Contextual Help and Messaging in Web Applications
I’ve always been a big fan of contextual feedback and help in Web applications. For those who are unfamiliar with contextual help, it’s the act of providing support details that are directly related to the function you’re currently using.
Contextual help can be implemented in multiple ways. The most common implementations use modal and sliding windows. Here a few examples:
Instant Amber Child Safety Signup Form
Raven “Question Mark” Rollover
Raven Help Slider
Contextual help can also be extended to messaging platforms for Web applications. While most messaging systems allow you to mimic email functionality — they have a subject line and message — most do not automatically provide context in relation to the tool or area of the Web application. For example, if you’re managing data in a particular area of an application and you want to message a teammate about the data, you usually have to leave the section you’re in and create a new message in the messaging section. Then you have to leave a reference for the data (and area of the site) that you want the user to look at within the subject and message.
Contextual messaging goes a step further by automatically referencing the data and area of the website for the recipient(s) of the message. One way contextual messaging can be achieved is by adding a smart “New Message” link on every page of the application. That’s exactly what we did for Raven messaging system.
In Raven, you manage websites inside of profiles. It may be that User 1 is managing a website in Profile 1, while User 2 is managing a website in Profile 2. Now, lets say that User 1 is going over links that have been built for the website in Profile 1 and they have a question for User 2 about a link they created. User 1 could click on the “New Contextual Message” link and send User 2 a message.
What’s special about the message is that it includes a reference link to the section that User 1 was in, including the website and profile they were managing. If User 2 was in a Profile 2, and they read the message, they could click on the reference link and it would switch User 2 to Profile 1, change the website they were managing to the one that was referenced in the message, and also take them to the area User 1 was in when they created the message.
If all of that completely went over your head, here’s the takeaway:
- Allow users to create new messages anywhere within a Web application
- Have the system automatically reference the section you’re in
- Provide reference text and a link to the section in the message
Contextual messaging is powerful, because it reduces miscommunication. In most case, when people are writing messages to their teammates, they’re making gross assumptions of context. However, when recipients send contextual messages — ones that include referential links and copy — it greatly increases their ability to fully understand and properly respond to the message.