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Contextual Harassment

May 6, 2011

Remember Clippy? That overly insistent, always in-your-face, never helpful help feature Microsoft introduced with Office 97? When you wanted to create an index, Clippy would pop up and say, “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” and do his darndest to help you write a letter. Or, when you were creating bookmarks and cross-references, Clippy would pop up and say, “It looks like you’re writing a letter.” If you were importing and linking an Excel spreadsheet with a Word document guess who would pop up and offer to help you write a letter… yep, good ol’ Clippy. It seems like the only time he would not offer to help you write a letter was when you were actually trying to write a letter. Well, at least his heart was in the right place – I think.

When does contextual help (help that recognizes a specific point or location in software) become contextual harassment? When it comes to learning, how contextual would you like your resources to be? Since computers can’t read our minds (yet) there is a fine line between how accessible or instantaneous help and/or learning can be before software developers begin guessing what information you may need at any given moment. To many of us Clippy crossed that line and was nothing more than an annoyance.

I personally do not like things popping up uninvited and trying to help, but that’s just me. If I want help, learning or information I will go get it. What is important to me is getting all of the information I want or need, easily, quickly and in a format that allows me to put that information to use instantly. What can I say, I’m impatient.  

I’m interested in hearing from you. Where do you want your learning to live? How would you like it to be served up if differently than how you currently learn? How much more accessible could it be without becoming too intrusive? Let us know your thoughts! Leave your comments here or write us at

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 12:49 am

    As soon as I saw the word “contextual,” I thought of the contextual tabs in the new Office suite. Of course, with our rollout ongoing, I could just have Office 2010 on the brain. With that being said, I think they are a really elegant way of presenting the tools you need when you need them without cluttering up your screen. They aren’t designed for learning, but they certainly assist greatly in the process, because they point you to the tools you need right then and there. They give you focus that sometimes eludes learners. As interfaces get busier and busier, we often are not able to see the tree for the forest of available options.

    Another tool that I like from the Microsoft Office Lab sfolks is the Search Commands ribbon. However, I feel that it may actually impede learning a bit, because it does too much for you. By giving you the buttons right there on the Search Commands ribbon, it takes away some of the learning process, and we all know that exploring is one of the ways we learn best. Heck, I could just sit there on the Search Commands ribbon and type in commands all day, if I wanted. Maybe not too efficient, but you know there are those who would do it. 😉

    That brings me to my favorite Office learning tool, which is Ribbon Hero. The folks at Office Labs outdid themselves with it. This is a perfectly palatable way to present dry material and it plays on so many of our natural tendencies. It’s a game that’s pretty, fun, explorative in nature, and promotes competition with the Facebook linkage. I’m sure anyone who has worked with it has thought, “Just one more challenge and then I’ll quit.” I know I have.

    So, to sum things up, all of these tools live in the applications themselves. I think that is one key component. The other is that they be readily accessible without being obtrusive. All of these tools are there when I need them, but not in a harassing manner like old Clippy.

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