The Curse of Clippy

The Curse of Clippy

Too many companies still annoy consumers more than they help them.

When Microsoft first added Clippy, the legendarily annoying cartoon paperclip, to Microsoft Office, its designers thought people would love the idea. We already relate to computers much as we relate to people, the theory went, so why not use some entertaining animations to put a friendly face on your word processor?

Of course, things didn’t go to plan. Users quickly came to see Clippy as annoyingly intrusive, not to mention surprisingly hard to shake off. (“You look like you’re writing a letter — would you like help?”) It turned out that people didn’t really want faux-human interactions with over-friendly office supplies — they just wanted their word processor to get out of the way and let them do their work.

Thankfully, Clippy is long gone. Still, his ghost lives on in the ‘bots and pop-ups that tug at our sleeves as we’re navigating the Web. It’s estimated that 80% of U.S. enterprises are now using chatbots in some capacity, but 71% of consumers say they’d rather deal with humans than with bots, and only 3% of consumers say they want their shopping experiences to be more highly automated.

That’s a sign that even now, more than two decades after Microsoft’s misguided “Office Assistant” experiment, too many e-commerce sites are over-enthusiastically “helping” users in ways that come across as annoying and intrusive. The technologies we’re using have grown more sophisticated, but that only makes their shortcomings more egregious. And with the average conversion rate for online retailers standing at a pitiful 1.7%, it’s clear that many ‘bots aren’t delivering real value for either consumers or merchants.

Clearly, we need to do better. So where should we start?

Banish the buzz

The path towards developing e-commerce solutions that genuinely help consumers begins with a single simple step: start talking more honestly about what our technologies actually do.

It almost goes without saying, but AI has become the buzziest of buzzwords — and as such, it’s all but lost any explicative value it once had. So instead of telling everyone that you’ve got an amazing AI-powered, machine-learning enabled widget, try explaining what your new tool actually does to guide consumers along the path to a digital purchase.

You’ll find that when you talk about solutions in clear English, it makes the value you’re delivering far clearer — and banishing buzzwords will also help to focus your own mind on whether you’re really solving problems, or just showing off your new toys.

Tech is for everyone

It’s easy to think about tech as something that only matters to younger shoppers — but when you stop using hip buzzwords, and start focusing on the tangible benefits you’re bringing, it gets much easier to think about delivering value for everyone, whatever their age.

Sure, Millennials have a reputation for being the tech-savvy generation, but even my mom knows how to use Uber and Amazon. That’s because truly transformative consumer tools transcend the technology that’s used to deliver them, and certainly transcend generation gaps.

The bottom line is that while young people might love technology, everyone loves convenience.  When you structure consumer solutions around creating convenience, rather than merely flaunting innovative technologies for their own sake, it becomes much easier to streamline online shopping for all your customers instead of just the tech-savvy few.

Aim for invisibility

By banishing buzz and pushing technology into the background, it becomes possible to provide help and guidance to consumers in subtler and more streamlined ways. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of the leaps we’ve made in AI since the Clippy era is that we’re now far better equipped to create tools that can provide frictionless assistance.

Instead of having animated stationery leap out of a corner of the screen at the slightest provocation, we can analyze the ways that individual consumers are interacting with our websites. Then we can use those insights to gently guide them to success, anticipating their needs and providing the information they need in ways that reduces effort and saves them time.

The key is to offer help in ways that are neither obtrusive nor obnoxious. Instead of forcing consumers to interact with digital “helpers,” try subtly surfacing tailored content in response to a consumer’s individual needs. You’ll know you’ve truly succeeded when your customer doesn’t even notice they’ve been helped — they just feel like they’ve had an intuitively straightforward and problem-free online experience.

Breaking the curse

It’s easy to poke fun at Clippy, but this is a serious issue for modern e-commerce companies. When only 1.7% of online shoppers wind up making a purchase, and around 70% of shopping carts wind up getting abandoned, it’s clear that we’re doing something wrong.

The truth is that while the e-commerce sector is flourishing, individual online shopping experiences still leave a great deal to be desired. Consumers like the idea of shopping online, but many still lament the loss of the in-person shopping experience, and long for easier and more intuitive ways of making purchases.

We need to do better — and the way to do that isn’t by forcing automated assistance down people’s throats. As Clippy showed, that only leaves people feeling frustrated. Instead, we need to get better and smarter, and start leveraging the full power of AI to guide consumers while simultaneously getting out of their way. If we can do that, we’ll have taken a big step toward creating genuinely effortless and hassle-free shopping experiences — and toward realizing the full potential of digital commerce.

Nikhil Govindaraj is the SVP Products at goMoxie, responsible for product management. He has more than 20 years of experience in CRM, CX and e-commerce.