How I Made Clippy Lovable

Clifford Nass is a Stanford professor specialising in computer interaction. In this excerpt from his new book, The Man Who Lied To His Laptop, he talks about how he made Clippy lovable.

In 1998, Microsoft asked me to provide evidence that it was possible to improve one of the worst software designs in computer history: Clippy, the animated paper clip in Microsoft Office. While I have often been asked by companies to make their interfaces easier to use, I had a real challenge on my hands with Clippy. The mere mention of his name to computer users brought on levels of hatred usually reserved for jilted lovers and mortal enemies. There were "I hate Clippy" websites, videos and T-shirts in numerous languages. One of the first viral videos on the internet - well before YouTube made posting videos common - depicted a person mangling a live version of Clippy, screaming, "I hate you, you lousy paper clip!"

One might think that the hostility toward Clippy emerged because grown-ups don't like animated characters. But popular culture demonstrates that adults can indeed have rich relationships with cartoons. For many years, licensing for the animated California Raisins (originally developed as an advertising gimmick by the California Raisin Advisory Board) yielded higher revenues than the actual raisin industry. The campaign's success in fact helped motivate Microsoft to deploy Clippy in the first place. (Bill Gates envisioned a future of Clippy mugs, T-shirts and other merchandise.) Similarly, Homer Simpson, Fred Flintstone and Bugs Bunny all have name recognition and star power equivalent to the most famous human celebrities. What about Clippy, then, aroused such animosity in people?


My epiphany occurred while I was sitting in a hotel room, flipping through television channels. Suddenly, I saw Shari Lewis, the great puppeteer. She caught my attention for three reasons. First, instead of entertaining children, she was on C-SPAN testifying before Congress. Second, she had brought along her sock puppet Lamb Chop (not the first "puppet" to have appeared before Congress). Third, Lamb Chop was testifying in response to a congressman's question.

In her childlike "Lamb Choppy" voice (very distinct from Lewis's Bronx accent), Lamb Chop said, "Violence on television is very bad for children. It should be regulated." The representative then asked, "Do you agree with Lamb Chop, Ms Lewis?" It took the gallery 1.6 seconds to laugh, the other congressmen 3.5 seconds to laugh, and the congressman who asked the question an excruciating 7.4 seconds to realise the foolishness of his question.

The exchange, while leaving me concerned for the fate of democracy, also struck me as very natural: Here was someone with a face and a voice, and here was someone else - albeit a sock - with its own face and voice. Why shouldn't they be asked for their opinions individually? Perhaps the seemingly absolute line between how we perceive and treat other people and how we perceive and treat things such as puppets was fuzzier than commonly believed.

I had seen that, given the slightest encouragement, people will treat a sock like a person - in socially appropriate ways. I decided to apply this understanding to unravelling the seemingly illogical behaviours toward technology that I had previously observed. I started with the despised Clippy. If you think about people's interaction with Clippy as a social relationship, how would you assess Clippy's behaviour? Abysmal, that's how. He is utterly clueless and oblivious to the appropriate ways to treat people. Every time a user typed "Dear...", Clippy would dutifully propose, "I see you are writing a letter. Would you like some help?" - no matter how many times the user had rejected this offer in the past. Clippy would give unhelpful answers to questions, and when the user rephrased the question, Clippy would give the same unhelpful answers again. No matter how long users worked with Clippy, he never learned their names or preferences. Indeed, Clippy made it clear that he was not at all interested in getting to know them. If you think of Clippy as a person, of course he would evoke hatred and scorn.

To stop Clippy's annoying habits or to have him learn about his users would have required advanced artificial-intelligence technology, resulting in a great deal of design and development time. To show Microsoft how a small change could make him popular, I needed an easier solution. I searched through the social science literature to find simple tactics that unpopular people use to make friends.

The most powerful strategy I found was to create a scapegoat. I therefore designed a new version of Clippy. After Clippy made a suggestion or answered a question, he would ask, "Was that helpful?" and then present buttons for "yes" and "no". If the user clicked "no", Clippy would say "That gets me really angry! Let's tell Microsoft how bad their help system is." He would then pop up an email to be sent to "Manager, Microsoft Support", with the subject "Your help system needs work!" After giving the user a couple of minutes to type a complaint, Clippy would say "C'mon! You can be tougher than that. Let 'em have it!"

We showed this system to 25 computer users, and the results were unanimous: people fell in love with the new Clippy! A long-standing business user of Microsoft Office exclaimed, "Clippy is awesome!" An avowed Clippy hater said, "He's so supportive!" And a user who despised "eye candy" in software said, "I wish all software was like this!" Virtually all of the users lauded Clippy 2.0 as a marvellous innovation.

Without any fundamental change in the software, the right social strategy rescued Clippy from the list of Most Hated Software of All Time; creating a scapegoat bonded Clippy and the user against a common enemy. Unfortunately, that enemy was Microsoft, and while impressed with our ability to make Clippy lovable, the company did not pursue our approach. When Microsoft retired Clippy in 2007, it invited people to shoot staples at him before his final burial.

Clifford Nass is the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University and director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab. He lives in Silicon Valley.

Corina Yen is a design researcher. She studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University, where she also was editor-in-chief of Ambidextrous magazine, Stanford University's journal of design. She lives in the Bay Area.

Excerpted from THE MAN WHO LIED TO HIS LAPTOP: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships by Clifford Nass with Corina Yen by arrangement with Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc, Copyright (c) Clifford Nass, 2010.

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