Desktop Digital Assistants In The '90s Annoyed You For A Reason, And Science Has Figured Out Why

Show of hands, everybody: Who remembers BonziBuddy, the ubiquitous purple gorilla that graced so many of our computer desktops in the '90s? If you do remember BonziBuddy, I'm willing to bet that you had some... uh... strong feelings about him. But although our hatred of desktop digital assistants may have seemed irrational at the time, we did have a reason for it, apparently: New research has figured out why people hate digital assistants, even when their sole purpose is to help us. The bottom line? We don't like feeling like we need help from something with a face.

Take the purple gorilla, for example. BonziBuddy's purpose was to guide us through using the computer — particularly the internet — which makes sense when you consider that home computing was still incredibly new back then. As a kid in the '90s, I learned how to use a computer in school, but my mom had to work her way through the relatively steep learning curve on her own. That's why BonziBuddy was there.

But although I'd like to think BonziBuddy was helpful for my mother, this new study shows he may have caused more irritation than assistance. The study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, explores why people generally hate cute, animated digital assistants, and the results are pretty fascinating. The biggest takeaway? Sometimes these digital assistants are a little too lifelike, and that can feel patronizing for us computer users. And it's not just BonziBuddy; it's all digital assistants. We have such fragile egos, don't we?


Let's take a closer look:

The Study:

Researchers conducted six experiments, including one pilot and five main studies, where several hundred students were asked to play puzzle games on the computer. When participants got stuck, they had the option of clicking on a help icon. The key here is that this help icon was randomized: For some participants, it appeared as a smiling, helpful computer, while for others, it appeared as a faceless computer that simply delivered a hint.

The Results:

Participants enjoyed the activities they performed in the study more when the help was delivered by a faceless computer than by a smiling one. Another interesting discovery? Both help icons delivered the same exact advice, but users who received help from the smiling icon felt less in control during the game. In fact, some participants wondered if the game was rigged: Explained the researchers, "After receiving help from an anthropomorphized (vs. non-anthropomorphized) helper, participants were less likely to feel that the game outcome was determined by their own actions."

The Takeaway:

As Joshua Krisch puts it over at Vocativ, we seem to hate digital assistants for a similar reason we dislike being helped by strangers in public: It's embarrassing. We don't like feeling vulnerable, even when it comes to navigating our own computers. As Krisch points out, this may explain why the digital assistants we have on our smartphones these days are more successful than the desktop buddies of yore — they don't have faces. Apparently we think it's easier to take advice from a disembodied voice than we do from an animated character. Humans are funny creatures, aren't we?