OK. Rant time. I was sent this wonderful, wonderful link today. For many years now, I’ve been increasingly bothered by these little yellow flies buzzing around on my screen. They drive me to a level of distraction and rage that (in terms of interfaces) only Windows nag-bubbles can beat. Why developers think that these things are so helpful and vitally useful that they must pop up at almost every opportunity, and that the user must be given no obvious recourse to turn them off, I don’t know. They are the gnats of the typographic world - buzzing and darting in front of your eyes, imparting very little of use, and even then merely duplicating what the rest of the interface provides in a much more studied and calm manner.

The reasoning for them existing is often given (at least in the online world) as ‘accessibility’, assuming somehow that a user needing some kind of assistive technology would also be the kind of user always able to hold a mouse pointer steady over an arbitrary interface element for the requisite two seconds to see the damn thing. For the rest of us, just leaving the pointer somewhere ‘out of the way’ while typing, reading or (heaven forfend!) thinking, results in this pointless yellow box popping up. Perhaps ironically, it’s a situation made worse by using that finest of input tools, the wacom tablet, as removing the pen from the sensing region leaves the pointer static wherever it last was on screen; perfect prey for the predatory tooltip.

The actual accessibility modifications that lead to tooltips showing up everywhere are such things as adding title attributes to links and other elements, and the tooltip is merely an unpleasant symptom of this noble effort. That the browser shows a tooltip for these things is analogous to an overkeen child endlessly demonstrating how clever they’ve been: Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! In fact, the browser does not need to display tooltips for these things - they are there to provide additional information when the context of the item is removed, such as in an audio or text-only browser. If the interface relies on tooltips in, shall we say a conventional environment, then it’s a very poor interface indeed, or an experimental dotcom-boom-era ‘project’, which is I suppose the same thing.

I’ve done a fair bit of work designing interfaces, and I’m glad to say most of them are tooltip-free. I’d rather all of them were, but you can’t win every battle. My message to developers, marketers, designers, whatever, but more importantly OS developers, it’s quite simple: give us an option like this, please: