Clipboard Thoughts

I’ve been too busy with things over the past month to blog much, but I thought I’d make some time to get some (typically) half-formed thoughts down about the clipboard. There are a number of things about the clipboard that I’m interested in, both in terms of HCI, historical influence on things like content management, and various other aspects of this incredibly influential invention (no, really).

My use of computers has always involved the clipboard. I’m not old enough to have done a significant amount of work on machines that didn’t have it in some form (can’t remember if it was there on the Amstrad PCW) but it’s always struck me as intriguing because it’s the only part of most WIMP interfaces that gets heavily used yet doesn’t feed back at all. It’s invisible, and the experience of using it is more like using a CLUI, where commands only feed back when something goes wrong. That’s the first thing I like about it. It’s just there and it works silently (well, with some notable exceptions, more on those later).

When I use the clipboard, a special part of my brain starts working with the system. When I hit CTRL+C I remember not only the fact that there is something in the clipboard, but that it’s relevant to the task I’m performing. Once that task has finished, or my use of the UI moves to something else, my mind marks the clipboard as “stale.” Sometimes I suddenly recall that the thing I’ve currently got in the clipboard will help me. That same part of my mind marks it as “fresh” even if I didn’t predict that it would when I made the clip. This is real “usability verses learnability” territory. But there’s more.

That we owe a huge debt to the clipboard is apparent when you consider that just about all major content management projects depend on it. Despite the marketing mumbo about automating imports from “legacy formats,” at some point in such projects a team of people will sit down with content in one format and copy/paste all or part of it into the format desired by the new CMS. I’ve been involved in too many CMS builds to think this doesn’t happen. That it is usually cheaper to use a team of copy/paste monkeys than to design and test a transformation and load routine means that the practice isn’t going to die out very soon. By that indication alone, the clipboard is probably the single most important piece of software for our information age.

But there are problems. The clipboard would be top of my list of perfect utilities along with drag-and-drop and ALT+TAB. If only it wasn’t for one thing: text formatting inheritance.

Perhaps my acute sensitivity to the utility of the clipboard has made me hyper-sensitive to the abomnible pain in the arse that is text formatting inheritance. Take a common example. I have a Word document in which there is a paragraph I want to copy to a PowerPoint slide I am writing. My Word document’s text is in Arial Bold 12-point. I want to paste it into my PPT, which just happens to be using Futura Light 18-point in the place I want to insert the text. So I copy the text to the clipboard from Word, and paste it in where the cursor is. Only it goes in AS ARIAL BOLD 12-POINT.

Who in their right mind would want this to happen by default? I have yet to find anyone who actually prefers this behaviour. Not only can you not turn this behaviours off in most applications, but there’s not even a keystroke for “paste special” either. As an extra turn of the screw, if you copy from a web browser into Word or another MS app, it’ll attempt to paste it in as some godforsaken HTML table! I find myself then having to seek out “paste special” on the menu bar (no keystroke, remember) or using the formatting clone tool or something. So that’s suddenly about five mouse gestures when it could have been two keystrokes. And it’s not just limited to MS applications either. It happens to varying degrees with others as well.

What have we done to deserve such as carbuncle on the otherwise perfect face of the clipboard? It’s as if somebody (well, Microsoft mostly) have it in for the thing. The difficulty with text formatting inheritance is compounded by the strange and inexplicable existence of the “multiple clipboard” in, of all applications, Outlook (and some others I’ve encountered). You can’t tell me they got that out of user testing: “You know, I’ve often wished I had the ability to put lots of things in my clipboard, but I’m not interested in being able to tell the difference between each clip – just give me an application icon for each. Oh, and when its full, ask me a difficult question about what to do so as to utterly break my concentration. And I don’t want the ability to turn this behaviour off either.”

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll update that Wikipeodia entry later.