Obscure Options, Meet Super Tooltips

Many moons ago, I mentioned that one of the impetuses behind the new Office 2007 user interface was the realization that a large percentage of feature requests phoned in to product support were actually features already in the product. It was just that people didn't know how or where to find them. Hence, the Ribbon with its command labels and more transparent feature organization.

We realized that once people found new features, we would have to design a way to communicate what they're for and how to use them. Super Tooltips were born of this goal.

But the same design challenge holds true not just for features, but for program options as well. Back in the day doing homework in college, oh so many times I wished I could tell Excel to use a different default font or to cajole Word into storing my documents on my desktop by default.

As with the feature set of Office, so too have we totally redesigned the Options interface in Office 2007 to present a more logical organization, and to put the most sought-after settings in one place.

But we were still left with a problem: no matter how good the Options organization is, it is still hard to communicate what an option does in just a few words. The option you might want to change is right there in front of you, but you can't figure out what it does.

The solution? Just as in the Ribbon, the new Options dialog box supports Super Tooltips. Many options sport a little question mark icon next to them, indicating that more information is available. Hovering over this item provides a description of what the option does and why you might want to use it.

Super Tooltips in Options - Click to view full picture

Super Tooltips have proven to be one of the most popular features in early betas of Office 2007. Extending them to the Options dialog will help more people find and use that elusive option they're looking for.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Comments (34)

  1. Matt says:

    I see the benefit of Super Tooltips in other areas, but how does what you describe differ from the old method of clicking the little helper icon in the title bar and clicking on a user element. Obviously this new way is cleaner, more apparent to the user, and looks nicer – but isn’t the end result (the actual information being displayed) more or less the same? Maybe I am missing something.


  2. PA says:

    Sort of reminds me of the Balloon Help which Apple used to have ages ago but which was (unfortunately) ditched when moving to OS X.

    (of course, it was activated differently, more like what Matt is saying above)

  3. John Topley says:

    The new Options dialogue looks significantly better, but doesn’t it rely on two things: 1) the user realising that the thing they want to achieve is a configurable option in the first place and 2) the user knowing how to get to the Options dialogue?

  4. Ben R. says:

    That looks wonderful.

    A minor suggestion: please add super tooltips to the "linked data" and "update fields" options below your example, though–those are even more mysterious to new users!

    Although some options truly won’t need super tooltips, I’d love to see your team overdo them rather than underdo them.

    Now I’m going to go back to using Word 2000 at work. Ugh. πŸ˜‰

  5. PatriotB says:

    Matt — It is essentially the same as the traditional "context sensitive help".  However there’s a huge push to eradicate this from Windows (Vista apparently won’t even ship with WinHelp).

    So I’m glad to see the Office team stepping forward with SuperTooltips for dialog options.  However, remember that Office was among the first to ditch the classic context sensitive help (using the ? button to instead open up their help pane — a bad move IMHO).

    Places like the IE Security options dialog (with tons of options) would be wise to adopt a similar approach.

  6. Sherrod Segraves says:

    Nice, but the tooltip icons really stand out. They are one of the most visually compelling parts of the dialog.

    If you test this dialog with an eye-tracking system, the heat map would probably show a strong concentration around those icons. The tooltip icons may even be enough of a distraction to interfere with users scanning for known items.

    If you want to highlight these particular choices as being extra special, then that’s good.

    Otherwise, you might want to make these icons much more subtle. This would make a cleaner-looking, less distracting dialog. Users who need the extra help would still find the icons at the end of the line of text as they finish reading the checkbox.

  7. Centaur says:

    So, whatever happened to good old right-click | What’s This? Are users not as curious as they used to be? Or, are you planning to have any options for which online help is not available, that options with help should stand out?

  8. Star McClelland says:

    Why do I need to navigate to a small blue circle to get a tooltip? Tooltips should appear whenever I pause over the label or checkbox. And why can’t I get tips on all the options?

  9. Abigail says:

    "Obviously this new way is cleaner, more apparent to the user, and looks nicer…"

    Matt, isn’t that the whole point of the new UI? Not all features have to be new, they just have to be, well, cleaner, prettier and easier to use. πŸ™‚

  10. Tim says:

    "So, whatever happened to good old right-click"

    You clearly have no idea how many users (they probably number in the millions) never right-click on anything, except by accident.

  11. Man, the more I see of the new Office Suite, the more I want it.

    Any chance of getting on a Beta list somewhere?  And Vista too?  πŸ™‚

  12. David Walker says:

    Yes, definitely the team should add those question marks to ALL options.  Options that might sound obvious are not always.

    Print document properties?  What does this mean?  For one thing, is "print" a verb?  What kind of properties are printed?  Is the document also printed or JUST the document’s properties?

    Print hidden text?  In this super-tooltip, you should explain what hidden text IS, and how to MAKE a document have hidden text.  I might see this and think "How do I get hidden text in my document… under what circumstances would my document have hidden text in it?".

    Update fields before printing?  What fields are they talking about?  The same with linked data, as someone else already mentioned.  What linked data?  What is linked data and how do I get it into my document?  How do I know if my document has any linked data?

    None of this is obvious.  I know the product isn’t out yet, but I would hate to see half of the options have these tips and the other half don’t.

  13. BradC says:

    + 1 to David’s comment. I think even some of the less-obscure options need some good descriptions as well.

    I was a little unsure from looking at the screenshot whether the other options don’t HAVE super tooltips, or whether the icon isn’t showing up currently because the mouse isn’t hovering over the feature.

  14. MSDNArchive says:

    David –

    I think at least some of those questions have much more exhaustive answers that would be better answered by a web search rather than a tooltip if you have them.

  15. Matt says:

    I made the mistake of not looking at the larger image. I see now that these tooltips are being used where more information is necessary and the label alone will not suffice. I definitely like the concept of super tooltips, I was just wondering why they had to be here in this dialog. In makes more sense seeing the little info bubbles not next to everything. Like someone else said though – why not have these appear on hover – maybe they do?


  16. gary keramidas says:

    i just hope the options are standardized across all of the apps.

    in excel, the default file location is under tools/options/general

    in word, tools/options/file locations

    and in powerpoint


    and the dialogs are all different.

  17. Will says:

    That’s nice. But what I really want to know, as does everyone else here, is what is on the View tab? And what does a non-ribbon Office app look like? Does it also have an Office button, for consistency? Or is there still a file menu?

  18. Mark says:

    Slightly off topic, but does anyone else get frustrated with a set of options where some are on by default and some are off?

    I would like so see the options defined/worded so that the checkboxes are off by default.  That way, any options modified from the default would become obvious by being set.  Nothing I hate more than trying to troubleshoot an application for a user where they played with one of a million settings and you have to spend a lot of effort to find the one that is now causing the headaches.

    While I have to support Office users, I don’t get a chance to become familiar enough with the apps to always know where everything is.  In fact I’ve quite a number of interesting tidbits from this blog.  Thanks!  

  19. weevil says:

    The fact that the view menu has disappeared from the bottom right of the app might be a clue as to the contents new view tab.

  20. Phylyp says:

    Jensen – A suggestion.

    Please provide content or a link in the super tooltip explaining "why" a feature may be needed, or under what circumstances it might be useful.

    Some features are a bit non-intuitive until a user is given an example of why they may wish to use it – and then they find it great.

    For example, the "Windows in Taskbar" could be explained as being useful if you’re constantly switching between two windows to compare/plagiarize (!) content; at the cost of another button on the Taskbar.

  21. Centaur says:

    I have a suggestion. First, every option should have a help button pop up aside it when the mouse pointer is hovered over the option. Second, when this button is clicked, it takes the name of the application (Microsoft Word), the name of the dialog (Options Printing), and the name of the option (Print hidden text), and opens the default browser with a web search query for all of the above.

    (Please do not make the mistake of hardcoding the search engine to MSN Search β€” users have different preferences.)

  22. Adam says:

    Mark> No, I get frustrated when options are worded negatively (e.g. "do not show foo", "hide foo", etc…), and turning the option on turns something off, and turning the option off turns it on. To me, that’s a lot more awkward.

    If you want to see what the defaults were, then I’d suggest having a "Defaults" button that changes all the options to their defaults, and a "Reset" button that acts like "cancel" without dismissing the dialog. KDE’s control center does this, and it’s really useful.

  23. Mark> I would like so see the options defined/worded so that the checkboxes are off by default.  

    Adam> I get frustrated when options are worded negatively

    I like the idea, but I think Adam is right on.  Or maybe even some sort of visual clue that an option has been changed.  FireFox does this in the about:config section. Bold items are changed, non-bold are defaults.

  24. I always knew Apple’s Balloon Help would return in a slightly more useful form.

  25. Mark says:

    Yes, reflecting on it I realized that be being worded in the negative would be annoying in many cases.  The "Defaults" button is a useful idea and important I think for maintaining long-term usability.  Reverting from accidental/exploratory resets might be an issue.

    Eric’s "Bold items are changed" idea is MUCH better than the idea to re-word everythin.

  26. David van Leerdam says:

    Dear Jensen,

    Nice screenshot! What I miss, as well as in previously released versions of Office applications, is that it’s unclear whether options are applied

    – to the active document

    – globally on the user’s pc

    – a combination of both

    I think every option, or option page, should clearly state where (and how) the option(s) is or are applied.

    Hopefully your team will consider this for Office 12, it would be a great improvement in my opinion.

    Keep up the good work.

    Kind regards.

  27. How Microsoft Office is like WinDBG

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