The Ballad of Clippy: 4 Failed Attempts at Performance Support

Written by Grovo

Performance support is a simple concept: give people the information they need in order to perform a task, at the moment they need it. The support could be technological, like training that teaches you to use a new digital application, or it could be as simple as street signs that help you navigate while driving. In a world of complex tasks and limitless information, it’s harder to think of times we don’t use performance support than times we do.

But not all performance support is as helpful as GPS directions or IKEA assembly manuals. Occasionally you’ll encounter an instruction that you can tell is trying to help, but really just makes you confused or irritated. This is a failed attempt at performance support. Here are four examples of the best intentions gone annoyingly awry:

Microsoft’s Clippy

clippy-with-textOffice 97’s helpful paper clip was the adorable character you hated to hate. At first he was fun. He leaned waay in towards the screen to say hello and offer help. You turned him down delightedly. “No thanks for now, little guy!” Then he tapped on the screen from the inside, even making the sound of glass knocking. A little intrusive. Then one day he popped up for no reason at all, and you realized he was never going to stop. Suddenly his giant googly eyes became oppressive. He was like a prison guard making the rounds. You felt like he wasn’t there to help… he was there to hunt. Most of all, not once did you ever benefit from Clippy’s ministrations. Clippy was bad performance support because he was bad at predicting what you wanted and he interrupted your workflow instead of living inside it. Worse yet, he was poor design anthropomorphized, making him a natural target for users’ ire. R.I.P. Clippy.

Unintelligible dashboard lights

lampIf you were out driving a seemingly healthy, rattle-free, forward-moving car, what would you do if this light came on? You don’t know hieroglyphics. You’re not going to get the manual out of the glove compartment. You’ll probably do nothing, hoping instead that this is like the tire pressure warning light—always on, never heeded. Such is the trouble with obscure “idiot” lights on cars: they tell you something you don’t understand, with no context, at a moment it’s potentially relevant. The information is necessary, but it’s conveyed in a way that could not be less helpful. (That light, by the way, means your air filter is dirty.)



The recipe on the Campbell’s soup can

Look, can. You’re doing a great job containing all this soup. Why don’t you stick to it. Because frankly, your suggestion that I make a spontaneous casserole instead of what I was planning on doing, which was heating up a can of soup by myself, is not helpful. See, I’m not feeling particularly ambitious today. That’s what brought me to you. Were I in the mood to “serve 7–10,” I probably wouldn’t have started the process now. I wouldn’t have sought inspiration from a soup can. I’d probably be wearing more clothes. Thanks for the effort, but your insane zeal for real cooking has not supported my chosen performance.

Parking signs

Not all road signs are as clear as WRONG WAY or STOP. Some are so complicated, even a few minutes’ considered study still doesn’t guarantee comprehension. I speak, of course, about parking signs. The above totem pole of nonsense was enough to confuse Sir Ian McKellen, who I have personally witnessed escape Saruman and be Magneto. Luckily, a Brooklyn-based designer named Nikki Sylianteng is on a campaign to make no-parking signs immediately simple.

Sylianteng's brilliant redesign

Sylianteng’s brilliant template

Sylianteng’s work highlights the difference between successful and failed performance support. Poor performance support leaves you guessing, irritated, and distracted. Good performance support enables instant competence at what you’re trying to do, even if you’ve never done it before. (Even an out-of-town visitor would be able to understand her parking signs.) The goal is to be so seamless that the learning intervention is barely noticed. Performance support is hard to do, but when done right, it’s what makes our complex world go ‘round.