Design Checklists for Online Help

By Michelle Corbin

Online help systems have evolved over the past 20 years to meet the needs of our users. Designers must consider the content, format, presentation, navigation, and access methods of online help systems. A series of design checklists based on the past 20 years of research are presented in this paper, which summarizes a journal article currently being considered for publication. The latest trend in online help system design is embedded user assistance, which includes integrating information into the interface and including an embedded help pane within that interface to display a context-sensitive online help system.


The design and implementation of online help systems continues to evolve along with the systems and technologies that they support. With the advent of the Internet and Web, users have become more accustomed to using online information and have even come to expect certain things from those online information systems.

Although most researchers define online help systems as "brief, task-oriented modules of information" (Harris and Hoosier, 1991, p. 201) that support the user in accomplishing their tasks, some researchers use a broader definition that includes "other forms of online documentation, such as quick tours, online manuals, tutorials, and other collections of information that help people use and understand products" (Gelertner, 1998, p. 188). Regardless of the breadth of the information, several key design features remain constant in those online help systems.

Many human-computer interaction specialists have pointed out that the distinction between the online help systems and the user interfaces they support is not obvious to the user (Sellen and Nicol, 1990). So, it is only natural that the design of online help systems has led to designing embedded user assistance.

Current definitions of embedded user assistance include interface text, tooltips, wizards, coaches, and embeddded help panes (Ames, 2001; Grayling, 2002). Information is moving out of the separate online help systems into the interfaces.

This paper presents the design attributes of online help systems in a series of design checklists and then discusses the latest research in interface and user assistance design.

Design Attributes of Online Help Systems

Spool and Scanlon (1996) reported that users use online help for one of two reasons: they are confused about the interface or they need to find a specific product function. They also reported that users avoid online help because of the time spent in using it, in that there is not a return on that investment of time. To that end, designers must consider the following design attributes in creating usable, readable online help systems:

  • Content
  • Format and presentation
  • Navigation
  • Access methods

Content Considerations

When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for content:

  • Make the information task-oriented and highly structured, because the purpose of online help is to get the user back on task as fast as possible (Hackos & Stevens, 1997; Smith, 1994; Mischel, 1994; Duffy, et al., 1992; Harris & Hosier, 1991; Shirk, 1988).
  • Separate information into distinct information types and include only one information type in each online help topic (Houser, 1998; Zubak, 2003). Information types can be by content type (task, concept, reference) of user models (beginner, intermediate, advanced).
  • Follow minimalist principles in designing online help topics. Many online help designers misconstrue minimalism to simply mean brevity; however, minimalist design hinges on being able to make good decisions on what to do, say, or show, and on what not to include (Carroll and van der Meij, 1996, p. 73).
  • Keep the length of topics short, perhaps to no more than two screens long (Turk & Nichols, 1996). However, after his analysis of the research and his own experience in designing online help systems, Perlin (2001) concluded that online help topics need to be "as long as necessary and as short as possible" (p. 13).

Format & Presentation Considerations

When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for formatting and presenting the information:

  • Design a multiple window interface with simplicity and consistency in mind (Hackos & Stevens, 1997). Depending on the type of online help system you are designing, such as a context-sensitive help system, multiple windows might not be appropriate (Nichols & Berry, 1996).
  • Make the information scannable by using lists or tables instead of paragraphs whenever possible (Nichols, 1994; Brockmann, 1990; Cherry, et al., 1989; Cherry & Jackson, 1989; Tullis, 1988).
  • Use highlighting for emphasis, consistently and carefully (Cherry & Jackson, 1989; Galitz, 1989; Queipo, 1986).
  • Use simple, sans-serif fonts and limit the number of fonts used (Timpone, 1996; Mischel, 1994; Galitz, 1989).
  • Limit the length of a line of text to fewer than 50 characters (Quiepo, 1986; Timpone, 1996; Caldanaro, Evans, & Nichols, 1996), possibly even fewer than 40 characters (Hackos & Stevens, 1997).

Navigation Considerations

When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for navigating the information:

  • Scrolling. Although users are reluctant to scroll through screens of information (Grayling, 1998), some research shows users perform better with longer topics (User Interface Engineering, 1998). If your topic requires scrolling, use advance organizer headings to give cues to the content (Nichols, 1994).
  • Hypertext linking. Use hypertext links judiciously and make sure the link is worth the trip for the user (Timpone, 1996; Hackos & Stevens, 1997). In creating a set of hypertext links, "favor breadth over depth" (Farkas & Farkas, 2000, p. 345). Hackos and Stevens (1997) suggest that each online help topic should contain no more than five hypertext links.
  • Table of contents. Minimize the levels of topics so that users do not have to dig for the information (Timpone, 1996). Include no more than three levels of entries (Wright, 2002; Hackos & Stevens, 1997; and Caldanaro, Evans, & Nichols, 1996).
  • Index. Because it is the most used navigational feature of any online information system (Farkas & Farkas, 2000; Spool & Scanlon, 1996), create a detailed, thorough index using synonyms from the users’ vocabulary (Earle, Berry, & Nichols, 1996; Cooper, 1995). When creating hierarchical indexes, focus on creating detailed primary entries and limiting the number of secondary entries (Hackos & Stevens, 1997; Earle, Berry, & Nichols, 1996; Northrop, 1994).

Access Methods

When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for accessing the online help system:

  • First and foremost, implement context-sensitive access to the online help topics, possibly even a dynamic context sensitivity (Grayling, 2002; Elley, 1996; Sleeter, 1996; Duffy, et al., 1992).
  • Consistently implement multiple access methods, such as menu bar, tool bar, help buttons on dialogs, and so on (Timpone, 1996; Mischel, 1994; Duffy, et al, 1992).

Interface Text and Embedded User Assistance

After reporting users dissatisfaction with online help systems (Grayling, 1998), Grayling (2002) ran a new usability study and concluded that instead of revising the existing online help system models, writers must improve the user interface and then work to provide an extremely context-sensitive, embedded user assistance system.

As Zubak (2003) reports, user interfaces are becoming more "inductive" by being redesigned to be more task-based and incorporate more information into the interface itself. As Ames (2001) reports, "If you look at some of the most popular and easy-to-use (validated by usability testing) applications on our desktops today, like Intuit Quicken and Microsoft® Money, you’ll notice that their UIs meld traditional UI widgets with information," which gives users “the information they need to perform a task correctly the first time is available [online] -- at the right time" (p. 111).

As part of this new user interface design, an embedded help pane is provided to display dynamic, context-sensitive, task-based information (Grayling, 2002; Ames, 2001; Ray & Ray, 2001), implemented as described in the design checklists presented in this paper. By embedding the help pane within the user interface, the information is tied much more closely with that interface.


Over the past 20 years, technical communicators have learned a great deal about how to design an effective online help system. Based on this research and experience, they are working alongside developers and human-computer interaction specialists to integrate as much information into the interface as possible. Even the online help is being integrated into an embedded help pane in user interfaces to help ensure that the user stays on task within the product. The content, format, presentation, navigation, and access of the online help systems will continue to evolve as user interfaces are redesigned to contain more of the information that users need in the first place.


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Michelle Corbin is a senior technical editor and information architect at IBM. She has 15 years experience as a technical writer and technical editor, focusing much of her energies on the design and implementation of online information systems. She has a BA in English and an MS in Technical Communication, both from North Carolina State University. She's a Senior Member of STC and a past president of the Carolina Chapter of STC.

Written by Michelle Corbin, originally titled "From Online Help to User Assistance" in the STC 2003 Conference Proceedings, and used with permission from the Society for Technical Communication, Arlington, VA, U.S.A.