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Active Help: Advice That Melts Away

23 Mar 2004 by Matthew Linderman

“Did you know…” tips provide helpful suggestions for site visitors but there’s a catch: There’s nowhere good to put ‘em. Stick them in your help or FAQ section and most visitors will never see them. On the other hand, if you put them inline on your pages they take up valuable real estate and get in the way of expert visitors.

But what if you can actually track your visitors? Then you can discern between newbies and experts and provide them with the relative level of advice they need. This sort of “active help” is a great way to steer people who are new to your site without getting in the way of your veterans.

The active help at Basecamp has been one of the tool’s most popular design features. When you first start a project, an active help box appears at the bottom of each page. It’s titled “Things you can do that you haven’t done yet” and it provides links and advice on how to use key features like posting messages, adding milestones, and giving clients access to your site. The kicker is that as soon as you demonstrate you know how to use a feature, the active help relating to it disappears so you don’t have to worry about being clubbed over the head with information you already know. Plus, you can always get rid of the active help at anytime by simply clicking on the “Hide this help box” link.

Here’s a look at an active help box (in the red box) in the context of a page at Basecamp:

Active Help at Basecamp
See Larger Version of Active Help Box

So once you add a milestone, for example, the text that advises you how to add a milestone is removed from the active help area. It’s help that melts away once you no longer need it.

12 comments so far (Post a Comment)

23 Mar 2004 | Ben Scofield said...

Interesting. Do the help items reappear when I create a new project, or does the preference carry over? And can I get the items back if for some reason (e.g., a long absence from the system) I need 'em?

23 Mar 2004 | ML said...

Do the help items reappear when I create a new project, or does the preference carry over?

As of now, each new project generates a new active help box regardless of previous actions. You can always click to hide it.

And can I get the items back if for some reason (e.g., a long absence from the system) I need 'em?

You can always get the same information from the help section in case you need to refer to it after the active help box disappears.

24 Mar 2004 | andrew said...

We've implemented something similar in an app, and we decided to put the "turn help notes back on" toggle in the Help section as well.

24 Mar 2004 | Michael Spina said...

I thought this was one of the most brilliant things about Basecamp.

24 Mar 2004 | Michael Spina said...

Oops, too quick on the trigger.

I really like how it makes the help available where and when you need it.

An extension to this idea might be to hold off on showing help on more advanced features until the user has mastered the basics, then start peppering those messages where needed.

24 Mar 2004 | Mike P. said...

Funny, we implemented something similar on a couple of recent sites, and I swear we got the idea from another 37signals site...

24 Mar 2004 | hp said...

In our applications, we "attach" general preferences for active help to each user and feature-specific preferences to each element/feature except where the functionality/purpose is self-evident.

Feature-specific active help appears by default when the feature is new (either just introduced or new forthe given user) and disappaears after one or more interactions of any given users with it (the settings are specificed in the management options for each feature/subsystem/element). Users always have an option of summoning it back by clicking on "help" icon associated with each feature, subsystem and/or element.

In some cases, the active help reappears if a user brings up help after interacting with the feature one or more times based on assumption that he/she needs assistance with it and disappears again after a certain number of interactions.

We found this to be helpful in situations where a user interacts with some features and/or sections of the system occasionally especially if the functionality of the feature/system is on the complex side.



24 Mar 2004 | Ben said...


24 Mar 2004 | One of several Steves said...

It surprises me that that's been one of the most popular features. Most users I've observed tend to hate unprompted help - notice how violently people try to click away that damn "clippy" thing in Microsoft Office. The tips on startup feature of some software seems to get similar responses.

But, it is all in the execution, and it would be interesting to see how you've implemented it here. Walktrhoughs for complex tasks, particularly when the software notes that it's your first time doing something, can be quite helpful. In other words, true context-sensitive help, instead of the scattershot approach that most software takes.

Most of the time though, I still personally prefer to go consult help myself instead of having the system try to help me.

24 Mar 2004 | JF said...

Our Active Help (or "Follow Help" as we call it internally) is at the bottom of the screen and never in the way. It doesn't beep, or flash, or scream -- it's just there when you need it and not there when you don't.

As you said, it's in the execution.

24 Mar 2004 | One of several Steves said...

And that sounds like a much better execution, Jason. I think it's more the obtrusiveness of things like "clippy" that annoy people than simply providing help.

Well, that and treating me like a moron like Word does whenever it says "It looks like you're typing a letter. Would you like help?"

27 Mar 2004 | mindful learner said...

This reminds me of an idea that once found its way into my head. One of the worst things about help is finding the specific help file that relates to the situation you are in. Context sensitive hints alleviate this to some degree but often don't give enough detail for every situation. I wondered if it would be possible to track each user's actions and then if they asked for help they would be shown options relating to the actions they'd just taken. Perhaps there could be a more sophisticated algorigthm which could look to see if a person tried several ways of performing a task to try and guess what they were really doing.


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