Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Personable Computer

We call them Personal Computers. But why can't they be Personable?

The other day I was typing an e-mail. I thought I had on-the-fly spell checking enabled. Then I typed the word "triennial" and didn't see the red squiggly underline. I wondered, "Did I really spell that right?" and "Is spell check really turned on?" I decided to run the spell check manually. And it ran, finishing with a disappointing absence of fanfare over my correctly spelled word.

Why couldn't it respond, "Hey, great job at spelling triennial, big guy"? I am an engineer, after all, so I'm supposedly disposed toward bad spelling.

How should that response have worked, exactly, without actually being annoying? Certainly a focus-stealing pop-up would've been downright annoying. And a little checkmark after the word might not have been effusive1 enough. Perhaps a message in the status bar would've afforded the best trade-off between noticeability2 and interference.

The reason computers don't provide this kind of feedback is because of how intensely users loathed Clippy, the default Microsoft Office 97 help mascot. Clippy was best known for saying, "It looks like you're typing a letter. Would you like some help with that?"3 Of course users loathed that. We know how to type a freaking letter. We don't appreciate being patronized by something with half the intelligence of an earthworm. Whoever designed that hadn't ever held a door open for a feminist.

But if Clippy had offered praise instead of assistance (or perhaps in addition to assistance), he/it might've been accepted or at least tolerated. And it would've been better if it weren't so dorky looking.

I'm sure we'll see a return of something like Clippy, albeit well-disguised. It's just too tempting a feature to ignore for long.

1I spelled this correctly the first time, too!

2But alas, I did not spell this correctly the first time.

3And there are wonderful parodies4 of this too, such as, "It looks like you're typing a suicide note. Would you like some help with that? Okay, first tell me, how do you plan to kill yourself? Choose one: Gunshot to the Head; Slash Wrists; Overdose; Jump Off Tall Building or Bridge; Step In front of a Moving Train, Truck or Automobile. Great! Thanks! Next, tell me the reason why you're killing yourself: No One Understands Me; My Lover Left Me; I'm Broke; I Can't Stand This Asinine Clippy... And so on.

4See, for example, One Egg Shy's Clippy's Guide to Suicide Notes, or his Clippy’s Guide to Ransom Notes.

No comments: