Clippit, the infamous Microsoft Office assistant, lived like a firework, or perhaps like a low-flying helicopter: bright, in-your-face, a streak across the sky, and unbelievably annoying.
He (and he is the right pronoun for this particular mindless bundle of code, but more on that in a moment) was introduced in November 1996. He was refined three years later, in Microsoft Office 2000. He went into retirement two years later, when he was turned off by default. And he finally departed this digital veil in 2007, when Microsoft Office dismissed him all together. Surely somewhere “Clippy,” as most know him, frolics still, winking at odd intervals, randomly interrupting the Prince of Persia to ask if he needs help writing a letter.
Clippy is famous for being one of the worst user interfaces ever deployed to the mass public. He stopped users to ask them if they needed help with basic tasks, like writing a letter or making a spreadsheet. As the Microsoft employee Chris Pratley has written, Clippy was “optimized for first use”: amusing the first time you encountered him, and frustrating after that. He was a puppet who only knew one script and kept repeating it, at you, throughout the workday.
He was also the product, I learned this week, of a male-dominated design process. In the new documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, Roz Ho, a vice president at Ericsson, describes the meetings that birthed Clippy. Before working at Ericsson, Ho was an executive at Microsoft. (In the mid-2000s, she led the company’s Mac Business Unit there, and she is one of the few women to speak at an Apple keynote.)
“We did a bunch of focus-group testing” on Clippy and the other Microsoft Office assistants, Ho says, “and the results came back kind of negative.”
Most of the women thought the characters were too male and that they were leering at them. So we’re sitting in a conference room. There’s me and, I think, like, 11 or 12 guys, and we’re going through the results, and they said, ‘I don’t see it. I just don’t know what they’re talking about.’ And I said, ‘Guys, guys, look, I’m a woman, and I’m going to tell you, these animated characters are male-looking.’
Ho continues, saying that the engineers in the room were willing to throw out the focus-group-provided data—data which they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for—because it didn’t cohere to their expectations. The software shipped with 10 male assistants and two female assistants, she adds.
It turned out to be one of the most unpopular features ever introduced—especially among female users.
This isn’t the only case of how design that assumes the prototypical user is male could go awry. For many years, says the documentary, air bags in cars were designed for men, because they were made to the specifications of all-male engineering teams. This meant that air bags could kill or maim female drivers or passengers.
With Clippy, thankfully, the consequences were less grave. The feature was eventually just thrown out. And that’s something, by the way, that a writer for these pages can assert some small responsibility for. In 1999, James Fallows, The Atlantic’s national correspondent, worked at Microsoft for six months as a sort of writer-consultant. “In my spare time, I was inveighing against the maddening feature generally called Clippy,” he has written since.
In the next version of Office to be released, the version that he was working on, Clippy was turned off by default. Soon Clippy was eliminated all together.
As Fallows has written of his contribution to progress: “Somehow I feel a solidarity with the gantry engineers who helped prepare for Yuri Gagarin’s launch. We all were part of something larger that moved humanity ahead.”