My machine is acting up again.

I started to send out an email in MS Office and my cursor turned into a clock that just spun in mid-air.

It's still doing it.

Clippy (or Clippit, whatever his name is), the office assistant, popped up as a paperclip but his wire body got all screwed up and he just kind of slid down to the end of his piece of paper in slow motion.

He's now sitting on the end of it, but he only has one eye and the rest of his partially dismembered paperclip body is all scrunched up.

There's a little lightbulb by his head which means he has a suggestion.

I'm going to try to CTL+ALT+DEL my way out of this. I don't care what he has to say.

Feh. Didn't work.


As always, please enjoy the pipe-links.

The Microsoft Office Assistant started off as a basically good idea. It was integrated into Office 97 to provide an easy mechanism of finding help when you need it. The Office suite of applications is a daunting bit of user interface to tackle, and the current system of help in Office 95 really wasn't stellar.

Microsoft never makes a move in the market without testing it first in usability. According to the VP of Office, in a public speech I watched, the Assistant tested very well and got positive responses from the populace as a help-finding mechanism in the lab. However, in the retail channels, the Assistant got dismissed as an annoyance that was too "Big Brother" for most users. It was either too dumb for the advanced users, or not using enough computer vernacular for the lower-end user.

At another public demonstration of up-and-coming Office innovations, one demo engineer showed off a technology that was supposed to be for Office XP (called Office 10 at the time). He opened up Microsoft Word, and started typing a letter:

Dear Sir,

It was of course at that point when the Assistant popped up, and said "Hey, I see you're trying to write a letter, I've auto-formatted this. Is that OK?" In the dialog box, there were three choices: "Yes, No, and No, Never Do That Again." I don't think I've ever seen a crowd cheer so much for a mundane feature demo. Microsoft heard the message, and they took action.

Windows 2000 improved heavily on the Assistant, making it less intrusive, and dumbing-down the "IntelliSense"; the technology behind the interruptions to the work. The response was a lot better, and the Assistant is considerably less intrusive about popping up windows and where it draws the WinHelp boxes, but is still a pain to many users. Office 2000 was the last great hurrah for Clippy, as he is now off by default in Office XP.

The idea was initially simple: the Assistant would sit on your screen, out of the way of your workspace, and provide a common area for dialogs and user suggestions that the program might give on how to better use itself. On the surface, it sounds like a really great feature for anything to have. It is quietly ingenious, because it gives your something to interact with as a figurehead between you and the Office interface. You get a sense that "Clippy" wants to do something, and you interact with him to manage your Word session. It seems removed, yet attached in a way. Several other programs use the same technology, copying Microsoft's interface, such as Adaptec's Easy CD Pro.

On the underbelly, the Assistant is a very important UI tool. Office works a little differently if the Assistant is up or not, since all minor dialog boxes (messages like "You haven't save your work yet") go through the Assistant's help balloons while it is up, and in a standard Windows (or Macintosh) dialog box when they are not. The Assistant's dialog boxes also have a weird non-modality to them, as not to be intrusive, but it doesn't have that native Windows (or Macintosh) feel.

The Assistant is based largely on technology out of Microsoft Research's UI division called Microsoft Agent. Agent is a character animation and response system that allows programmable "agents" to respond to a series of events to allow an animated figure to guide your way through a task. This is a Windows-only technology, even though there is an Office Assistant available for the Macintosh platform, on Office 98 and above. On both platforms the Assistant methods are available through VBA calls (animate, move, dialog boxes, turn on and off, etc).

The Assistant does very well in Japanese markets, but not with the same Clippy that you and I have come to know and love. You'll notice that on Kanji SKUs of the Office program, a woman operator is available, one that is not normally on the English shipping version. This is because this Assistant character tested dramatically better than the cat (Links) , ball (Dot), puzzle piece, the genius (Einstein), or any of the other shipping assistants. That in itself is kind of an insight into the differences in culture between here and Japan.

It was a good idea at the time, and it proved to be helpful for a lot of users, but the users who didn't like it were very outspoken about it, and perhaps one day, we will remember the Office Assistant as a UI bumble from Microsoft, similar to others before hand. However, it should be noted that MS puts a lot of time into User Assistance, and the technology that underlies the paperclip on your desktop has been many years in the making.

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