Clippy and User Experiences

Some people have asked me to write about user experience design (as in the whole shebang, not just interface elements or features), and also about the Office Assistant (sometimes known by the default assistant, "Clippit" often referred to as "Clippy", or other ahem, "nicknames"). Since they are somewhat related, I'll cover both here. Also, I'll use the term "user experience" (UX) to describe the whole user interaction with the software/PC, and the term "user interface" (UI) to discuss the actual elements of the interface.

Although many people associate the Assistant with Word, it is more accurate to say it was a feature of Office, since it was implemented by our "shared" team that builds features used across Office, and it appeared in several apps at once in 1997. As such, I only know about it second hand - I talked a lot with the people who worked on it, but I do not have the authority on details. Maybe someone will blog about that. All this to say I will be giving you my perspective, not the "horse's mouth" version, so I may get some details wrong.

If you look at the interface of Office applications, you might think they have not changed all that much over the last ten years - and I think I’d agree with that at the highest level. There are still menus and dialogs after all. However, that doesn't mean we don't consider radical approaches on a regular basis. And some major new elements have shown up over the years that have fit right in, to the point where people forget they are new to Office (e.g. Task Panes, which debuted in Office XP). Many of our biggest customers actually ask us not to change the UI in any significant way, since they want to avoid retraining users after an upgrade.

As an example, when the web first appeared, we looked at that interface of links and pages and, like many, appreciated the ease with which you could navigate through seemingly infinite amounts of information. At the time of course, everything web was widely viewed as "the future" and the "only way to go" by pundits and even many inside Microsoft. This was not true in Office particularly though, since we tend to be a little more considered when it comes to changing something as important as the Office UX. (N.B. we did fall under the web spell in the area of file format though - that's why you see the broad HTML support in Office - more than would probably make sense if the future could have been seen.)

One of the many prototype UXs we looked at in 1994-96 (for Office97 or 2000) was a web-style interface for Office applications. This set of prototypes tried to group functionality in different ways on "pages". From any page, there were links to other pages that had possibly related commands. For example, maybe on one page you could change the font, and on that page there were also links to related things to text or to fonts, like text shading, strikethrough, insert hyperlink, etc. This approach didn't test too well in usability though, since as we had surmised, a web style interface is useful for browsing, not directed usage. If you know where you are going, you want to get there as quickly as possible, and always by the same path. With the web in 1995, usually you were surfing when following links, not looking for a specific thing. When you wanted something specific, you use favorites (i.e. a menu) (remember that search engines that actually could get you where you wanted came later). Menus and hierarchy are great at directed use. We liked the "see also" idea though, and this showed up in a limited way in the task panes eventually. There was also some enthusiasm for a kind of "command search" that like a search engine would let you find commands by entering keywords. This became part of the help system. The web interface itself however never saw the light of day.

The Office Assistant came about as an idea from Microsoft Research around social interfaces. There was a lot of research at the time around how many people interact with computers by anthropomorphizing them - that is, treating them like a person rather than as a tool. I guess the theory was that if you could provide an interface for the computer that expressed emotion and that you could interact with, you would be less likely to develop animosity toward your PC (much like the impassive camera lens of HAL9000 caused tension), and would actually be encouraged to learn and interact.

As is often the case, the transition from research to reality caused some compromises in the design, and the result was the "Agent" which was a system service that could be installed on Windows and used by any application. The Agent provided the animated character Office called the "Assistant". You could install additional agents if you wanted - Office97 shipped with seven, although most people stuck with the default, Clippit a.k.a. Clippy (the default was different in other countries - e.g. in Japan it was Kaeru the Dolphin). Personally I would have selected Rocky the puppy as default, since he was cute, and animated to be subservient and harmless, whereas Clippy was sassy and annoying. But there were reasons to not choose Rocky - cultural, focus group preference - some fuzzy thing I can't remember.

Now the Agent interface was more limited than the original researchers had specified and tested. And on top of that, the kind of information the researchers expected the Agent to provide, such as "I'm busy searching for that, just a moment", or "I'm ready to help you" was hard to convey. There were many reasons for that - sometimes office code simply didn’t allow for good notifications about tasks the applications were doing while they were doing them, and the reasons for some slowdowns were not known or were not predictable (e.g. network traffic, memory swapping, unexpected disk activity, etc).

There were also differences of opinion. For example, the original idea was to show the Assistant moving about when the application was ready for user input, since this seemed to indicate that the application was not "hung", and seemed to project a "ready to help" atmosphere. But some people in Office felt that the animations were too distracting. After all, often you were just sitting thinking in front of your PC, not just walking up to it after a break - and the animations made it hard for some people to think. So these were toned down significantly, to where the Assistant in "wait" mode barely moves at all.

A big part of the Assistant plan was to use it as the gateway to help. You could click on the Assistant and ask it questions in normal English (or other language depending on your version of Office). This was supposed to reinforce the relationship with the user and encourage them to ask more questions. (it did not do this as it turned out - people still overwhelmingly type a single word in the hopes that will get them the answer)

The most famous use of the Assistant was to deliver "tips". The idea was that the software could monitor your actions, and if you did the same "dumb" thing all the time, we should be able to show you a much faster way to do it. Everybody says this to us at some point: "I am sure there is a better way, but I just don’t have time to figure it out". The hope was that the Assistant could introduce you to powerful new capabilities, or remove drudgery, based on monitoring what you did.

Although there were tips all over Office, the most famous "tip" was the "It looks like you’re writing a letter" tip in Word. Word97 had just introduced a new letter wizard that was designed to make writing a simple document like a letter much easier. We saw so many users have trouble with this simple task, the theory was that with the wizard you would have no need to learn about right-align tabs, tab stops, etc to get address blocks right - just use the wizard.

But the problem was that people did not discover the wizard - they would just keep trying their broken ways of trying to get a letter to come out right. So this seemed like a perfect instance where the Assistant could help. If we could only find a trigger to figure out when the user was probably writing a letter…

The string "Dear <blank>", where blank was a set of words, was chosen. Of course, this tested well in usability, but this was a great example of an effect I have described before (See here), where the design of the feature was optimized for the first use based on usability testing, and not for continued usage. Compounding things was that this tip did not have a way for the user to turn it off, and it was a little too persistent before giving up.

We gave one more try to make the assistant better by using the new agent technology in 2000 (the assistant no longer needed its own window, which blocked the content underneath), and some rough edges were taken off the tips and the way they appeared (tips had multiple settings for "aggressiveness" - most tips were taken down a notch or two on the five notch scale), and we made it easier to turn off the assistant permanently (although a bug made this fix not work for some people). Although this made things better, the fundamental approach was not really working well enough.

It may be surprising to many who read this blog, but the Assistant was actually a wash in terms of user acceptance. Many users told us that they really liked it and found it useful, something which technical people have a hard time believing, since they were the ones who pretty much uniformly didn't like the assistant. In terms of population, the numbers were split about 50/50 for/against its value.

But only 50% is not good enough when a significant chunk of the other 50% felt strongly negative toward the Assistant. So eventually (Office XP), the Assistant was turned off by default and the issues that made it come back sometimes were finally exorcised. The marketing team even made light of this in a little campaign about Clippy being retired that some may remember.

So, was the Assistant a success, failure or something in between? If so, why? If you think the Assistant idea was bad, why exactly? It is interesting to learn from these experiences to try to move the state of the art forward. I have heard that the researchers who originally supported the idea claimed that the idea was sound, but the implementation in Office was inadequate and flawed. Many in Office would say that the idea would not have worked acceptably well even with an ideal implementation. Still others would say it did pretty well, and with a little more work could have been made useful for those who would use it, and not annoying for others.

Comments (52)
  1. Patti says:

    I HATED that clip. It hung around, watching you, with that nasty smirk. It wouldn’t go away when you wanted it too. It interrupted rudely and broke your train of thought. It never actually had an answer to the questions I had. It was smarmy and it wasn’t even USEFUL. I’ve worked with a lot of people who were very uncomfortable with computers, and just wanted to get their work done without having to deal with the technology so much. The technology made them feel stupid. They didn’t need an arrogant paper clip to make them feel even more frustrated and inadequate.

  2. Scott Duffy says:

    I actually liked the assistant. I set my default to Rocky. You’re right — he was the best one.

    My favorite memory of the Office Assistant was when I was working in my home office, and my 2 year old niece walked into the room. When she saw Rocky, her eyes lit up. I could tell she was excited when she said, "What’s that?"

    Then I sat with her for a few minutes, and kept selecting the "Animate!" menu option to get Rocky to do some tricks. She loved it. To be honest, if that "Animate!" menu option wasn’t there, I would have turned the Assistant off years before.

    That was the best reason to keep Rocky around on my computer all those years. It was a marvel in human interface engineering that didn’t do anything useful for me, but made a 2 year old excited to use MS Word.

    In fact, if I can turn it on in Office 2003, I’m going to do that.

  3. Zeke says:

    They (we?) chose clippit as the default in 97 because (get this) he was the most likable metafile assistant and the metafile assistants had a much smaller footprint (both in RAM and disk space) than the bitmap assistants like Rocky and Genius (who were preferred by many more people). It’s a classic case of where cutting a corner at the last minute ended up completely killing the feature and dramatically hurting our business.

  4. KC Lemson says:

    My favorite was Links, suggestive licking and all ( I also really enjoyed the secretary in the Japanese version.

  5. mike says:

    less likely to develop animosity toward your PC

    I’m not that the issue was hostility as such (although that might have been a side effect). The idea was that people who were not familiar with computers would know what they wanted to do (write a letter, send email) but were daunted by the interface, graphical or otherwise and didn’t know how to do it — to send an email, you have to open an email client (what is that? where is that?), figure out how to create a new message, write it, and send it. Most people don’t seem to actually understand what their email client is; to them, Outlook and their email server are the same thing. Same for writing a letter — you mean, I need a program to do that? What program? Etc.

    Thus was born the much-maligned Bob, a program whose premises are still quite relevant, but which got slammed for execution. (And mostly by people who were precisely not the target audience.) The idea of the agents was that they could tell you what to do, or as pointed out, could watch what you were doing and suggest shortcuts. In an ideal implementation, we could ALL benefit from agent technology, which a) would let you ask questions ("computer, where’s the photo of my kid’s graduation") or b) could step you through a process you’re not familiar ("ok, now in the Processes window, find the name of hte process you want to debug.") The ideal agent, IOW, is a more-expert person sitting at your side who show you what to do and answer questions. The problem with agent technology so far has been that it hasn’t been able to be helpful enough.

    At my local supermarket, we have U-Scan technology, and it talks to you — "scan the next item," "swipe your card," or whatever. It’s surprisingly natural to have a machine talk to you; my only problem with it is that it’s too slow. Of course, it’s one way; they still have to post someone there who can answer questions or "reboot" the scanner or whatever.

    BTW, here’s a press release-y article from 1995 that talks about social interface and Bob:

  6. Thomas Eyde says:

    Not once, as I can remember, did the Assistant actually help me. That goes for the Help system as well.

    I have done a zillion searches, refining and refining. When I finally got a managable list of entries, not 500, not 0, then I got all these wonderful descriptions of how amazing all these features are, how helpful they are and so on.

    But one thing I couldn’t find. I was browsing link after link, but most often than not, I couldn’t find the feature or how it is supposed to be used.

    There is little help in describing a feature I can’t find.

    I am falling between categories, I guess, as I am a Norwegian user, but prefer my os and programs to be in English. My problem probably is that I don’t always know a feature’s English name, but more often I don’t know the Norwegian name, either.

    English is a wonderful language to express intent or context in a single word, when the Norwgian equivalent demands a sentence or a little story.

    I am a little off topic, now, but I like to offer a small example. In XP you can right-click My Computer and select Manage. A wonderful word. After seeing the Management console once, I just know what Manage means. The Norwegian equivalence says "Behandle". That word describes to me the action a doctor does when he treats a patient, or the process a clerc is doing when he approves an application of something. It describes the action, not the context.

  7. Geronimo says:

    Patti: “They didn’t need an arrogant paper clip to make them feel even more frustrated and inadequate”.

    LOL! Talk about “interface for the computer that expressed emotion”. Clippy definitely succeeded in expressing emotions, but in the wrong way 🙂

    I still remember a few years ago my uncle called me on the phone after I set up his PC and said: “Please come back and get rid of that paperclip thing or I’m gonna take out my shotgun and blow up the monitor!”

    The thing with Clippy that irritates beginners is that it acts as if they’re stupid and he’s making fun of them. If a newbie is under stress and treading carefully, Clippy makes things worse instead of reassuring them. For example, the way Clippy turns its head and looks at the document seems as if it’s thinking “you can’t be that stupid”, or when it acts as if it’s sleepy and bored. It just ticks people off.

    Personally, I think Clippy is cute. I find it amazing how a mere wire with a couple of eyeballs and eyebrows can convey so many expressions. But I don’t normally use it because most of its tips are irrelevant or of little use to power users. Some people get the wrong impression that Clippy interferes with their work and does something with their document behind the scenes.

    Agent technology is the future. I think Clippy, or any other agent, would be very useful if it’s based on a system-wide agent architecture that monitors user actions in all applications, on any computer, build a comprehensive behavioral profile, and start doing some real work on behalf of the user.

    For example, one of my biggest gripes with Word is the default “Paste” action, which pastes formatted HTML if I copied text from a web browser. I don’t want to mess up the formatting of my document with the format of a web page, so I have to store a macro to “Paste Special”/”Unformatted Text”. If Clippy was smart, it should notice that I repeatedly do that and ask me if I wanted to switch the default action to “Unformatted Text”. May be it should invisibly watch me in the background and pop up on the sidelines when it wants to suggest something instead of being visible all the time. Even more useful is if I can use and aggregate the same behavioral profile between different computers. That would include both configuration settings and behavioral hints, so that I don’t have to “retrain” the future Clippy on each computer. That would be something like an Internet based agent that goes with you wherever you go.

    HP was doing research in that direction but for some reason they shut it down. However, Technologies like Web Services, OLAP/Data Mining, Jini Mobile Agents, Semantic Web, Adaptive Learning, etc. make this more and more doable.

  8. Harry says:

    I actually like the clippy a lot (still use Office 2000 :))

    While, the searches have not returned anything useful, there are times when I just sit in front of the computer thinking about some ideas for a paper. It is then that I use the "Animate" option, for some diversions, and keeps me sort of active.

    Oh yeah, my favorite is Genius 🙂

  9. Andrew says:

    Funny that you mention Clippy – there’s a hilarious spoof of him here. Too hilarious? 😉

    You’ll need flash 7 to view it.

  10. Peter Mackay says:

    <i><blockquote>"For example, one of my biggest gripes with Word is the default “Paste” action, which pastes formatted HTML if I copied text from a web browser. I don’t want to mess up the formatting of my document with the format of a web page, so I have to store a macro to “Paste Special”/”Unformatted Text”. If Clippy was smart, it should notice that I repeatedly do that and ask me if I wanted to switch the default action to “Unformatted Text”."</i></blockquote>

    Cripes, mate, but what version of Word are you using? 98? The last two releases have had Smart Tags for this – you paste in something with a format and a smart tag pops up asking if you want to keep the formatting or change it to the destination format. I think you can modify the default behaviour.

    I bought the book on programming Agent, because it was a cool feature and you could have a lot of fun getting the characters to do things. But it added a lot of overhead to small programs and people didn’t like it all that much. It was more of a toy for the programmers, I always thought.

    Task Panes and Smart Tags are a much better approach IMHO. They aren’t intrusive and they are generally useful. If it saves me hunting through a world of menu items and dialogue boxes, I’m all for it!

    And Chris, I purely love hearing the scoop between the user interface/experience decisions. Let’s face it, one word processor is much like another in its core functionality, but how the user interacts with it, aye, there’s the rub, and whether it was WordStar with those Ctrl-K-B commands or Word 2002 with Smart Tags, they all have a distinctly different "face".

  11. Chris Pratley worked on MS Word at the time, and tells us Clippy’s story, if not from the very inside (the dreaded assistant wasn’t specific to Word but rather a feature common to several Office apps), at least from close…

  12. Please don’t correct my memory of how "Clippy" and "Rover" started.

    The first instance was with "Bob", the UI that put you in Bob’s room above the garage when you signed on. Rover would run around and offer suggestions.

    Bob was not a success, but Rover was then included in future versions of Office because of a pre-nuptial agreement.

    The Project Manager for Bob was Melinda French.

    She said, "I’ll marry you, Bill, but Rover has to come along."

  13. Charles Chan says:

    I began to use Word when it’s 2.0 and I don’t care too much about the assistants because I know how to turn them off.

    What I found annoying with most word processing application is that it’s so hard to allow different people working on the same document.

    People loves to have HUGE documents. I mean those that are over 10MB… over 500 pages, with tons of graphics (screenshots). Word is not particular good at handling big documents with tons of inline attachments.

    I think people will continue to do that. How do we solve this problem?

    My current thinking is that a tighter integration with the versioning system is needed. Users should be able to checkout a "region" of the document to edit (the rest are read only). This will preserve the one-document logical concept while allowing collaboration.

    Any thoughts?

  14. I’ve always been a fan of the office assistants; F1 was always my favorite. F1 seemed to be a good balance between the "smartass" paperclip and the "dumb, but cute" rocky. I can’t remember a time when F1 was particularly helpful, though, in terms of showing me how to do something that I didn’t know how to do before. At the end of the day, the value that I really got from f1 was the anthropomorphic factor; it made it seem as though the system was paying attention to me.

    I don’t know if this is what was actually happening, or a result of the anthropomorphic effect, but it always seemed like when i was concentrating hardest on what i was writing, F1 was paying attention to me, and what I was writing, as well… his eyes would go all wide, and he would lean foward towards me. If I stopped writing for a few minutes, while I gathered my thoughts, f1 would start figeting… paying attention to other things, deftinately NOT staring at me anymore… as if to say, "hey, no pressure… whenever your ready….". when I switched to editing behavior, i.e., moving sentences around, deleting words, etc, F1 seemed to get much more active…

    I dunno. It probably was just me projecting onto f1, but at least he was there for me to project onto. Honestly, I would love to see similar assistants in VisualStudio. There are many distinct activities that a developer undertakes in VS.NET; the "flow"-like code-writing activity, the debugging activity, the designing activity, the refactoring activity, the testing activity… having an assistant (that I could relate to, somehow) during those different phases of development would be valuable to me; it would help me to know that the system undersands what i’m trying to do… it would have to actually offer help, but just showing that it understands would be valuable.

  15. Dan R says:

    The power of monitoring your activity, particularly repetitive or streamline-able activity X, and offering to show you relevant help for a new way to do X, shouldn’t be underestimated as a noble goal. However, it requires a level of engaged curiosity from the user (the same ones who say "I am sure there is a better way"). Some users are simply not interested in, or even made uncomfortable by, the idea that the machine knows better than they do, or that they would have to learn a new trick. The two year old, in almost permanent curiosity mode, is primed for an animated assitant. Older more technical farts might still benefit from a button or menu click into an interface consolidating our recently monitored tasks into a tailored rubric of new tutorials we might get mileage out of

  16. Clippy was based on the research that led to Bob (Nass & Reeves at Stanford back in 1995, more recently BJ Fogg "Persuasive Computing"). But unlike Bob, Clippy was also drawing on other learning and agent experiments (for example: Apple’s Eager would have discovered Peter Mackay’s repetitious behavior and created a macro for it automatically).

    The story I heard was that the agents weren’t visible enough and that marketing requested that it show up more frequently to show off the feature more clearly (although this story may be urban legend).

    Agents are definitely important, but we haven’t quite figured out how to use them properly yet. The coolest thing about agents is that they leverage our social conventions and let the computer talk and manipulate itself in the third person.

  17. >Task Panes and Smart Tags are a much better approach IMHO. They aren’t intrusive and they are generally useful. If it saves me hunting through a world of menu items and dialogue boxes, I’m all for it!

    I agree. In Office XP, I didn’t really care about Task Panes. They seemed to be just a change in the way that you performed commands. It really wasn’t until Office 2003 that I realized that they are fantastic. I don’t think it was anything that the Office teams changed, if anything. I actually attribute it to OneNote. OneNote seems to use Task Panes so effectively that I began to realize how much information could be accessed by these panes. I am sure Word and Excel make equal use of the Task Pane feature, but I spend so much time in OneNote that I noticed it more. Now, I use the drop-down at the top of the Task Pane to just switch back and forth between the panes all day.

    I can see now that Task Panes and Smart Tags are probably the two greatest interface improvements made to Office in a while (taking into account the big Corporate customers that request minimal changes). 🙂

    Speaking of Smart Tags, I would like to see some of those in OneNote. Like when you reach the end of the line a Smart Tag appears that lets you make the previous line a continuation of the paragraph. This is something I have to do a lot in order to effectively use Note Flags and it would be nice to have a faster way (using a Tablet Pen) to do this. And now with SP1 Preview, when you link a file into OneNote a dialog box pops up and asks you to copy it to the folder or link to the original. A Smart Tag might be a better way to ask this question, with a choice in Tools > Options for the default behavior (I know, I know, "we already thought of it but this is version 1.0"). IMHO, you can never ask too many times. :-))

    And for non-writers, don’t discount hyperlinks too much. I use word to create a lot of digital office reference documents that refer to other documents in the folder structures (that are locked down). It is nice to be able to reference these documents in another document. And, it is REALLY nice to be able to link to other places in the same document, like a web page. With the popularity of PDF and other ePaper solutions, I think this feature will become even more important (and, of course, will create more problems with broken links, etc.) Ultimately, it just depends on the situation and application.

    P.S. – Chris, thanks for the switch back to more interesting topics (for me anyway).

  18. Geronimo says:

    re: Peter Mackay,

    Peter, I know about the Smart Tags, but what’s the point if I have to click on the tag and choose "Plain Text" from the drop-down menu? I can just choose Paste Special, Plain Text. Same hassle.

    There’s no way in Word 2002 SP-1 (the one I’m using) to make it paste plain text by default. I tried to fool around with "Tools, Options, Edit, Smart cut and paste" to no avail.

    All they need to do to solve my problem is to make the user choose the default paste format, or just to disable HTML formatting.

    I know it’s a useful feature for some, but it’s a big irritation for me because I paste a lot of quotations in the papers I produce.

    The only way to solve this problem (and it’s half solved because of security), is to use a macro to make "Ctrl-V" act like Paster Special, Plain Text.

    If anybody knows a solution to make Ctrl-V to paste plain text (no formatting) without writing a macro I’ll appreciate it.

    By the way, Excel has the same problem, same hassle.

  19. njkayaker says:

    Some people like them and some people don’t. I can deal with that. I don’t like them.

    The things that were really annoying were:

    1) You could not turn them off reliably. Somehow or other, they’d come back. Increadibly arrogant and annoying.

    2) Turning them off (as much as you could turn them off) caused a useful feature to go away: the context-sensitive help in Excel’s function wizard (as far as I can tell you can’t get this without the assistant). Increadibly arrogant and annoying.

    If you ever implement an overly-noticible feature that is unnecessary, make sure you can turn it off completely without penalty.

    It seems that the usability testing did not find people who did not like the assistants!

  20. Anon says:

    Hey Geronimo, there’s some 10 year old technology in there just for you. Just record a macro that does Edit_Paste Special_Text Only and replace your "Paste" menu item with a custom one. Save these into and Word works exactly as you like it to.

  21. Hey, I like Clippy.

  22. Clippy Fan says:

    I love Clippy! I had to install it from the help menu when I got a new machine at work with Office XP 2003 Pro. I wish I could have it for all my programs, and not just with Office. It kind-of feels cozy having a cute little character with you when you’re sitting alone for long hours at the computer. I actually feel sorry for Clippy that some people hate it and convinced MS to disable it by default. I would be very sad if MS decided to stop shipping Clippy with future versions of Office.

  23. I liked the whole concept. I still think there is a place for a desktop assistant that works at a desktop for all applications.

    I feel that the technology failed because it did not mature much beyond initial release (beyond the tweaks you mentioned). I see this as one of those technologies like Speech. Its something you keep working at, improving the API, OS integration and giving people the ability to tailor it beyond the avatar used.

    The office approach seemed to be a bolted on solution. I think this belonged at the OS level with universal application use. I’d like to see an agent in the side bar of long horn that is used by all applications.

  24. Oz says:

    Hi highly recommend the piece "Why do you hate Clippy?" in Andrew McGlinchey’s blog:$237

    It nicely summs up some of the points made by Chris and others in the comments.

  25. Oz says:

    Hm… Seems that the blogging tool didn’t interpret the link to Andrew’s blog correctly. Sorry folks, you’ll have to Copy & Paste…

  26. Cindy says:

    <<So, was the Assistant a success, failure or something in between? If so, why? If you think the Assistant idea was bad, why exactly?>>

    Personally, it was a complete failure for me. Mainly because of the (lack of) Help behind it. As others have commented, I never was able to find anything with it…

    As to the interface, itself, I’m one of those who found it maddeningly distracting. So much so that I changed it to "F1" in self-defence, because early on there was simply no way to surpress it completely.

    OTOH, there’s my husband, to whom the computer is a necessary evil (tool). He couldn’t manage without right-click menus… and Clippy (or whichever I install for him, it doesn’t matter).

    So, I’d have to say the success falls in-between. The premise, as you outline it, to provide an expert to help you through the things you don’t know, is certainly a goal to pursue. Just that this particular UI had too many flaws :.-)

    And we should note: this was NOT the first "assistant" UI in Word. Word 6.0/95 had a "tips" bar (the light-bulb) that was meant to provide the "there’s a better way to do this"-type of guidance. I was doing software training at the time, and the users’ reactions to this were mostly highly positive. Much more so, generally, than to "Clippy", in my experience.

    Based on this, I think the main issues were/are: discoverability vs. being able to control the interface + content. Perhaps, if the interface hadn’t been so intrusive in Office 97 the negative reactions wouldn’t have been so pronounced. And if the Help search and content had been excellent, one would have suffered the interface more gladly.

  27. Cindy says:


    Reminiscing about the pre-Word97 interfaces brings to mind a couple of other things that would be a boon if they were integrated into a future assistent/help interface:

    1. We were able to bookmark AND annotate Help topics back in the "good old days"

    2. One question that came up very often with the "light-bulb tips" was: How can we add our own

  28. Robert Björn says:

    I remember MS used to have a funny website featuring Clippy at It seems to have expired and been taken over by somebody else now. Does anyone know if this site (the flash movies in particular) is still archived somewhere?

  29. Mike Gale says:

    I was interested in the feedback figues. If 50% were positive it’s a lot better than I’d have guessed. (I wonder how that holds up over a lifetime?)

    With that amount of positive I’d be inclined to say keep working on it.

    (It’s always hard to judge parts of the audience who are quite unlike you. (I never got anything out of Clippy and was annoyed that it took too much work to disable him. Neither do I like the dumbed down help which tries to force you to speak primitive English.) I suggest some sort of feedback so it treats you different, maybe an automatic never show me this message again!!)

  30. Jimmy C. says:

    I must be the exception, since I never really minded Clippy even though I like learning about technology and science. It could be a type-A verses type-B personality or whatever. However, I think I understand why some people dislike the paperclip.

    You said that some people ignored Clippy’s advice; well why didn’t the Paperclip monitor how often its advances were ignored by the user? It couls adjust its reminder frequency based on that past behavior – making it much less annoying in the long term. Furthermore, a more serious and less cartoonie appearance/behavior could been less threatening to frustrated users or people who just wanted work. Although the other extreme – the spinning Office logo – would probably be too abstract to easily interact with either.

    In the end, Clippy’s annoyance ‘factor’ primarily depends on the personality of the user. Some people perfer to work alone and other like to work in groups. (People in the latter catagory is probably overrepresented in focus-groups.) The Paperclip’s personality should adjust to suit the user and NOT the other way around. I.E. Not "we should be able to show you a much faster way to do it." But instead "the program should be adapt to do things faster in the way you do it. That’s why form and keyword completion works well. That’s why programs with complex help systems usually fail (in easy-of-use).

    Hope that helps.

  31. Chris Crawford says:

    I remember the Gilbert Gottfried voiced Clippy ads when clippy got fired. Clippy even had his own "wish list" at

    So, I bought Bill Gates "Road Ahead" for him off his wish list. (It was late, I had some gift certificates.) Got a nice, hand-written note on a Microsoft card with Clippy’s sig and self-portait.


  32. Daniel Bowen says:

    Robert: … Does anyone know if this site (the flash movies in particular) is still archived somewhere?

    Some of the text is at*/ … though I’m not having any luck getting the Flash movies to come up.

  33. fiat lux says:

    I played around with Clippy. I tried to find him/her/it useful but it really wasn’t.

  34. Dot At says:

    I found the Assistant quite useful, from (97?) and on. My favorite was the Einstein character (is that Genius). From that version on, I never read a manual for Office software but simply asked the assistent when I needed to do something new. I remember, for example, learning how to manage versions of word documents that way, and how to annotate a document with comments. When trying something new, it was usually the case that I would ask the assistant at least one question and use the results. I am sorry to see the Einstein character go in Office 2003.

  35. Naquada says:

    Chris Pratley one of the microsoft developers (I think he worked mainly on OneNote or OneNote has been his main devlopment) has a nice post on his blog about ‘chippy’ the microsoft office assistant, and that the User Experience Team…

  36. Nekto says:

    "Animate!" is just great!!! I love it 🙂

    The bad thing that instead of beeng something-nearby it happens to be on my way a lot of times 🙁 I just do not like it to show common dialogs. And thouse dialogs are modal 🙁 So it seems that _agent_ blocks my work, not some dialog.

    It was fun to see novice users, which can’t start using Word at all becouse they can’t click into label "Start using Word + OK" in yellow box to the right of screen. 🙂 Thing were complicated becouse we had no local version of Word that time and they barely could read English. Also they just can’t belive that some system question is not a normal dialog box in the center of screen.

    Anyway most of time I set it to "hide". I do not need it. But a lot of people nearby (who are not IT’s) like it very much just for animations :).

    May be I should suggest for agent not to be present all the time, but show only you when you call it. Say it will go to sleep, but you could knok at it’s door and it will come to help. Thus it will not spying you when you typing 🙂

    And – it should react to mouseover. If I point mouse to it then I am interested in it 🙂 Or when cursor comes near it must move to other location not to get in it’s way.

    Example of mouseovers to "agent":

    move mouse over Flash animated Egg-person.

  37. Steve Bolton says:

    My problem with the office assistant was that it seemed to crash word so often. Of course clippy stayed there and wouldn’t go away but he caused Word to crash – that was infuriating.

    To this day I still always disable the assistant when installing Office to prevent this.

  38. cabbage says:

    Clippy never annoyed me all that much. I suppose it comes from all the .gif ads that say "YOU ARE A WINNER!" blinking at 60fps… once you’ve learned to ignore those, practically nothing can distract you 🙂

  39. Paul Berkowitz says:

    You seem to have got stuck at Clippy on May 5, a full month ago, Chris.

    Are you planning to return?

  40. I’m just waiting for a topic to come up.

  41. homer jay says:

    Thanks for turning clippy off by default. It’s very appreciated.

  42. Glymph says:

    > If anybody knows a solution to make Ctrl-V to paste plain text (no formatting) without writing a macro I’ll appreciate it.

    Easy: alt+E, S, U, enter

    I tend to make a point of not installing the office assistant (i.e. clippy & friends) whenever i install office – then point out to users that help is availble from the relevant menu, and if that fails them, to ask around. I think that clippy has a long way to go before it is able to be anywhere near as helpful as describing what you’re trying to do to someone who has done it before.

  43. In college the first year of virtually every program had numerous Intro to Office courses. Most of these were a joke, but some dug into the lesser known features of Office — including doing some hard core analysis with Excel. The exams were generally on the computer and no one bothered to study for them. Why? Because all you had to do was click the stupid paper clip in the face and ask him how to do something. 9 times out of 10 he knew the answer. Either that was because the profs took their exams questions right out of the documentation or the documentation was really good.

    Regardless, "Ask the paperclip" became a blanket answer to any question the student’s posed to each other.

    Ya he was kinda creepy-looking, and we all wondered who these people were that didn’t know how to write letters without help, but he was a great source of information…

  44. Sam Smith says:

    I have always turned Office assistants off. I don’t have particuarily good memories of them, I can remember it being (to me) nothing more than an annoyance, an opinion several people close to me seemed to share. Damn know-it-all paperclips. 😉

  45. Mother of Four (Cats) :-) says:

    Yes, I know this thread is a month old. But, it’s my chance to pass along some long overdue and extremely heartfelt admiration for whoever programmed Links.

    Whoever you are, you clearly have lived your life with cats. Or, you have lived a life AS a cat. Links is just superb. I could go on and on enumerating gushfully all the catly behaviors, large and small, that are perfectly captured. I did, in fact, so enumerate them on the phone to a friend of mine who has cats, but does not have Office. I was using Word during the conversation, and for 20 or 30 minutes I was interrupting with "Links just did < >!" and "You HAVE to hear this cat!"

    I mean, she sleeps on the back of the (virtual) sofa with her legs dangling over the side! And she CHIRPS! (Mrrrrrp!) And she…<MANY MANY OTHER astonishing feline eccentricities>!!

    What I get the biggest kick out of, though, just by a quirk of coincidence, is that when Links meows demandingly for attention, she sounds EXACTLY like one of my cats. I’m serious. There have been times when I’ve been across the room from the computer, and if Links squawks with the volume up high enough, I actually think it IS my cat. "What is it, Chessie?" I have sighed, on more than one occasion, only to discover that Chessie is nowhere in sight and it’s Links who is talking to (at) me.

    So if any of you know the person who created Links, please shake his/her hand for me. (And give him/her a nice fat bonus. 😉 )

  46. Chip says:

    I have the office assistant but it isn’t animated???? I didn’t know the animation could even be turned off… Does anybody know how to turn it back on??? Thanks.

  47. Windows Office Assistants They are still there in the background, waiting to pounce.

  48. Gary says:

    Hi Chris,

    HELP!, Please,

    I have a laptop and it has XP home on it and my laptop is around 4 years old, but works fantastic!

    I also have Mirosoft Offiec 97 Professional Edition installed on my laptop.

    In the selection of helpers, I don’t have ROCKY.

    How can I get ROCKY in my program?

    I have seen two different types of ROCKY dogs.

    The first is ROCKY and he moves around in a box.

    The secound is ROCKY without the box and I like this version better.

    Do you know how I can get ROCKY with no box around him on my computer?

    Do you know of any Web-site or Link I could go to?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.



  49. Gary, Office 97 assistants have the box around them. Office 2000 and later assistants do not. In either case, you can right click on the assistant and choose "change assistant (or similar wording). FWIW in Office 2007 the assistants are completely removed (not just off by default) now that many of their tips do no apply in the new user interface.

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