December 7, 2005

Context Help & Super Tooltips

In LabVIEW, we have this fun feature called Context Help. The CH window updates whenever you move the mouse cursor over an object, such as a VI, wire, dialog box component, property node, and so on. The functionality is similar to "tooltips," which appear in many programs including LabVIEW. These are the little bubbles/blurbs that appear when you move your mouse cursor over, say, the Insert Table button in MS Word.

I just read an article saying the next version of Office 12 will support extended, or "super," tooltips. The idea is to "give you the idea of what a feature is for without needing to look it up in help or in a manual," according to the head of MS's User Experience team. Traditionally, tooltips have not been very expository. They show only the name of the button. These super tooltips bring those pop-up bubbles in line with our Context Help window, which can display quite a bit of text (and even a picture of the VI).

Another interesting tidbit is the way they structure the Super Tooltip phrase. The phrase completes the sentence "This is the right feature to use if you want to ___________." Our CH phrases always start with an action verb, such as "Generates," "Calculates," "Returns," "Implements," or something along those lines. Basically it's like a present-tense version of a resume :-) I'd be interested in hearing the reasoning behind the decision to use that phrase.

Another similarity: when a super tooltip is open, a user can hit F1 too jump straight to the help system. Our CH window has this feature too; you can click a link inside the window to jump straight to the help topic for that object.

The super tooltips that lead to a dialog box will also show a picture of that dialog box. I'm not sure how useful that feature will be, but the User Experience guy claims research indicates "a lot of people identified dialog boxes by their look alone." I don't understand how that's possible; I suppose after repeated viewings this might be true, but after repeated viewings, wouldn't you already know what the dialog box is anyways? Curious.

Just another example that technical writing at NI involves not only writing, but also organizational decisions and hierarchy management. I'm eager to see how these super tooltips impact usability. You can see the original blog post from the Microsoft employee himself here.


  1. Plan for two types of people when programming: idots and deviants. - Mike O'Neal, Louisiana Tech Computer Science

    Usability = schmooze-ability. - me
    (though Google shows that Dilbert may also have touched on this)

    It would be interesting to know if they developed this with usability studies or a user-centered approach. I would guess usability studies, which explains why they underestimate the user and over- emphasize obvious information (i.e., explain things multiple times, as in the dialog box example). A user-centered development strategy would start with the users expectations, instead of Microsoft's way of slapping on new features (and all of the major software companies are guilty of this), giving it a new version number, some bold, glitzy advertising, and using monopolizing business practices to ensure that the customer can't actually pick anyone else's product (due to incompatability). Adobe and Microsoft, for instance, appear to be mutually exclusive in both companies' latest software releases. Try creating a Visio file from an Illustrator file and you'll see. (We work with strange file formats, I know.)

    Of course, I have Windows, Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and Windows Media player running right now.

  2. In a development environment where the programmers are in one room, and they don't want the technical writers touching the code directly, what is the best way to get help content/text into a Supertooltip?

    Back in the days of .CHM and "What's This? Help," a Help ID is assigned to the control, and the Tech. Writer writes text for that ID, which gets compiled into the .CHM. The only information exchanged between DEV and Tech. Writing was the Help ID.

    How can this be done with SuperToolTips?