Thank you, FAQ chatbot, but if I want your help I'll ask for it

It’s FAQing annoying to tell the truth

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Do you need help?

Oh dear, is this what it has come to? I skipped past my youth, trudged through middle age, and now I'm evidently wheezing into my autumnal years. The website knows it and is offering to walk me safely across the information superhighway.

All I did was land on the web page after following an organic search. There seemed to be a lot of overblown and barely relevant blah at the top of the home page – in common with 99.9 per cent of commercial websites, I should add – so I began scrolling my way downwards to find out what the bloody hell the page was about. Almost immediately, a panel popped up at the lower right corner of my browser window. Inside was a message, apparently just for me:

Do you need help?

Give me a chance, I've only just arrived on the site. I'm not so old that I can't scroll downwards without assistance, young snotty. I scroll down unaided – ever scrolling, scrolling. Scrolling past huge images of brightly lit faces, scrolling past buzzing city streets, scrolling through pictures of besuited men and women pointing at things affixed to office walls, and scenes of business meetings at which – defying all laws of logic and reality – everyone is smiling.

Do you need help? [it asks for the third time]

I have now hit the bottom of the home page and, like Bono, can't find what I'm looking for. Mind you, about a third of my browser window seems to be obscured by a stupid fucking pop-up panel asking me if I need help. I click the collapse button to make the panel go away and try scrolling through again. Two seconds later, it is back.

It looks like you need help. Do you need help?

Oh great, Clippy is on a comeback tour.

For the benefit of younger readers, Clippy was an "intelligent" assistant in Microsoft Office at the turn of the century. You'd create an A4 document in Word, paste an address in at the top, insert the date, start typing "Dear sir," and a cartoon goggle-eyed paperclip would jump on screen with a big yellow speech bubble reading:

It looks like you are knitting a pair of socks. Would you like help?
• Get help with sexing goldfish
• Just knit the socks without help

At least Clippy could be curiously surreal as well as annoying. I suspect I am currently dealing with Clippy's terser, blander, and stupider nephew, the one who always had a runny nose, a sick note to get him out of PE, and a police escort home from school. And now the 'ickle rugrat is all growd up!

It looks like you need help. Type your question in the space below.

OK, I'll bite. I type:

How can I stop this help message from appearing?

Barely a millisecond after I hit the Return key, it replies:

Here are some suggested answers based on your question. Click one of the following…
• Get help with accessibility features of this site
• Get help with mental health
• Get help with sexing goldfish
…or type NONE OF THESE for more options.

NONE OF THESE.

Redirecting you to one of our customer assistants. Please type in your name in the space below and wait a few moments.

And I do. For more moments than expected. A self-refreshing countdown lets me know where I am in the queue to chat with a real person. According to the countdown, I am fifth in the queue, then fourth, then third… then back up to eighth, then fifth again, then ninth, then second, then eleventh… and so it goes on randomly for the next five minutes. Until…

Hello Mrs Alistair. My name is Brian and I am here to help. What can I do for you today?

Hello Brian. "Alistair" is my first name and I identify as male.

I await a response. None is forthcoming. So I continue.

I would like to book an appointment.

Still nothing. Maybe Brian is fielding questions from other baffled customers whom Clippy's nephew let through.

Do you have a phone number I can call instead? I hate chatting over the internet like this.

Suddenly Brian bursts back into life.

Please accept my apologies, Alistair. So do I!

Er, OK. I can't see where to book my appointment on your website.

You can book your appointment on our website.

Really? What kind of brain came up with this website design?

We do not have one, sorry. But I can deal with your request now if you like.

Good. Where are you located exactly?

Go to the top and it's on the right.

Oh, and the appointment is for my wife but she is offline at the moment. Is that possible?

Yes. Really.

Good. Can you send me the confirmation email?

Barnsley.

Ah… I think our conversation is out of sync.

Yes, it is.

Right. As I said, I'm booking this for my wife. She needs cheering up, you see.

I can do that for you.

What? I'm not sure about this.

My end appears to be in good order.

Excuse me, Brian, but your special services will not be required, thank you very much.

In that case, you will need to print out two copies of the confirmation email.

And my wife? That'll cheer her up, will it?

It's OK. Just give her one.

Fair enough, it's worth a try, I suppose.

OK, Alistair. In that case, I will not book the appointment and I wish you a good evening. Please click on the Feedback button underneath and tell us how we did.

Damn right, I will.

I click on "End Chat" just as I notice a notification reading "Brian is typing…" and see a truncated message:

What about your w

But it's too late, I've cut the conversation dead. Bloody cheek, I'll give them effing feedback. Now where's that Feedback button? It was here a moment ago and now I can't see it anywhere. Maybe if I scroll down a bit. Er, no, maybe up a bit? Dammit, where is that bast…

It looks like you need help. Do you need help? ®

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He wonders if he might have more luck sending a request by post but is afraid that Clippy might make an appearance while he types the letter. He needs help. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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