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Help Facilities

Error messageHaving problems in using an ICT system is not unique to disabled and elderly people so a well designed system will provide, at the right time, appropriate relevant help in a form suitable for the user. However, it is easier to specify than to implement, but this should not be used as an excuse for ignoring the problems faced by users and potential users.

Error messages and alerts

An error message is a message displayed by a system when an unexpected condition occurs, usually on a computer or other device. Error messages are often displayed using dialogue boxes. These dialogue boxes must be designed to remain on the screen so that they are discovered by the user.

Presentation and appearance of error messages

There are several design factors that will influence how well a user comprehends and responds to an error message:

Visual attributes capture the user's attention

Error message displayed in a dialogue boxThe visual attributes of an error message, such as its colour, size, font and location should be such that it is immediately clear to the user that an error has occurred. According to Wikipedia (2009), the color red, a bold font, and the location at the top of the page and in front of any other window are good ways to allow the user to know that an error is present. In addition, common practice is to include an icon such as an exclamation point or a cross to express importance.

Provide an explaination of what went wrong

Messages must explain what the problem is using terminology that even a novice user can understand. Information should be given in a clear and concise way and explain what went wrong, not just tell the user an error code.

An error code can be included to aid support personnel when trying to resolve the issue. If a code is to be included in the message it should be within a proper context where it can prove useful. For example, an error message could reference error code 3555 and display the message “Please contact our help desk and reference error code 3555 for assistance”.

Show where the error occurred and suggest possible solutions

Showing possible solutions to an error can be accomplished in several ways. Initially the language that is used to explain the error is an important factor in getting users to understand what went wrong and how to rectify it. For example, a poor error message might read, "You have entered an invalid string character in Field 321A". To make this more comprehensible a message would read, "The post code field contains an invalid character. Only 6 alpha-numeric characters may be entered". Novice users possibly won’t know what a string character or field 321A is, but they will recognize what the post code field and alpha-numeric characters are.

Warning message that gives a solution

A further way of highlighting the error is by showing the user exactly where the problem occurred by providing visual cues such as highlighting the field label with color, altering the appearance of the font or by showing iconographic images.

Once an error is located, instructions should be given to the user on corrective action, once again explained in the users’ language. Providing examples of the correct action is also considered a successful technique for suggesting solutions for certain types of errors.

Help functions

Finding the help function on an ICT system should not be made difficult. There should be a dedicated key or button explicitly labeled "Help", which, when pressed, produces information on the screen to aid the user in their current task. However, there exists some debate over the provision of information given directly to users from within a product or application.

Content of online help can differs between operating systems, companies, and even products within a company. Some believe that users click the Help button to find more information about the fields and buttons on the screen. Others believe that users click the Help button to find out how to perform a task from the screen. Still others believe that users should have access through the Help button to virtually all information about that product (field descriptions, conceptual information, tasks, and troubleshooting).

In a web-based world, help can be provided directly in the interface, by adding useful text to the screen or by providing information that displays when the user "mouses over" a particular object on the screen. Add to all these debates a very fine line between "help" and other information embedded within a product, such as an online tutorial.

Written instructions and help

Manufacturers of ICT systems should provide access to information and documentation including user guides, installation guides and product support communications. These should be provided in alternative formats so that they can be accessed by everyone.

Call centres and helplines

Call centre personnelWhen it is practicable, many users would find it beneficial to obtain some human assistance. This may just be an audio link (eg via a telephone handset), but many intellectually impaired and hearing impaired users would also benefit from a video link.

Interactive Voice Response

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems are used to describe a range of automated systems generally accessed through a telephone interface. Consumers frequently encounter IVR systems when placing calls to helplines and call centres. A caller may be greeted with the message to "Press 1 for queries," Press 2 for a customer advisor" and so on.

Call centres, helplines and the Disability Discrimination Act

Any service provider who provides a service to the public in the UK, whether they charge for it or not, has duties under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) Part 3.

Helpline staffService providers' responsibilities

Service providers including communication and information providers cannot refuse to serve a disabled person or provide a lower standard of service because of their disability unless it can be justified. Service providers may need to make 'reasonable adjustments' to any barriers that may prevent a disabled person using or accessing their service.

What is a reasonable adjustment?

Under the DDA, service providers only need to make changes that are 'reasonable'. It's about what is practical to the service provider's individual situation and what resources they may have. They will not be required to make changes that are impractical or beyond their means. Example of reasonable changes are making the IVR systems more user friendly or sending staff on a disability awareness training course to increase awareness of common disability related issues.

Training for call centre and helpline staff

Disability awareness training is designed to increase the understanding of disability and access issues. Training should be ongoing and delivered to all staff. The level of training should be dependent upon the role of the employee within the organisation.

Staff that interact with visitors should be provided with full disability awareness training. Whereas staff that do not interact with visitors should be provided with basic disability awareness training.

Problems encountered by disabled people and the ageing population using help facilities

Blind and Partially Sighted

Any textual documentaton that comes with an ICT system for installation or instructional purposes will be problematic for blind and partially sighted users.

Hearing impaired

Sound is often used to alert a computer user of an error.  For those who cannot hear the sounds, alternatives may be required.

People who are hard of hearing can also find IVR or relay systems difficult to use due to the audio quality of the system messages. The volume, speed and level of background sounds can also influence a user’s ability to access the system successfully.

Physically impaired

Users with physical impairments may not be able to respond to prompts on an IVR system or from error messages before they time out.

Cognitively impaired

Overly complicated installation or instruction manuals can also prove to be a challenge for some people with cognitive impairments.

When using IVR systems, users with cognitive impairments may benefit from a request to repeat the voice prompts and in some cases IVR systems have too many menu options which can cause confusion for customers.

Ageing population

Elderly lady on a mobile telephoneMembers of the ageing population who are unfamiliar with IVR systems can easily become confused by them as improvements in synthetic speech synthesisers are resulting in systems that sound as if the caller is speaking to a live person. As with individuals who are hard of hearing, even recognizing that they have reached an IVR system could be a problem.

Similarly, like those who have cognitive impairments, the ageing population may also require extra time to enter data or respond to system prompts and alerts and would also benefit from a repeat listening facility.

Checklist for help facilities


Error messages and alerts

  • Signals such as alarms, warnings, status lamps and error messages, should have the following characteristics:
    • Alternative forms - auditory, visual or tactile, allowing both visually and hearing impaired persons to adapt the signalling to their perceptive characteristics
    • The volume, and if possible also the pitch and frequency, of auditory output should be adjustable
    • Visual signals should be placed where they are easily perceived
  • There is an option to reset the volume to a default level
  • Warnings and similar alert messages must remain stable for a sufficiently long time to be discovered by the user. A way of avoiding problems is to let the message remain until dismissed by the user
  • Provide the user with specific information relative to the task context rather than a generic message
  • Provide information on how to recover from errors
  • Keep spoken messages short and simple
  • Do not use abbreviations in audio messages
  • The error message / dialogue box appears in a prominent position on the screen

Help functions

  • Guidance should be readily distinguishable from other displayed information
  • A recognised icon such as a question mark or the letter "i" should be used
  • Ideally, multi-modal help should be provided
  • Allow skilled users the option of switching off help prompts if they are not required
  • Allow users to interrupt the help at any time and return to the task
  • Make sure that an intelligent help facility is not an adequate solution to a poor user interface

Written instructions

  • Have a table of contents and a good index
  • Be task orientated
  • Provide alternate formats (e.g. audio tape, large print)
  • Provide alternate modes of delivery (e.g. fax, relay service, TTY, Internet posting)
  • Choose a clear, easy-to-read typeface that will distinguish between characters and numerals - a sans-serif typeface is considered preferable, such as Tiresias LP Font or Arial
  • Kerning between specific characters is sufficient so as to ensure legibility
  • Clear print documents should use a minimum type size of 12 point or ideally 14 point
  • A medium weight is used for blocks of text
  • A bold weight is used for emphasis rather than consistently
  • Constant use of capital letters or italics is avoided
  • Blocks of text should not be underlined
  • Text is aligned to the left margin
  • Aim for a clear contrast, as high as possible, between the text/image on the page and the background colour
  • White/off-white/cream paper creates the best contrast with black ink
  • Avoid printing text over photographs or illustrations or over a wash, effect or tint that reduces contrast and clarity
  • Yellow with blue and green with red combinations are avoided
  • Information is conveyed in text as well as images
  • Captions for images are used in a consistent way
  • If text is wrapped around an image, the image is on the right hand side of the page
  • Illustrations should be line drawings with thick, dark strokes or outlines

Call centres and helplines

  • Messages need to be kept short, and should include some prominent key words
  • Use consistent terminology
  • The most important or the most commonly selected items in a menu should be presented first in a list
  • Menu options are be based on why customers call, not organisational structure
  • Menus should not exceed four choices
  • Give customers two or three chances to select an option
  • The system should transfer a caller to an operator if no option is chosen
  • Always have a repeat facility. Best practice is for the repeat to occur automatically rather than relying on the customer selecting to hear the options again


  • CSA B480-02 (2002) Customer service standard for people with disabilities
  • CWA 15778 (2008) Document processing for accessibility
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • ISO 11429 (1996) Ergonomics - System of auditory and visual danger and information signals
  • JIS S 0012: (2000) Guidelines for all people including elderly and people with disabilities - Usability of consumer products
  • TTAS.OT-10.0122 (2007) - Electronic Document Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

Further information