obsequious computing?

Posted in Technology trends at 1:35 pm by ducky

I just read a preprint of a paper that talks about a feature that gives the user unprompted feedback on the user’s work. This reminded me of Clippy, which people absolutely hated.

Why did people hate Clippy so much? I think it was a status issue. Your computer — which presumably is low-status compared to you — was having the temerity to tell you what to do. We humans have a hard enough time receiving criticism from above us. I believe that criticism from below can infuriate people, especially if there is no way to punish the subordinate for the insubordination.

Larissa Tieden’s research says that people presume that high-status people do good things, and low-status people do bad things.

Thus, I think it would be good to design software that is not just user-friendly, but obsequious. Instead of “Error 39 — bad input”, it should say, “I’m sorry, I’m not smart enough to understand the input that you gave me.” Instead of “You would do better if you do X”, it should say, “Sorry to bother you, but I noticed that you are doing Y. You might find you have better luck if you do X.”

(And if you think people don’t treat computers like they do people, go read The Media Equation. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass’ research is really fascinating.)


  1. knapjack said,

    January 24, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Years ago I read some research about computers in schools (much of which still holds true) that, in general, students who tend to complete their work ahead of time tend to get rewarded with exploratory time with computers. Contrast this with students who need remediation that often get assigned time with drill-and-kill curricular applications. The long-term trend is that “smart” kids learn to tell the computer what to do and “dumb” kids learn that the computer tells them what to do.

  2. ducky said,

    January 24, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    WOW. That’s a really interesting lens to look at it through.

    I have heard bits and pieces here and there that seem to indicate that boys and girls have different ideas about computers: that boys are interested in control/dominance and girls are interested in communication/peer-relationships. Most CS classes are about games (dominance) and not about the communication aspects of computing.