Styles and Templates

In his article, "Seven Golden Rules of Online Help Design," Michael Ellison lists seven principles to improve user experience:
  1. Don't force users to move between topics to solve a problem.
  2. Only index the main theme of each help topic.
  3. Don't require users to make a conscious decision to access online help.
  4. Only include images when they add value (see Graphics).
  5. Write topics that answer users' questions.
  6. Don't overvalue consistency.
  7. Don't be tempted to provide too much information (see Style Standards below).

Style Standards

  • Use short, simple, familiar words.
  • Avoid jargon.
  • Use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Use simple sentences, active voice, and present tense.
  • Begin instructions in the imperative mode by starting sentences with an action verb.
  • Use simple graphic elements such as bullet lists and numbered steps to make information visually accessible.


Templates are files or plans designed to help computer users create a new file based on the information contained in the model file. In the development of Help Systems, topics are used to create a template.

The template should include:
  • Boilerplate text
  • Graphics
  • Clear instructions to the writers

Create the template in a word-processing or help-authoring format. Update the template as necessary, and feel free (with appropriate authorization from others involved in the project) to reconsider design specifications in order to make adjustments that improve the design of the online help system.

Design and Layout Considerations

The design and layout, or appearance of the online help, is important to consider in developing an online help system. Often, design is a matter of taste or opinion, but there may also be organizational policy to consider (with regard to use of logos, company colors, etc). Design information is included in the help specifications.

Design elements and layout considerations include:
  • Default typefaces and type sizes
  • When to use bold or italic type
  • When to use colored text, backgrounds, or highlighting
  • Paragraph formatting (for example, text flush left, how much space between paragraphs)
  • No use of heading numbering in online help
  • General style guidelines for numbered, bulleted, and definition lists
  • When to use or avoid tables; wide tables in particular are a problem, because of the need for horizontal scrolling
  • Table formatting; for example, borders, type size, highlighting (such as bold) for column and row headings

Basic design considerations include using light and/or neutral colors for the background of a page or table, and colors that contrast with the background for the font. Consistency in font size and type is important in order to provide a better user experience, but there is some room for variation depending on the application.


Ellison, Matthew. "Seven Golden Rules of Online Help Design."

Hackos, Jo Ann T, and Dawn M. Stevens. Standards for Online Communication. New York: Wiley, 1997. Print.

Weber, Jean Hollis. Is the Help Helpful? How to create online help that meets your users' needs. Wisconsin: Hentzenwerke,
2004. Print.

Original Author: Sandra Ramirez
Contributors: Inez Funchess
Editors: Inez Funchess, Tammy Fitzpatrick, Larita Clow