Tap, tap, tap. It looks like you’re writing a blog post…

Clippit asking if the user needs help

Clippit asking if the user needs help (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t stand technology that thinks it’s smarter than me especially when some bright spark thinks it makes my life easier. There can’t be too many fans of IVR systems where you phone up and get told to press 1 for this and 2 for that. But I prefer them to the automated systems that say something like “Tell me what you want to do today” and wait for a response. I usually reply “To speak to a human being”.

There is a lot of complexity in the modern world and it’s very difficult to cater for every kind of user. People don’t read manuals any more. In fact, many products ship with little or no documentation whatsoever. How then do they help people to climb the learning curve? The best way is to make things intuitive in the first place. In software, consistency with convention goes a long way. If that fails, there’s always the online help.

I don’t know about you, but the help is that last resort. Unless it’s really well written, the chances are that after bumbling around for a while, the answer to whatever question you have will prove elusive. The basic design of help systems hasn’t fundamentally changed over time, but one day, a company called Microsoft dared to innovate.

I was at a conference. There was a buzz in the air. Everyone could sense that some big announcement was on the way. As the speaker took the stand, a hush descended over the crowd. Without saying a word, he fired up his machine, launched a program and started typing. An animated paper clip in the corner of the screen bounced around with eyes following the cursor. After a moment or so, the animated paper clip tapped on the screen before sticking up a speech bubble “It looks like you’re typing a letter. Would you like some help?”

There was a nervous ripple of applause. The speaker announced that the paper clip’s name was Clippy, the office assistant and it represented a revolution in online help. He went on to show us the different faces that Clippy could take. Apparently, we could add Clippy to our own applications as there was a rich API. We could even create our own avatars. The man predicted that one day, all software would have a Clippy to proactively help to educate users in how to use the program.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had to check the date to see if it was April the 1st. But it obviously wasn’t a joke. You could see that they had invested a significant number of man years. The avatars were nicely drawn and animated. Proactivity takes some engineering, so someone, somewhere really believed  that this was the future.

I couldn’t see it. It was too intrusive, too twee, far too annoying. It seems the general public agreed as after universal derision, the Office Assistant was quietly dropped. It’s a shame, because there was a germ of a good idea in there somewhere.



2 comments on “Tap, tap, tap. It looks like you’re writing a blog post…

  1. Clippy was a hold over from Microsoft Bob, one of their more notable failures. Why they thought it would succeed in office having failed on the desktop defeats me. Perhaps the fact that Bill Gates wife to be Melinda worked on Bob was a factore?

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