Concise Help text adjacent to input fields is most useful when
- asking for unfamiliar data—What’s a PAC code?
- people might question why you are asking for specific data—Why do you need to know my date of birth?
- there are recommende ways of providing data—Separate your tags with commas.
- certain data fields are optional
However, there are many types of forms that require lots of obscure data, use unique formats, or have input restrictions. In such cases, the amount of Help text necessary for each input field could quickly overwhelm a form, making it appear quite intimidating or complex. For forms like this, it might make sense to consider using dynamic contextual Help. As various Help systems have emerged online, I’ve started to catalogue the different types I’ve come across.
People’s behavior can automatically trigger access to Help systems. Automatic systems reveal applicable Help text when people engage with a form. Actions like moving between form fields or groups of fields result in the display of useful Help text. User-activated Help systems, on the other hand, require people to take deliberate actions specifically to reveal relevant Help text.
Automatic In-Line Exposure
Automatic in-line Help systems reveal themselves when and where the information they contain is most applicable. For example, when a user clicks or tabs to an input field, the relevant Help text appears beside or below the field. Figure 2 shows this behavior in action in a form on Wufoo.
Some sites automatically expose in-line Help text for a set of related fields rather than just an individual input field. For example, in Figure 3, the SnapTax Web application automatically highlights relevant information for each set of information: identity, spouse, address, and so on.
It is worthwhile to note that both of these examples make use of a strong visual element to communicate the relationship between input fields and their associated Help:
- in the Wufoo example—two aligned rectangles
- in the SnapTax example—a common background color
A potential drawback of this type of automatic Help system is that people are unlikely to know any Help text is available until they begin to fill out the form. There’s often very little in the presentation of these forms that indicates Help is available. As a result, users who feel they may need help completing a form could get discouraged and not even try.