On Tuesday, I mentioned some of the barriers I see to people using help regularly in Office.  Based on the comments, I can tell that many of you have strong feelings about the Office help system.  The team that owns the help system has read your comments and Mike Kelly, one of the leaders of that team, has a blog in which he discusses improvements being made to user assistance in Office 12.  Just an FYI, in case you want to check out their direction.

Today, I want to introduce the way we've integrated help content into the Office 12 user interface: a feature we call "Super Tooltips."

The idea is simple: tooltips are successfully and frequently used by people at all skill and experience levels.  We wanted to take the design of tooltips in Office to the next level.  "Super Tooltips" (just a code name) were born.

First, every tooltip contains the feature name and keyboard shortcut (if it has one.)  This is the bare minimum you'd expect from a tooltips in Office, and we haven't changed that.  No surprises yet.

Next, we add to every feature's tooltip a short text description letting you know what that feature is for.  We've written these in the form of: "This is the right feature to use if you want to [tooltip text here]."  The concept is to give you the idea of what a feature is for without needing to look it up in help or in a manual.

Super Tooltips: Answering "when should you use this feature"

They say "a picture is worth a thousand words" and often times that's true when trying to explain what a feature is for.  The next enhancement we made is the ability to include an explanatory image in the tooltip itself.  A good example of why this is useful is "Insert Caption" in Word.  Someone might not know what a "caption" is, but when they see the little picture with a line of text saying "Figure 7: blah blah blah" under it, they suddenly understand what it is.  That's the value of a picture.

A picture in hand is worth two in the bush

I mentioned in my article on help that one of the problems I perceive today is that there is no formal link between the user interface and the help system.  If I don't know what a feature does, the best I can hope for is to remember the name of the feature, open the help window, type in the name of the feature, and select from a list of articles that come back.  In many cases, believe it or not, the "official" article for a feature shows up at the bottom of the list of results or not at all.

Super Tooltips bridge the gap between the user interface and the help system.  By the time we ship Office 12, every feature with a help article will be linked directly from the tooltip.  Super Tooltips advertise this with "Press F1 for more help" at the bottom; pressing F1 takes you directly to more information about the selected feature.  Direct access--no more fumbling around or searching aimlessly.

Press F1 for direct help: tooltips bridge the UI and help system

Have you ever tried to use a command that was disabled and couldn't figure out why it was grayed out?  Another feature we've added to tooltips is the ability to communicate to you why it's disabled and what steps you might need to take to enable it.  We plan to have support for many common scenarios when we ship Office 12, including read-only documents, documents saved in an older file format, documents you don't have permission to edit, etc.  Now that the architecture is in place, we'll continue to extend this in the future to even more scenarios.  The long-term is goal is for you never to be stuck and confused, wondering what magic trick is necessary to enable a command.

The layout is ugly in current builds, but the feature is cool nonetheless...

One last touch: you may remember many moons ago I wrote about Dialog Launchers.  Yes, we're changing the widget, no need to flame me again... :)  Early in our research for Office 12, we discovered that a lot of people identified dialog boxes by their look alone.  They didn't read the text in the dialog box, but scanned the layout and design and made a decision about whether it was the "right one" solely based on that.  So, to try to make that experience a little more efficient with the Ribbon, the tooltips for Dialog Launchers show a preview of what the dialog box looks like.

Am I the dialog box you're looking for?

You might be concerned about bigger tooltips covering up the Ribbon while you're searching for commands.  Not to worry--Super Tooltips always appear directly below the Ribbon, so they never cover up the command space.  And, if you decide they're not your thing, you can always revert back to old "command name only" tooltips.

We've tried to extend tooltips in the Office 12 user interface to make them a lot more useful and to save people time and clicks.  We want tooltips not just to help answer the question "what is this feature called?" but also "why would I use it?", "how do I find out more about it?", and "why is it disabled and how can I enable it?"  Super Tooltips bridge the gap between the user interface and help system, providing an efficient mechanism to get directly from the product to the documentation.