Get Bent, Learning to Love Clippit

Okay. “Interview with a Bent Wire”. Rant over. Having said so much against Clippit (the name of the Office assistant for Microsoft Office), I feel like I’ve just beat up on a puppy. All of the emails that I received on that article (okay, one) made me wonder how can we make Clippit more effective? I mean, since he’s here, we might as well see how he could actually work. Yes, I’m trying to champion Clippit. Please don’t tell anyone.The basis of my argument in the first article was if the functionality is available, it should at least be useful. Despite his already stated limitations, there are some genuinely keen things that Clippit has to offer. If nothing else, his in-application presentation is stellar. Clippit is the helping-hand/training-wheels ambassador for the Office product that you happen to be using for a particular moment. Bright eyed. Ready to help. Cartoonish since he’s, well, a cartoon. Given his appearance he does one thing really well. He is a perfect emissary for the world of online Help. He’s a guy you can ask questions if you’re really not sure what to do next. This sort of colleague is fabulous if you happen to be a first-time user that’s never used Word or any Microsoft product. Indeed, the luddites are among us. As a matter of fact, I finally introduced my father to Clippit and the technology of the latter-bit-of-the-1990s. Dad’s first and only computer before his current workstation was a 286 with WordPerfect 5.1 glowing through a monochrome monitor. Nine years prior to that, he used a manual typewriter. So long, Kansas. Here’s Oz. By introducing Dad to Clippit, I gave a first-time user someone to go to when the world starts to go pear-shaped.

“How the hell do I change fonts on this damn thing?” Dad asked inquisitively.

“Ask him,” I replied. Two clicks after Dad typed in “How do I change fonts?” we had page after page of text penned in the newfound Comic Sans MS font.

But friendliness aside, we still have problems with Clippit’s vim to help and the consequence of accepting what he offers as help these days. In his current incarnation, Clippit interrupts what you’re doing and offers advice on formatting, document creation and file storage. He’s the commission-crazed salesman, chasing you around the application, seeing if you need anything. Like any interruption that you get throughout the day, the disturbance hinders you from doing your job. At least if Clippit could bring some worthwhile information, it wouldn’t be all bad. I don’t mind my train of thought being stopped so long as there’s no derailment.

What would make Clippit shine here is a better grasp of problem recognition. Make Clippit’s arsenal of problem recognition more defined and even personalized. Let’s say for example that you had several pages of definitions that you wished to format. The definitions were of the form:

xxxxxxx – yyy yyy yyyyyy

xxxxxx – yyyyy yy yyy

xxxxxxxxx – yyyyyy y yy

where the x’s represented the word to be defined and the y’s were the definition of the term. Let’s also say the particular format that you wish to adopt is to put the defined term in bold and italic letters, like:

xxxxxxx – yyy yyy yyyyyy

xxxxxx – yyyyy yy yyy

xxxxxxxxx – yyyyyy y yy

As it stands, you have to highlight each term and turn on the bold and italic text formats. This ‘highlight-bold-italics’ regiment has to be performed word by agonizing word. All the while, Clippit sways from side to side, staring at the ceiling and not offering a lick of help.

This is where Clippit’s memory would have to be exploited. It occurs to me that Microsoft forces you to log in. Your name and initials are stored in Word so that if you perform any changes or place comments in a document, they can be retrieved with your name and/or initials on them. This means that each and every user of the software can be identified.

Once identified, a component could store various formats and usage policies by user. There would be three different levels of recognition: line, paragraph, and page. There would be a temporary area that would store the format changes that you make. After the third occurrence of a formatting change or setup, Clippit would be nudged into action. The formatting for our little conundrum would be recorded in the line pocket of memory by the third instance. At the start of the fourth term to be highlighted, in would step Clippit with a message like:

I’ve noticed that your lines have this sort of format:

xxxxx – yy yyyy yyy y

Would you like me to continue this for you?

You’d say “sure”.

Clippit would reply:

Could you highlight the line I should stop at, please?

You’d comply.

Would you like this format saved for future use?

Since this was a one-off and you’d probably never use this again, you’d say “no thanks”, save the document and go thump the supervisor that gave you this menial task in the first place.

By saving the formats and frequent calls that users make in a separately owned component and having them well-indexed, Clippit suddenly becomes up-close and personal. Better pattern recognition means more effective assistance and more personalized service. Suddenly the cries of “What do you know, Clippit?” become “How did you know, Clippit?”. Ahhh, progress.

Now that we’ve got Clippit acting both spontaneously and appropriately, how about getting the right information out of him when we ask him? I had no idea that I may typing in some colourful dialect that Clippit doesn’t know how to handle. Why else would he assume that when I ask him “How do I switch between documents?” I am actually looking for information on borders and shading? Am I typing Cockney? Apparently not, since when I ask “Oi, mate. ‘Ow do I get ta the othah lettah?” I get offered directions on how to create a table of authorities.

A proper indexing of topics coupled with stronger grammatical parsing skills is in order here, to increase Clippit’s ability to decipher different phrasings and the appropriate use of the words you enter. Okay, the Cockney thing was a bit off the mark, I’ll admit. But there are times when the search, such as the quest for Ctrl-F6 (the shortcut key used to switch between documents) is way too arduous. It took seven failed attempts and then I thought of looking up the words “shortcut keys”. Who’da thunk? All of this can be avoided with a more verbose approach to Clippit’s dialectic arsenal.

The other problem appears to be the “10 hits and you’re done” philosophy that Clippit adheres to. Clippit will display at most 10 possible Help topics. Which does you no good if in fact you needed the 11th topic. Clippit’s assistance factor would probably skyrocket if he provided a more targeted search of his knowledge base and allowed more possible responses.

Maybe my last article was a bit over the top. I want Clippit to succeed. I’d love nothing more than for him to provide that extra level of personal software support with a dash of artificial intelligence and enough searching power to be able to find me the information that I need. As I look at this article, I realize that I could use all the help I can get. Hmmmmm. Perhaps PowerPup would be better.

Todd Van Allen