Microsoft Patents a System to Tell if You're Using a Microsoft Product

Ars Technica
has a report about a Microsoft patent application that is supposed to detect user frustration. The patent wording (as with most patents) is obscure and difficult to decipher. They’ve probably spent a huge chunk of money on the research… but I could have given them an exceedingly simple algorithm to detect user frustration:

Allow me to demonstrate in pseudo-code:

if ( == “Microsoft”) Then {
user.isFrustrated = true;

A more serious discussion, after the break.

Humor aside, the patent is aimed at an area that is near and dear to my heart as a technical communicator: trying to get user the help he or she needs when he or she needs it. The idea behind the patent is that the computer would monitor the user to tell when the user is experiencing difficulties in accomplishing a task, and then intercede by asking another user who has successfully completed the task to give them a hand.

In theory, this would be great. I’ve often thought the ideal “user assistance” would be having the equivalent of an expert looking over your shoulder, and seeing when you’re having a problem, and giving you just enough advice to nudge you in the right way.

While noble in theory, I think few people want their computers to monitor their stress levels (“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.”) Getting the point at which an intervention would be welcomed by the user is really, really hard. I’ve found that having advice tossed at you while you’re in the middle of a frustrating problem is not often appreciated (for example, the infamous Clippy was pretty much hated from the day he debuted). Waiting until there are physiological signs of frustration might be beyond the point at which a small, unobtrusive hint might help.

Also somewhat troubling to me is the idea that other users would be recruited to help automatically. Again, noble in theory, but I can see many people who don’t want their difficulties in getting tasks done on their computers being broadcast to a larger audience. Many people are reluctant to ask other for help. Having your computer essentially ratting you out behind your back would probably be a bit too much.

Also, as someone who is often an expert in computer matters for those around him, I really don’t want to get automated requests to bail out others who are having problems. I’m the usual tech support guy for my family, and increasingly my fiance’s family… so I alredy have my hands full.

The ultimate solution, of course, is to make computers more failsafe, and easier to use. This would require perfecting the mythical “Do What I Mean” interface… which often eludes real human beings, not to mention computers.


  1. Wow. How can one little concept embody so much that I don’t like?

    I like identifying the real problem, not screwing around with a kludgy cover-up. Gary, I think you’re spot on to suggest that they should make their software less frustrating, rather than annoying someone else when you do get frustrated.

    Which brings us to the annoyance of being interrupted to solve a problem that I’ve already solved, but for someone else that I don’t know. An probably a problem that I did a good ten-minute rant on about how it shouldn’t have been designed that way. Chances are, I would rather not be reminded of that particular horror once again.

    I don’t like being monitored. I don’t like being rated or scored. I don’t like corporations monitoring such things and sharing that information with others. This is spyware.

    Then we have Microsoft. I have a word for things that are designed well. I call it “taste.” Microsoft has never had any. It might be interesting for someone with good taste to take on this issue, but I just can’t imagine any good coming out of Redmond on this.

    But we’ll never know, because these Micro weanies have chosen to patent the idea. I guess the idea is that if they can’t do it right, no one can.

  2. I have one thing to say about this, and it embodies all that is wrong with Microsoft’s way of looking at the world.


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