Super Tooltips

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
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

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
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.

Comments (46)

  1. Andreas Häber says:

    Based on the pictures this looks like a _great_ evolution of the good, old tooltips.

  2. Mike says:

    Awsome stuff. I can’t believe how good Office 12 is looking…

  3. Brad Corbin says:

    I don’t know whether to celebrate, or rant that this wasn’t done years ago!

    Great new feature, and I would think that even expert users should benefit from this functionality.

    I’m increasingly impressed how the Office 12 team really seems to understand some of the difficulties of working with earlier versions. Its about time that someone did a radical re-thinking of how the fundamental interface works, instead of just falling back on "time-tested" techniques. (Which apparently weren’t all that great anyway!!)

  4. Dominic Self says:

    Am I the only one bothered by "shows arrows to indicate what cells affect the value of the currently selected cell" when it should clearly be *which* cells? 😉

  5. Wayne says:

    Absolutely awesome. This feature in itself should reduce the number of helpdesk calls users place.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  6. Helen says:


    As with all great ideas, it seems so obvious once you’ve thought of it. Of course tooltips should have pictures! Why hasn’t this been done before?! 😉

  7. Tom Winter says:

    Two things for the super tool tips:

    1. Make sure the "Press F1 for more help" is a click-able hyperlink that opens the help file. When people are moving the mouse over the buttons, they are focused on using the mouse. Having to press F1 switches them over to the keyboard.

    2. You said about people not liking the big tooltips and it covering up the ribbon. It may also cover up the document that I’m working on, which I may need to see while searching for the right command to use on it. Maybe but a little X in the upper right corner that closes super tooltips for that trip to the ribbon.

    Otherwise, very nice!

  8. (6) says:

    I’ve been entirely reworking the UI for the product I work on. I can’t believe how many of "my innovations" are now in Office 12. It’s good to know that I’m on the right track, just a pity my boss will think I’ve been copying! 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  9. James Schend says:

    It’s a good idea (6) (if that is your real name!), but you can’t click a tooltip… they disappear when you try to move your mouse over them! (By design of course.)

    Still, he has a point about moving focus from the mouse to the keyboard. I wonder if there’s another way.

  10. PatriotB says:

    This looks really promising. How about dialog box controls — will they have super tooltips too?

    Also, it would be great if these constructs could be fed back to the Windows team that works on the Windows tooltip control. That way they could create easy mechanisms for any developer to add a "Press F1 for help" subsection, etc.

  11. raul says:

    On disabled tooltips, why not include a button or a link to do what you are saying. For example instead of just saying "To enable this feature, upgrade the document by selecting "Upgrade". Why not just include a simple way to do what you are explaining.

    If this is a problem because of tooltips disappearing when you mouse over them, you might at least offer the keyboard command to do whatever it is that needs to be done.

  12. Michael Entin says:

    Very very nice, but why tooltip with "upgrade the document by selecting Upgrade in File menu" when this could be a hyper-link right here doing this for user, instead of giving directions what to do?

    This is what was done with Windows help files, and works very nice usually.

  13. Abigail says:

    Dominic: Nope, I’m with you!

    James: Some tooltips are already clickable. For example, type =(Sum(… in an Excel cell; you can drag around and click in the formula tooltip. That’s been around a while. So it shouldn’t be hard to make the help links clickable, and I second you that it’s a good idea.

  14. scyost says:

    These tooltips are one of my favorite features in the O12 beta. It really makes all the features more discoverable.

  15. Johnny Pixel Pusher says:

    I think these are great – I just hope they’re not a substitute for good design…

  16. Dan McCarty says:

    "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."

    I think it’s safe to say that Office help these days is worse than its ever been. Ever. It’s been one long slide ever since the days of printed manuals. (At least in a printed book you had to get it right because you didn’t get a SP1.)

    Whether it was high-level management’s decision to make help an IE window so they could tie IE closer to the OS or whether it was some other reason, help is just terrible these days. I agree with your other posters: Office97 was probably the last decent help system, and these days I cringe before pressing F1 and waiting half a minute (on a top of the line system) for help to cough to life and bash my app window so it can squeeze itself into an impossibly narrow column.

    Your supertips might be a step in the right direction, but Office help in general has a long way to go just to get back to where it was. I’m looking forward to seeing the final product’s help system, but I’ve been disappointed enough to know not to hold my breath.

  17. Wow! I asked you to take credit for what I thought was the best help-related improvement in Office 12 (which I’d seen only in some of your previous screenshots) and you blew me away. I’m dying to do the "mom" test with these. 😉

  18. First of all, is Office going to keep calling these “ScreenTips”, even though people seem to be calling them tooltips these days?

    Second, I think I read before about tooltips in another product (on the Mac, perhaps?) that started out as the standard tooltip at first, but expanded to be more verbose after you kept your mouse over the toolbar item for awhile. This would be helpful if you already knew what the Cut button does, for instance, but you needed to find the button by hovering around, since (just as an example) the button doesn’t currently have a text label on it.

    When you’re hovering over a bunch of toolbar buttons to find the one you’re looking for, you’d be content with getting a tooltip that just says Cut, because you already know what Cut does. But these large, very descriptive tooltips will get in the way, because your eyes might automatically focus on that colorful help icon in the tooltip.

    If the user doesn’t know what Cut does, then they could easily keep the mouse over the button for a second or two, and as they’re about to scratch their head in bewilderment, the tooltip expands into something more useful for them.

  19. Will says:

    I think the answer to making clickable links in the tooltips so as not to make people reach for the keyboard or go to other menus is simple: the right mouse button. Just have a context menu where the first option is "hide tooltip", the second "help on this feature", the third any links from the feature such as "upgrade the document", and then "customise" or whatever else you were designing under that.

    And how about an option where you can set the delay before tooltips appear? It would be useful to make it so that people unfamiliar with the interface can find this info quicker, or keep it out of the way for people who don’t like it.

  20. David says:

    The tooltips look great.

    Something I’ve been wondering about these and the other new controls in Office – will Microsoft be making these publically available so other software can use the controls? I know some previous versions of Office haven’t made their new UI controls available, so people write controls that emulate the behaviour etc… it just seems a bit messy. It would be really great if the UI libraries were separately installable as an OS patch or something, and any app could use them.

  21. Paul says:

    If the right click opened a context menu it could then be used for ‘show me’ or ‘take me there’ (primarily for the disabled options scenario) type actions. If it were ‘smart’ enough you could learn from the behaviour of the user, i.e. initialy display the extended tooltip after a short delay, if the user constantly waits for the extended tooltip in the magority of cases then display it automatically.

  22. Orion Adrian says:

    A couple of things:

    1) Please use the same delay mechanism that’s in place today for these shortcuts. Please don’t use a two-stage mechanism.

    2) Please don’t include an option for turning these off. Options should be used for real needs, not just placating people who don’t like change. Though this requires you be very careful. I was glad Clippy could be turned off because he was just annoying. Besides your options dialog is just getting silly in size.

    3) As for mechanisms for activiting content within the tooltip, you did a good job. Unfortunately since the only action for creating these tooltips is onmouseover you’re pretty much out of luck. While you could go with right click, that would require you to change the default behavior or expand upon it. I’m not sure that’s it’s intuitive either since you won’t be right-clicking on the tooltip, but rather on the button that shows the tooltip.

    4) Great job.

  23. Universalis says:

    "Have you ever tried to use a command that was disabled and couldn’t figure out why it was grayed out?"

    We put just this feature in Cardbox 3.0 about eighteen months ago. I’m glad you’re doing it too and I hope that it’ll become standard in the software industry. That way people will expect it and we won’t keep having to tell them "why is the command disabled? Move your mouse onto it and Cardbox will tell you".

  24. I hope you´ll include the keyboard shortcuts inside the super tooltips too. Maybe the hint can be next to the "press f1 for more help".

  25. Lorraine says:

    I love these Super Tooltips! What an enhancement. I have many people who just refuse to look in Help but with these tips so convenient, they are bound to use them.

    What would even be better is to have a "Show Me" or "watch a video" to show people a short multimedia clip of exactly how to use it. What a training tool that would be!

  26. The feature is very good but I bet there is a way to further improve:

    what if users can had a short note at the end of the Super Tooltip?

    The first part of it contains the description Microsoft decided to put on, the second (just below) can contain a custom description from the user.

    So if I frequently use an Office command for some particular tasks which require a precise order of accomplishment (or a particular attention to some details) I could write it on the Super Tooltip and be always aware of it.

    Another example: a foreign language user (let’s say Italian like me) forced to use an english Office version, can add a small italian description for the most used features.

    This is also a convenient way to train new users while doing training on the job: the skilled user add some useful comments to certain features so the newbie user is aware of some things when using it.

  27. Ryan Pollack says:

    Hi Jensen, my name is Ryan Pollack. I’m a technical writer for LabVIEW, a graphical programming language developed by National Instruments. We deal with issues surrounding tooltips (we call it Context Help) all the time, so I found your blog post interesting.

    I and several other writers maintain a blog at where I talked about this feature this morning. Just thought I’d let you know. I’d love to have your comments. In particular, I am curious about the phrase "This is the right feature to use if you want to ___________" you mention in the BetaNews article. We do it a different way in LabVIEW; has your research suggested this phrasing is more beneficial to users?

  28. Indeed very nice feature. I think this is one of the high value usability features that one can add to application since in my experience most of users “browse” through the product by checking tooltips and trying things rather than reading documentation. And who can blame them, discovering and exploring application interactively is certainly more fun than reading the manual.

    I am sure that lot of people will want to provide same in their applications so I just posted on my blog preview of our "Super Tooltip" component for VS.NET

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  35. .. you can do it, we can do it too !! Did it annoy you, ever, that the ToolTip class was so darned limited

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