Components Hint text

observed

Hint text gives brief additional information that helps people understand and answer a question.

Hint text is an optional part of several GOV.UK components and patterns. This page sets out some general principles for using it well.

When to use this component

Use hint text when users need help to answer a question. Only add it when there is a clear user need, and after you have first tried improving the question.

Hint text can:

  • explain the interface: for example, ‘Select all that apply.’
  • give examples of valid formats
  • give examples that help the user recognise their own situation
  • briefly clarify or define a term used in the question
  • tell the user where they can find or look up the information you’re asking for
  • briefly explain how the information will be used

In agent-facing services you can also use hint text to alert the agent to any important or unexpected outcomes from their answer, for example:

  • ‘This will be added to the claimant’s journal.’
  • ‘This will appear in the title of the To-Do.’

As with public-facing services, you should first try to make the results of the action clearer so that hint text is not needed.

When not to use this component

Do not use hint text for important information that a user cannot skip. Users will pay less attention to hint text than to the question and field label, so make sure these are descriptive and clear.

Do not use hint text for explanations longer than a few words. The GOV.UK Design System has advice on asking complex questions without using hint text.

Do not use hint text for general help content or to explain the wider service. Focus on helping users answer a single question.

You do not have to add hint text to all the questions in a journey just because you have used it once.

How it works

Keep it short

Do not separate question and answer with lots of text. Hint text should be a few words only; ideally, one sentence.

If you find yourself needing to write more, it’s probably because the question is confusing and needs to be clarified, improved, or split into more than one question.

End with a full stop

End hint text with a full stop, even if it is an example of a format.

There is a great deal of variation in practice on when (and whether) to include full stops in hint text. We have collected and summarised this here and this recommendation is based on that research.

Text only

Don’t use hint text as a container for other elements like links or details components. If you need to include these elements, you are probably not writing hint text anyway.

Styling and code

In govuk-frontend and the GOV.UK Design System, hint text is styled with the class govuk-hint. The GOV.UK Design System includes coded examples of hint text used with:

Accessibility

Contrast ratio

Although the standard GOV.UK colour for hint text meets WCAG 2.1 level ‘AAA’ requirements for contrast when used on a white background, some people with dyslexia or visual impairments cannot read it. (This is a good reason not to use it for essential information.)

If your users have difficulty reading hint text please share your research on the Hint text discussion on GitHub.

Screen readers

Screen readers read out the entire hint text when users interact with the form element it relates to. This is another reason to keep hint text short.

Don’t include links in hint text. While screen readers will read link text, they will not tell the user it is a link.

Research

Hint text is a very widely used component across DWP and other government services but we are interested in more research on how it works.

Department for Education research on one service found that hint text helped reduce confusion by giving examples of job titles.

Many services have reported that users don’t always notice hint text; we would like more documented evidence of this.

Have you used this component?

Please let us know what you found in the Hint text discussion on GitHub so we can make it better for everyone. For this component we’re particularly interested in:

  • when hint text has helped to reduce confusion
  • accessibility issues, including contrast levels and how screen readers handle hint text
  • when people do and do not notice hint text

Discuss hint text on GitHub

Notes

This is based closely on the work of Angela Moore in the DWP Universal Credit team and on research and guidance shared by HMRC and NHS Digital.

Get in touch

If you’ve got a question, idea or suggestion email the Design System team on dwp-design-system@engineering.digital.dwp.gov.uk