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August 2004 Contents

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Ode to Balloon Help

By Thomas B. Cavanagh

Florida Space Research Institute

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” So wrote the poet John Keats in his famous Ode on a Grecian Urn. In the classical tradition of Greek poetry, odes were typically works of praise or glorification, usually presented in a public or choral venue. In considering that, perhaps the time has come to apply that concept to our everyday work environments. But what should be praised? Certainly, the usability industry bestows well-earned achievement awards on examples of excellent design and those are presented in the public venue of conferences and publications.

However, just as a romantic poet might choose to pen an ode to a single rose as opposed to the entire garden, perhaps we should look to the simplest elements of usability for inspiration. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the contribution of a single humble helper.

Yes, it’s time for an ode to Balloon Help.

You may smile, but it can be argued that Balloon Help is not only one of the most ubiquitous implementations of modern technological performance support but it is also one of the most underappreciated. Known by several different names, including Tool Tips and Alt Text, Balloon Help boasts a number of variants such as immediate displays, delayed displays, and progressive displays. However, in all cases, the basic functionality is the same: by placing a cursor over an interface element of a software application, a small window appears that explains its name and/or functionality.

picture with alt text overlay

Figure 1: Alt Text Over an Image Within a Web-based Training Module

Its beauty lies in its simplicity. A prototypical example of “intrinsic support” as defined within the Spectrum of Support (see my article in April’s Performance Improvement journal from the International Society for Performance Improvement for more about the Spectrum of Support), Balloon Help offers you exactly what you need exactly when you need it.

By doing so, Balloon Help successfully manages that delicate balancing act of supporting both experienced and novice users at the same time. While a novice is still learning an application’s most commonly-used features and icons, Balloon Help supports him/her by providing a quick explanation for everything he/she may need to access. These explanations, however, are not merely dumped on the user in a long list, such as might be found in a manual or Help menu, but are presented in a context-specific fashion, providing support without significantly affecting the task flow.

toolbar with tooltip displayed

Figure 2. Microsoft® Word Tool Tip for Picture Toolbar

Experts can also benefit from the delayed display aspect of Balloon Help. In most cases, even experienced application users won’t know or remember everything about how to use the software. In situations where rarely used or new features need to be accessed, experts can pause their cursor over the element and, after a second or two, the explanation is provided. The support does not appear unless the cursor remains motionless for a moment; therefore, the support will not distract the expert with unnecessary help when accessing familiar features (because, presumably, there will be no need to linger over the iconic element). Alternatively, experienced users can simply disable the support.

In its own humble way, Balloon Help accomplishes what Constantine and Lockwood have dubbed “Instructive Interaction.” It offers all three of their principles of instructive interaction: explorability, predictability, and intrinsic guidance.

Does that qualify it as worthy of an ode? As beautiful? Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. However, it’s certainly appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the inherent usability and elegant simplicity of our humble Balloon Helper.


Cavanagh, T.B. (2004). “The New Spectrum of Support: Reclassifying Human
Performance Technology”. Performance Improvement. April, 2004. Volume
43 (4).

Constantine, L.L. & Lockwood, A.D. (2002). “Instructive Interaction: Making Innovative Interfaces Self-Teaching” Constantine & Lockwood, Ltd. Retrieved on March 13, 2004 from

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