What's so great about contextual help?

bri hillmer | May 10, 2021

"We need to move towards contextual help." For awhile now this statement has been bandied about when discussing the future of SurveyGizmo's software documentation. 

I've said it. My boss, the manager of customer experience, has said it. His boss, the director of development, has said it. I'm pretty sure I've heard similar statements from the director of service and probably even the CEO. It has turned into what feels like an imperative. 

What's troubling is that I, the documentation coordinator, don't have a firm vision of what contextual help should ideally look like in SurveyGizmo. This is the obvious first step towards implementing contextual help. So, I've set out to get a better understand of contextual help, why it works, and when it doesn't.

What is contextual help?

Contextual help, also referred to as context-sensitive help, is

. . . a kind of online help that is obtained from a specific point in the state of the software, providing help for the situation that is associated with that state.[1]

Because contextual help is rarely a one-size-fits-all scenario there are many different forms of contextual help. The best help is a combination of many of these options. 

Inline instruction

Inline instructions are probably the most common form of contextual help. The below example from SurveyGizmo shows the user the format in which the time should be entered as well as the time zone. 

Inline Instructions in SurveyGizmo


Tooltips are another commonly used form of contextual help. Tooltips are typically used to define ambiguous terms or interface elements. Below is a Google Analytics Tooltip.

Google Analytics Tooltip

Embedded Help Center

An embedded help center is simply a help center that is accessible within the software. In many cases, this is the extent of the "context" that is applied to an embedded help center. Typically, in embedded help centers the onus is still on the user to find the content that answers their question though some embedded help centers point to articles that are relevant to the current page.

Realtime Board Embedded Help Center

Another familiar example of an embedded help center is the help tool available in Office products like Excel.

Microsoft Excel Embedded Help Center

Embedded Help

Embedded help might be the rarest breed of contextual help. Embedded help provides users with the specific answers or steps they need within the software without the need for the user to search for it. Embedded help can be triggered to display by either the user or the software. 

Embedded Help in Gmail

Tours (aka Tutorials or Walkthroughs)

Guided tours and walkthroughs are a sequence of positioned tooltips that guide users through an interface. A guided tour works as a demo, showing users the process first and then letting them follow it, while a walkthrough takes the users through the process step by step.[2]

Realtime Board Tutorial

What's so great about contextual help?

Having not yet implemented contextual help this question is top of mind for me. It behooves me to evaluate the pros and cons of contextual help to be sure that this is the direction I want to go before diving in head first. Below are is the list of advantages of contextual help I have found in my research.

  1. Many users will not use conventional online help manuals.
  2. Context-based help is the least disruptive to workflow, as it doesn’t require the reader to view a separate page.[3]
  3. Contextual help offers more effective guidance by providing specific information about the state or condition the application is in at the time the user is looking for help.[2]
  4. Context-based help doesn’t rely on screen captures or illustrations, so it’s easier to maintain.[3] 

Are there any cons to contextual help?

As with all things, there are potential downsides to contextual help. Here is the list of potential problems with contextual help. 

  1. Too many words in the application can be distracting and confusing.
  2. Contextual help is more expensive to maintain as it requires development resources.
  3. Contextual help, especially tours, can get in the way of seasoned users who know what they are doing.
  4. Contextual help, especially tours, can be restrictive if the user cannot diverge from the sequence of steps.

What are some good examples of contextual help?

Help is a funny thing. Unless you're in the business of writing help content, you don't really notice it (unless it is really bad). Most of the time the help just helps you and you're not going to walk away raving about how it did its job. 

Fortunately, I am in the business of writing help content and love thinking about it, talking about it. I am perpetually in reconnaissance mode when it comes to help. Recently, the contextual help of Realtime Board and Slack have really stood out to me!

Realtime Board

Realtime board has an excellent two-minute video at the beginning of the trial that gives the user a great idea of the available features.

The also have a pretty great tutorial to get you oriented.

Realtime Board Tutorial


I'm a huge fan of Slack's help. Here is their getting started tour. 

Slack Tour

They also have an adorable and helpful robot you can chat with called Slackbot. You can ask Slackbot questions about how to do things in Slack.

Slack's Slackbot

About the author
bri hillmer
Bri Hillmer

Bri is a Sr. Technical Writer at Alteryx. An Ohioan at heart, Bri now lives in Colorado where she spends her time reading, hiking, and spending time with her dogs.

Find her on LinkedIn.

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