Why tooltips are terrible and why you should use them

If you’re a product manager or designer and have ever considered using tooltips then let’s just agree on this...

Recently I was helping a company improve their product’s user onboarding; I saw the design below and was like 😱 . The dark grey semi-transparent tooltip is hard to discern and states the bleeding obvious.

It's clear from the design that the + icon is there to add new people!

The tooltip here is being used as a shortcut to prompt users to do what the product manager wants. Unfortunately it's not as easy as that -- you cannot simply just add tooltips to create engaged users. Users take action because they are motivated, have the ability and are prompted by a trigger, which means tooltips will only succeed when the user understands the value proposition and the interface is intuitive.

The theory behind this is outlined in BJ Fogg’s model which explains what causes people to behave in a certain way , and I've summarized how this applies to product thinking here.

If you are designing a product, you cannot simply litter your interface with triggers (tooltips). Without the value proposition being understood and the interface being simple to navigate, triggers become irritants and lose all credibility. This is what makes tooltips terrible.

The problem isn’t the tooltip — it’s what the tooltip contains and, more importantly, when and to whom it is shown. Below is a stellar example:

An example of a great tooltip from the Facebook Ads team

An example of a great tooltip from the Facebook Ads team

This tooltip greeted me when I logged into the Facebook Ads platform after a long time and was (a) interesting, (b) relevant and (c) valuable. I learned something useful that I wouldn’t have gleaned by myself. And now that I’ve been shown this once, I’ll remember it — I don’t need to be told again!

The second parts of Facebook Ads user onboarding tour The third part of Facebook Ads user onboarding tour

The second and third parts of Facebook Ads user onboarding tour

This was great user onboarding from Facebook — short and punchy, overarching yet focussed. It did not insult my intelligence and quickly got out of the way to allow me to explore at my own pace.

Facebook, Google, Pinterest and many other companies have great copy in their tips, which makes them effective. One big part of this is that large engineering teams can run experiments and empirically find what works best. Unfortunately, even though A/B testing, feature-gating and user research are hallmarks of good product development, most teams do not apply them for their user onboarding. First versions of any design are often wide off the mark and so without iteration, users are left with a sub-par first time UX. This is what makes tooltips terrible.

Finally tooltips should be shown only when relevant — when I need the help and when I can use the help. Otherwise I’m not ready for them and try to dismiss them as hindrances to what I actually want to be doing.

In the bottom-left corner I am prompted to see new “Cool features…” from Typeform

In the bottom-left corner I am prompted to see new “Cool features…” from Typeform

I love Typeform but the prompt above could have been triggered at a more appropriate time: in the view above, I’m within the form builder and my goal is to produce a survey. Anything that prevents me achieving my goal is an obstruction, so instead of being receptive to checking out their new features, I develop an aversion to them. Unfortunately it’s not easy to trigger prompts when the user is most ready for them. This is what makes tooltips terrible.

But tooltips can be used very effectively, as a means to provide dynamic interfaces.

One-time user experiences are hard to design, build and test, but tooltips allow you to present contextual and relevant information to users that they only need to see once. There are examples of where teams have done this natively — Slack’s quick switcher icon disappears after a few clicks (when you’ve understood what it does) — but not many. Tooltips or other in-product notifications are an excellent method for providing one-time guidance to users, if done well.

Slack notification bar that asks a user if they want to learn more

This awesome ‘tooltip’ / in-product notification clearly endorses the option for self-discovery.

So don’t make tooltips terrible with these 5 simple rules:

  1. Consider each tooltip as friction — you are asking your users to read something — so make sure they get immediate value from that info.
  2. Explain only things that are not discernible from the interface / design.
  3. Make tips as contextual as possible — trigger them based on user actions and show them to the most receptive group of users.
  4. Show one at a time and don’t show more than 3–4 in a row. Users get fatigued quickly and need time to act on / digest what you have taught.
  5. As with everything else, analyze and test them!

Chameleon lets you do all this pretty easily, but you can also build your own in-house infrastructure (although we recommend assessing the true cost of this first).

If more product managers and designers can apply these principles, we can have products that are easier to understand (more effective) and less annoying (more engaging) at the same time 😋

To learn more about how to use tooltips and product tours effectively, check out our design guide.

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