Interview with a Bent Wire

I think we’re all familiar with this, aren’t we? The morning starts with a series of slides and presentations, the content of which fades at the same time as the glucose buzz from the danish. More coffee means more alertness, until the aptly chosen somnambulistic lunch makes everyone implore for the days where a glass of apple juice, an Arrowroot cookie and a nap mat were the norm. When you get that groggy it’s very easy to mishear things. That’s how I dismissed this, since there’s no way I could have heard this right.

Mike Sparling, Chief Technical Officer at the Castek Software Factory, poked through a presentation outlining the technological directions we were currently embarking on while comparing the assumptions that we had made in the past. Essentially, this was a report card session where we examined our direction based on our goals from a few years back. We hadn’t been doing too too badly. Suddenly, Mike said something I found quite extraordinary. You know that dopey paperclip that asserts itself into your active window whenever you ask for Help in one of the Microsoft Office programs? Yeah, that. He likes it.

Just like I knew that “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” must have been a work of fiction, not by the presence of a talking lion, but because Edmund was going gaga over a plate of Turkish Delight, I knew that I must have been hallucinating. No offence to Clippit (Yes, that’s the little guy’s name. I checked.) but I really can’t see how anyone could really come to enjoy his company. The slightest sign of trouble, in Clippit’s eyes anyway, brings this e-busybody springing forward from his home in the question mark on the Standard task bar to opine on what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing better, which of the many Wizards you should talk to about formatting. Because of this, there are two mouse clicks I use to start up Word; one opens the application, the other sends Clippit back to his question-mark house.

The problem is not that Clippit is fake but that he’s all too real. We all know Clippit as the guy that sits alone in the back seat on a long car drive who tries to be part of the front seat conversation, throwing in responses to misheard statements from those in control. Clippit professes to have all the answers. My thought has always been, if Clippit’s so damn good at everything, why don’t we let him do what needs done so I can go home and play soccer on the Nintendo? I can’t stand the little guy. But Mike likes him.

Mike likes him for the kernel behind the digital cartoon, the gathering potential where you can type in a loose collection of ideas and presto, related, relevant topics are listed for your perusal. It appears to have an ability to find the thread of a query and offer potential solutions. Well, ideally that’s how it should work. It’s the execution behind the illustration that is the stumbler. I simply find Clippit to be too ineffective in his current incarnation to be of any service. Aesthetic aside, his functionality is far too limited and clumsy to be of any real service. My problems with Clippit boil down to two basic snags; his obtrusiveness and his list of “answers”.

The first time you start up a Microsoft Office component from a fresh install, Clippit greets you. Welcome to Mr. Annoying’s neighbourhood. Up he pops, virtual limbs flailing in greeting, offering to take you on a tour of the application you’ve just opened. If you were like me, the first time you saw him, you thought “What the heck? Let’s give him a go.” So many relationships start out that way. You think that this could be someone that you’ll enjoy ongoing contact with, and the next thing you know you’re trying to lose your newfound comrade in a mall somewhere. But Clippit persists. He’ll constantly stick his two cents in the moment he sees you doing something he vaguely recognizes. Try typing something as simple as a letter, just a quick simple note to a friend or colleague. By the time your left index finger pushes the ‘r’ in ‘Dear’, there’s Clippit, banging away at the inside of the monitor trying to get your attention.

“It looks like you’re writing a letter,” he interrupts, “Would you like help?” You then have two options for reply: “Get help with writing the letter” and “Just type the letter without help”. There should be a third option for “Sod off”. Not for the sake of being mean, but to solidify the fact that one of Clippit’s arsenal of supposed formats is triggered more often than not by the wrong thing. Yes, the intended link to the Letter Wizard may provide plenty of information on letter writing, but by the time the user has input all of the necessary information into the Wizard, more time is wasted than by simply typing

“Dear Steve, Please return my snow blower. It’s almost December 21st, you know.”

Then there’s the light bulb. This is displayed beside Clippit when he sees you doing something deemed too clumsy or time consuming in his eyes. When repeatedly formatting the same material on a page, for example, Clippit’s little light comes on in the same manner that the nerd’s arm in public school shot upward at the completion of every teacher’s question directed at the class. Clippit thinks he’s got all the answers and enough document formats in his back pocket to make you happy. Try using one of the formats in your document and you’ll become so frustrated using Ctrl-Z, the universal letter for “Undo my booboo” you’ll throw out the paperclips on your desk, hoping they’re all related to Clippit.

The problem with the Clippit-enforced formats is that the logic behind them is too firm and structured. The templates are not so much assistance but assimilation to a standard template. The logic is, once Clippit sees something that sort of matches something he’s seen before, he’ll “suggest” you use it. This is the precise downfall. For true assistance, Clippit should be able to recognize the gist of your document and assist in the creation of it as per your specifications, not a pre-determined standard. Instead of strong-arming you into an inappropriate and exasperating format, a use of artificial intelligence is needed. Clippit should take more of a passenger-style approach and record the formats that you have created and used most often. By labeling these formats internally, Clippit’s prefab collection is now customized. Certainly up-front setup time of these personal formats could be considerable, but it is the eventual familiarity that Clippit could offer that would be the pay off. Suddenly Clippit would recognize that it’s your business letter that you want used, not Word’s.

But manufactured document formats are not the only problem facing Clippit. To be truly effective, the AI needed for Clippit involves him learning to anticipate the needs of the typist. The third repeated iteration of any formatting or repetition of keystrokes should prompt Clippit to state “I see what you’re doing. Tell me how many times you want me to do this, and I’ll do it for you.” It is information collection and retention capabilities that should be leveraged with Clippit and not a recognition and connection to an already established format or style. Clippit must listen way more and speak way, way less to be useful.

The other major problem is the scope of information displayed on a search. The adage of “the more information the better” doesn’t necessarily hold true. Take it upon yourself to ask Clippit a question about something or other and see what you get. Clippit alleges to be English-friendly. That is, you should be able to type in the question “How do I get my document to appear in 12pt Helvetica?” and get up to ten appropriate links to related Help items. Generally, these listed help links are useful. Generally.

The problem is that some questions that fall outside of Clippit’s dialect or grasp of the English language can lead to some confusing moments. Granted, you can be quite unfair and ask deliberately obtuse questions to test the boundaries of Clippit’s resourcefulness. The question “Is there a purpose to human life on Earth?” elicits the equally obscure responses “Change the size of the Office Assistant”, “Troubleshoot the Office Assistant” and “Use file properties to locate files”. Quite unmerited. But why does the question “How do I get my document to appear in 12pt Helvetica?” give me a link to the seemingly unrelated “Troubleshoot Photo Editor, Organization Chart, and Equation Editor”? Where’s that connection and why is it relevant? It’s all well and good to have ten different possible links for a query but completely frustrating to use if only two of the ten are completely germane.

To support his want to serve, Clippit must have well-defined topic links. The associations between question and response should be precise so that a clear and concise parse of the question gives a resultant list of responses not numerous but informative. After a third rephrasing of my question, I tend to leave Clippit alone and go to the index myself. The bottom line is, the hot-points in the Help topics that Clippit uses must be indexed effectively to be of any service.

So to have this much animosity towards Clippit and his Office-Assistant henchmen, one might be suggested to say “Shut the little guy off and don’t use him.” In terms of system delivery, that answer is as acceptable as going to a doctor complaining of pain when you lift the arm and the physician suggesting that you don’t lift your arm. Problem solved. Certainly, but it totally defeats the purpose of the feature. Faulty features must be improved, not immobilized. It’s not like I’m looking for Clippit to fail. Quite frankly, I could use all of the help I can get. In the meantime, however, I’m afraid I’ll keep on using the index and keep sending Clippit to his room.


Todd Van Allen