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This guide explains when and how to write help text for your service.

The best way to help users is by making the simplest, clearest service you can. You should only add help text if you discover through research that your users need it.

Meeting the Digital Service Standard

To pass point 13 (make the user experience consistent with GOV.UK) in your service assessments, you must use GOV.UK design patterns and guidance.

Read the guide on using, adapting and creating patterns before you start designing or building anything.

How to write for users

When writing help text you should:

  • keep it short and simple - users are unlikely to read anything longer than 3 lines
  • focus on the action the user must do - make it relevant to their current situation
  • avoid giving background information that’s useless to users, like ‘this used to be called X but in 2008 it was changed to Y’

Examples

Here’s an example of how to write help text:

Help Text Example 2.png

Don’t write help text like this:

Help Text Example 1.png

When help text is useful

You may need to use help text to explain:

  • legal jargon
  • unfamiliar concepts
  • where to find obscure information
  • what format the information should be given in
  • what you’ll do with a user’s personal information
  • the consequences of making one choice over another

Don’t explain the interface. If you have to do that, you haven’t made your service simple enough. If you find yourself writing things like ‘Click on the green button at the bottom of the screen’ you know the interface needs work.

Using inline help text

Inline help text is short, clear text positioned immediately next to the part of the page it relates to.

Use inline help text for help that’s relevant to the majority of users.

Here’s an example:

Help Text Example 4.png

You should place inline help for form fields between the label and the field so sighted users and screenreaders can read it before they get to the field itself.

See a coded example in GOV.UK elements.

Using expanding help text

Expanding help text is a short link that expands into more detailed help when a user clicks on it.

Here’s an example:

Help Text Example 5.png

Use expanding help text to make your page easier to scan, but don’t hide help if a majority of users will need it.

Make sure the link text is written so that users can quickly work out if they need to click on it.

Using detailed help text

If your users have to make difficult or complex decisions that can’t be supported by the above approaches, you might need to provide them with more detailed help.

Make sure that users:

  • can access the help before and during the transaction
  • can get back to the transaction without losing their place
  • are shown help that’s relevant to their current situation

Don’t use detailed help to explain how to use the interface - it should be simple enough to use without help.

Discuss help text

Discuss using help text on the design patterns wiki.

You may also find these guides useful:

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Guidance first published