Have you ever had a visit from the ‘Good Idea Fairy’ that you later regret?
It may be something like “I’ll just duct-tape my bumper back onto my car! What could go wrong?!”
Well, Microsoft had a moment like this back in 1997 when they introduced a lovely feature called the “office assistant” as part of the office 97 productivity suite. Little animated characters were introduced to help the user with common tasks, although, there are quite a few to choose from. Everyone mostly remembers “Clippit” better known as “Clippy”
That painfully annoying paper clip that came to haunt the nightmares of office workers everywhere. So why in the world did they think this was a good idea, to begin with?
Well, Microsoft was moving away from the command line interface of ms-dos in the mid-1990s and toward graphical user interfaces. The company wanted a way to make PC’s as easy as possible to use for a wider customer base.
After looking at a study from Stanford that indicated that people feel similar emotions towards computers as they do to actual people, Microsoft decided to ‘humanize’ their software as much as possible leading to the development of Microsoft Bob, a cartoonish interface that presented the system as a house. The user was guided around by an animal assistant such as a dog. For example, clicking on a desk with a piece of paper on it would open up a word processing program.
The general consensus though was that, although well-meaning, Bob was a terrible program because it went too far the other way from the traditional command line. It was sickeningly cute and insulted the intelligence of the average computer user and although Microsoft quickly ditched Bob after Windows 95 came out – its concept of cute cartoonish characters holding your hand to an unnecessary degree it did make it into office 97 with the idea again being to make it easier to use.
Even though the focus groups didn’t like the office assistant concept with many of the female participants saying that the characters look like they were leering at them through the screen, Microsoft shoved Clippy down our throats anyway.
But even within Microsoft Clippy was still pretty unpopular his internal codename during development was “TFC” with the “C” standing for “clown” but I’m gonna let y’all figure out with the first two letters are for.
However partly due to the fact that Microsoft’s Bob was pushed by Melinda French, who later became Bill Gates wife, no one was too keen on dumping Clippy completely meaning he became a fixture in Microsoft Office for several years.
But why exactly was he so hated? Well a huge part of the issue was not only that his offers to help seemed kind of silly, I mean who needs help writing a letter, but also that he was designed to help users become oriented with office.
Once the user mastered the basics, Clippy became mostly useless but he just kept on popping up with the same suggestions no matter how long a person had been using the program for. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to no longer be able to ignore the tide of voices asking for the feature to be turned off. So the company finally did turn it off by default in office XP which was released in 2001 and removed Clippy and all other office assistants completely in office 2007.
However, Clippy has popped up several times since he was “fired” Microsoft itself commissioned a cartoon based around the characters ousted from office XP
Microsoft can laugh at themselves a bit I guess but just between you and me, I keep a paperclip with googly eyes on my desk because I actually I miss the good old days I love that little guy and who wouldn’t.