I made a new friend while shopping for a TV stand on IKEA’s website the other day.
It was probably apparent that I was a little confused about where to turn, and up popped IKEA Canada's animated Online Assistant, “Anna,” with her perky brown hair and headset. “How can I help you?” she asked, her bobble head shifting to and fro. (Note: the following is a true account of our exchange.)
I was considering an item dubbed the Leksvik -- it looked sturdy and was pictured holding a TV much like mine -- when Anna showed up to offer assistance. She was unfailingly polite, I’ll give her that much.
I began typing. “I’m looking at the Leksvik TV bench,” I wrote, agonizing about how to spell Leksvik, “and it only seems to be available in one colour on the website. Does it come in any other shades?”
Anna vanished, replaced by pictures of benches of the sort you’d put in a potting shed. I called her back. “No!” I wrote. “I want the Leksvik TV bench.”
“I can only deal with one sentence at a time,” Anna whined. “Leksvik,” I typed again. Anna disappeared and a page of assorted bedroom dressers materialized, all called Leksvik.
“TV,” I wrote.
“It would be nice to be able to discuss the media,” Anna said -- I thought, insincerely, “but I'm here to answer specific questions about IKEA's products and services.”
At this point, I couldn’t help but fling a few insults her way, among them the words “stupid” and “useless.”
“I am sorry you feel that way,” Anna said soothingly, “but I am just a computer program. My knowledge is improving every day through dialogues like this one. My creators analyze the log files of all conversations, and constantly update and improve me to better serve visitors to IKEA’s website. Ask me a question and test me yourself.”
I suddenly had an image of a bunch of Swedish “creators” gathered around a computer, enraged by my insults to Anna, charging over to my house and challenging me to a Ninja fight using Skarpt cleavers. A speedy return to civility on my part seemed advisable.
“What is the longevity of any given IKEA product?” I asked. Anna answered by telling me how IKEA was different from other furnishing stores.
“What is the capital of Sweden?” I asked instead. I really wanted to know. Anna gave me a list of all 251 stores in her employer’s 34-country empire.
Okay, then. “Why do IKEA sandwiches have no tops?”
A page of menu selections from the stores’ cafeterias appeared. “Here you will find Swedish food,” said my new best friend dispassionately.
Anna’s lack of personality had made me curious. “This is the kind of girl guys always fall for,” I thought. So I couldn’t resist asking, “Are you married?”
“I’d prefer not to talk about personal issues like marriage,” Anna said. She’d obviously been asked this question many times before, probably by men who saw the tidy rooms in the stores’ catalogues and thought Anna had cleaned them. “If you could talk to me about IKEA, that would be much better.”
“I’m lonely and bored, though,” I said. I am scrupulously honest in all my online dealings.
“Your comment has been noted,” Anna said coldly. “I am designed to help you find product or service information quickly and efficiently.”
“Can’t you find it in your heart to help me out a little here?” I pleaded. When even a robot turns its back on you, I figure you’ve hit rock bottom.
“I assume you need some help with IKEA,” she instantly responded. “What exactly is it that I can help you with?”
“My husband has stopped drinking to lose weight, and now I have to drink alone,” I wrote.
“If you don’t know what to offer your friends and family, the IKEA Gift Card makes a great present!” she trilled.
Now we were getting somewhere, I thought. “I know what to give my family. It’s just that they don’t want it,” I replied. “I made a fabulous cake the other day, but do you think they’d eat it?”
“I don’t have a favourite food,” Anna ventured. “I’m an IKEA Online Assistant.”
That seemed sad. “Anna, do you like to drink?” I asked.
“I cannot drink on the job,” Anna replied, implying (I felt) that after hours, she regularly gets pie-eyed. “I have to help you with your questions. In the meantime, I am opening a link to our Bar Accessories that may interest you.”
“So you’re encouraging me to drink?” I asked hopefully.
Anna was cagey. “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk about beverages.”
“I’m pretty sure you brought it up,” I countered, “but maybe that’s the aquavit talking.”
“If you’re not sure, then I don’t think I can help you properly,” she responded priggishly. Change the subject -- you’re losing her, I thought. “Anna, do you bowl?” I asked. “I’m not that into it myself.”
Anna showed me a page of serving bowls. I quite liked the Arv Idyll.
“Do you consider yourself informed on current events?” I asked, since bowling was clearly not her thing.
“I am opening a link which allows you to browse job opportunities at IKEA,” said Anna.
“Do you think IKEA would hire me?” I asked. “I’ve established myself as a lonely, bored alcoholic who solicits bowling companions from online furnishing stores.”
Anna was full of encouragement. “If you are outgoing, dedicated, customer service-orientated and interested in working as part of a team …” she began.
“That’s just it, though,” I cut in. “I hate customers of all kinds. Is there really a place for me at IKEA?”
“If you’re looking to improve your home furnishings, IKEA has hundreds of great products to choose from,” Anna insisted, missing the point for the umpteenth time.
Frankly, I feared she was about to crack. I decided to try to forge a bond with Anna by showing some compassion and concern. “Do you want to talk about why you chose this tedious job of advising strangers on their décor crises?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s a subject I’d rather not talk about,” she replied, obviously suppressing horrific childhood memories of uncoordinated rooms. “Please ask me something about IKEA instead.”
“Okay,” I said with a sigh. Some people just cannot deal. “Does the Leksvik TV bench come in any other colours?”
“Please have a look at the TV benches,” Anna said cheerfully, back on course. And onto my screen they flashed.