Happy Birthday, Clippy

It’s Clippy’s birthday!

On November 19, 1996, Microsoft announced the release of Office 97, and the famously overzealous paperclip assistant was born. Here’s just a little bit about Clippy (full name: Clippit) and it’s relationship to onboarding.

The 1996 press release for Office 97 included Clippy (which was one of a few types of characters offered under the general label of the “Office Assistant”) as one of its top features: “Innovations such as the new Office Assistant provide personalized assistance in the form of advice, interactive Help and tips.” Sound familiar? This is a lot like how modern educational UI patterns and plugins are still positioned today.

Clippy wasn’t the first instance of an operating system assistant, though. That honor goes to a cartoon dog from an earlier OS, Microsoft Bob (1995). Bob was an ambitious attempt to support novices with an illustrative home office UI & cartoonified assistants, including a dog that guided you through using the OS. Alas, Bob didn’t succeed. It stretched the visual home office metaphor past its breaking point, and was quickly shelved.

Although Bob was deprecated, the concept of an educational assistant for novices was carried forward into the release of Windows 97. That’s where the chatbot-like cartoon paper clip Clippy appeared. It would pop up with various suggestions on how newbies could use Office programs. For example, whenever you typed “Dear So-and-so” in a Word document, Clippy would appear and ask if you were writing a letter, and, if so, whether you wanted help.

But, Clippy didn’t go over well either. Users claimed it popped up at the wrong time, with irrelevant or repetitive suggestions. It seemed to treat everyone, even seasoned users, like novices. It was seen as interrupting the workflows it was meant to augment.

Clippy survived another ~10 years before being removed. It was ambitious, just like Bob, but just never quite landed with audiences. Still, its legacy lives on in various memes and parodies overzealous UI assistants (such as the SNL skit about “Pushy,” an unhelpful pushpin assistant), reminding us why we need thoughtful, well integrated guidance, rather than interruptive approaches.

Unfortunately, today’s sites and apps are repeating these mistakes with pop ups, chatty bots, callouts, and more. Many of these UI elements aren’t acting any differently than Clippy was, just now they can appear at scale. History, as such, repeats itself.

To learn how to build better guidance for everyone, consider grabbing a copy of Better Onboarding from A Book Apart.