Was Microsoft’s Clippy Years Ahead of its Time?

Today’s software needs just-in-time, context-sensitive knowledge.

This week I was working on a personal project at home using Adobe Photoshop (I was trying to create a photo collage of my four boys). I was trying to use what I would think is a simple feature: the pen tool, to draw a curved line.

After many failed attempts, I gave up and went to the help manual. It explained what the pen tool could do, but it did not really give me what I needed to get over my hurdle. I then went to YouTube. It took a couple of searches to find a video, but I finally found what I was looking for.

Later that day, I stood in line waiting to get my usual large hot black coffee at Dunkin Donuts and as I was waiting in line, the lady in front of me was looking at the menu of sandwiches. The worker said ‘ell if you liked the egg and cheese wrap, you will love the new Texas Toast Cheese sandwich’. Then she proceeded to up-sell a side of hash browns.

I had a light bulb moment. For years, consumers have been cross-sold to and up-sold to. Online storefronts recommend other products I would like based off my shopping cart. As a consumer of learning, why can’t I have that, and even better, why can’t it be contextual, intelligent, just-in-time and built into the product?

Microsoft's Clippy didn't gain traction, but the concept lives on today with Siri, Cortana & Alexa

This reminded me of a tool Microsoft launched in its Office suite back in the 1990s called Clippy. The premise of Clippy was to help users with Office products, including searching help topics and advising users on features more effectively. As many of you know, Clippy failed to gain traction, and even managed to annoy quite a few users. However, that may have been a product of his simple, repetitive script and lack ofintelligent interactive programming. Today, assistance from software like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa proves that this concept may finally be ready for successful execution.

This is EXACTLY what I wanted with my Photoshop experience. When I struggled with the pen tool, as a consumer, I wanted to be shown intelligent and contextual enablement content that would help me. Enablement content is a broad term, and that is the point. I do not want just a help manual, or to have to leave the application to perform yet another search on YouTube or similar. I want Clippy to come back and intelligently aggregate all available enablement content relevant to the contextual problem I have at hand, within the product, and make my job easier. If that happens? I find what I am looking for easier, I accomplish my task faster, I am happier, and I have my coffee sooner in the day!

While most software has not evolved to this yet, I do see a trend starting where we take the current learning tenets like just-in-time training, micro-videos, and social learning, and combine it with the business paradigms of cross-sell and up-sell for consumers to really create a great enablement experience.



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