Usefulness of "what's this" help?

Subject: Usefulness of "what's this" help?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 29 May 2001 13:31:16 -0400

Christopher Clunas wonders: <<Does anyone have any empirical research on the
value of "What's This" help to users? I'm wondering if a particular product
would suffer in any way if we removed that kind of help from it.>>

Jef Raskin ("The Humane Interface", Addison-Wesley, 2000) reports some data
on how icons typically prove to be incomprehensible to users unless the
icons are accompanied some form of documentation; this supports my own
observations that once users learn what a particularly obscure collection of
dots represents, they no longer try to decipher the image, but simply
remember that the "print" icon is the third one from the left, the delete
icon is the fourth one from the right, and so on. I believe that William
Horton has also written about this fairly frequently going back about a
decade, though I don't know whether he explicitly mentions this in his more
recent book on icon design.

One data point from me, and hopefully others will provide their own data
points: I find "what's this?" and tooltips indispensible when I need to
fiddle about with a toolbar or dialog box and don't have the manual handy
(or any idea where to look for the definition of what an icon represents).
For example, NetObjects Fusion has an infuriating interface, and without
popups I'd never be able to find my way around it.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a
yellow spot into the sun."- -Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)


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