1. Optimize for repeated use, not just first time use
First, according to Microsoft’s Chris Pratley
, Clippy suffered greatly from the “optimization for first time use
” problem. The first time you saw the cordial, “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” suggestion, you might have been pleasantly surprised by Clippy’s intelligence. But after the 1,000,000th time you probably found it hard to take Clippy’s incessant, repetitive options every time you wrote “Dear…” on your Word doc. It’s not surprising that many users chose to turn Clippy off after his novelty faded.
2. Imbue diversity in product design and development
Second, Clippy was created in a male-dominated design process
that lacked diversity. The original idea was to create a fun and non-intrusive helper for the Office interface, yet Clippy and his fellow digital helpers turned out to be especially unpopular among women
. In an interview with the New Yorker
, former Microsoft executive Roz Ho
recalled: “Most of the women thought the characters were too male and that they were leering
3. Seek and listen to your real customers’ feedback
from these focus groups were not
taken seriously in the product development phase. It seems that the male-dominated engineering team couldn’t understand why the female reviewers thought the characters were leering or male-looking. Ultimately, 10 out of 12 assistants that were shipped with Clippy were male characters. According to Sinofsky’s interview, even Bill Gates made fun of the assistant’s annoying nature when he first heard of the idea, suggesting he’d want to kill “the clown”
. Furthermore, Sinofsky also revealed that many reviewers in the focus groups were tech enthusiasts and did not include “regular folks” who represent a larger proportion of Office users.
4. Avoid being too attached to your creation
Along the journey to create an assistant that users could connect with, the creators of Clippy became emotionally attached
to their own product. Unwilling to accept feedback, “they were willing to throw out the focus-group-provided data
” because it defied their expectations. James Fallows
also softly hinted that Clippy was a holdover
from an unsuccessful Microsoft Bob
project, which Melinda Gates
led. It might not have been a decisive factor, but it may be why employees were hesitant to offer their sincere opinions about poor Clippy.
5. Be aware of the adjacent possible
Finally, in our estimation, the Clippy product was outside the adjacent possible
and way ahead of its time. According to Sinofsky, the Clippy project emanated from studies on social interaction and intent classification with Bayes theorem and NLP. But he also revealed another critical problem that doomed Clippy from the beginning: when Clippy was launched, contemporary computers had only 2MB of RAM, 20MB of harddrive space, and a VGA screen that could fit only two paragraphs of Microsoft Word. Melinda Gates also acknowledged that Bob needed a more powerful computer
. But, at that time, the gigabyte was not a given and GPUs were nonexistent. For any intelligent virtual assistant today, these engineering constraints are like digital starvation.