Words by Hello Lamp Post’s Head of Projects – Marcus Stanway-Williams

The year is 2003. In a glass fronted office in Redmond, ‘Windows Vista’ is added to the action items for an internal Microsoft development meeting.

Meanwhile, back in England, my mother has just made a phone call, crashing our dial-up connection, forcing me away from web-based Java games and onto tomorrow’s homework assignment.

The time has come for me to reluctantly fire up Microsoft Office, ready to be populated with lines of Times New Roman, Clip Art and images from Encarta, providing a vital investigation of how water is transported within plants.

It looks like you’re trying to write a letter! – Would you like help?

What was Clippy?

Clippy was the colloquial name of the early Microsoft Assistant, a pre-installed feature automatically activated with Microsoft Office ‘97 and Office 2000. It was designed to make the experience of using Office 2000 just a bit little easier with a human touch, and to progress Microsoft’s vision for a ‘social interface’ in their computing products.

“We are just at the beginning of social interface,” Bill Gates told a crowd at the CES trade show in 1995. “The whole way you interact with the machine will be different, you’ll be able to talk to the machine, and it will use voice recognition, or so-called natural-language processing, to be able to understand what you do.”

Instead of needing to read a manual, or to browse Office’s software help topics, the system would offer help options, allow users to ask questions and could even automatically detect when it might be able to offer guided assistance, with the famous line – ‘It looks like you’re writing a letter – would you like help?’

‘Clippy’ was just the default character which was enabled with MS Office, however Microsoft had several characters to choose from, including a Dog, a Wizard, a Bouncy Ball and even one based on Albert Einstein. Clippy was merely the standout winner of several focus groups which found him to be the most trustful, endearing and engaging of the available characters.

The Office Assistant was the first consumer-facing iteration of what would evolve into ‘Microsoft Agent’, a conversational system which would allow for third party developers to program interactive characters into their own websites and applications, essentially the foundations for Microsoft’s latest virtual assistant – Cortana.

Unlike Cortana, Clippy didn’t use Natural Language Processing, instead its actions were triggered by simpler algorithms, assessing how likely it was a user would need help given how they were navigating MS office. The answers provided were predominantly rule based and formed from templates in the Microsoft knowledge base. Part of the issue which most people will remember with Clippy, instead of solving user problems, Clippy would often pop up unexpectedly, and commonly offer something irrelevant to what you were trying to do. (In my case, no I was not trying to write a letter, I was frantically pulling together my homework).

Here at Hello Lamp Post, we spent the first five months of 2020 as part of the Microsoft AI for Good accelerator, a hands-on programme which gave us access to both engineer and software resources (among many other things) to help us develop our product offering. Despite being forced online due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have been able to successfully deploy an integration with Microsoft’s latest ‘knowledge base’, which has allowed the advancement of both personality and utility within Hello Lamp Post conversations.

This has enabled us to rapidly launch a new product which helps communicate with communities ‘virtually’, when face-to-face engagement isn’t possible. The new product, which is an automated friendly chat channel for people to self-serve related questions, has turned into a huge opportunity for us and solves pain points for our clients, who have been forced into quick behaviour changes. See our work with ‘Hello TpB’ to find out more. Looking ahead, consultations and engagements will need to be a hybrid of physical and online interactions, so then why not make it engaging and try to feel more like a human conversation?

Focus on the human experience

The technology behind Clippy has grown exponentially, through a number of different services Microsoft offers, but what remains the same is the pursuit of a ‘social interface’ which connects people and computers. These interfaces are no different from any other communication platform, and the primary design consideration should be to service the needs of humans rather than to hype up capabilities of AI, NLP or Machine Learning.

When the focus is on augmenting the human experience, it is more important than ever to ensure that at the centre of the interface is the human, not the technology. All those years ago, when I was scrambling to complete my homework, Clippy was annoying, and actually not that helpful. Nonetheless, it was a persona which I could interact with in a friendly and human way. It was the origin of a ‘social interface’ which would come to shape many of the products and applications we still interact with today.

Our ambition for Hello Lamp Post is ultimately to create a platform which allows any citizen, on any street, in any city, to have a two-way conversation with something in the physical realm. It should be both fun, and helpful – for example, if you’re chatting to a post box in Paris, maybe it would ask you if you’ve ever been in love, and you could ask for directions to the nearest florist. With the help of Microsoft’s latest AI products, we’re well on our way to a more advanced ‘Clippy for Cities’ which can help our customers to service their citizens’ needs, and to humanise urban spaces through friendly and meaningful interactions.

To find out more, get in touch with Hello Lamp Post via contact@hlp.city