects and source files to create embedded UA.

Dynamic Help Panes: These panes, as well as dialog boxes, can be embedded in the main interface, and display the appropriate Help topic as the user navigates the interface. They provide a great way for users to discover and learn both conceptual and task-based information. This solution uses a single compiled HTML Help file (.chm) in the Dynamic Help pane, and as a traditional standalone Help file.

WinAnt Echidna Tooltips: Dialog box tooltips that are pulled from the DITA reference topic source. The information is pulled from the documentation, so these tooltips are a complete single sourcing solution.

Embedded Chat Windows: These chat windows can be embedded in the interface after being “taught” the answers to common questions.

Embedded “Tips”: When the user clicks in a field, a tip is displayed inside a static box within the interface. The tip changes dynamically, and is not task-oriented Help, but an instruction about the proper way to complete the field.a tip is displayed inside a static box within the interface. The tip changes dynamically, and is not task-oriented Help, but an instruction about the proper way to complete the field.

Further reading


  • Cooper, Alan. The Inates are Running the Asylum, 2004. About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design, 1995.
  • Galitz, Wilbert. The Essential Guide to User Interface Design, 2002.
  • Hall, Lynne. “Performance Support: Online Help and Advisors.” International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2006.
  • Nielsen, Jakob. Usability Engineering, 1993.