“Hi, Alexa. What’s the weather?”
Talking to Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant via the Echo or Dot can be addictive. And it’s popular: These items sold out during the holidays. Their success with everyday consumers gives weight to what the tech world is saying: Chatbots are the new apps.
Researchers have long been fascinated by the problem of creating machine intelligence that could interact in a natural way for decades. The Atlantic reported on one of the earliest, ELIZA. ELIZA was modeled after the way bad psychotherapists interact, relying on repeating its interlocutor’s phrases or defaulting to “Why do you say that?”
Interactive bots have come a long way since then, but many of them still rely on the approach of limiting the scope of the human/machine interaction. There are chatbots for finding airfares; getting makeup tips; and Mesa, Arizona, is launching one so its citizens can access government services, according to 21st Century.
Business Insider differentiates between messenger bots and interface bots – and it’s an important distinction. Messenger bots provide functionality that’s similar to an app, without you having to launch an app. For example, you can use a bot to order a pizza, hail a ride or get information from within a messaging service instead of having to launch an app.
On the other hand, interface bots, of which Alexa is a prime example, provide an interface to a wide range of services, applications and companies. Alexa can call you an Uber. As the article points out, if you tell it to call you a taxi, Alexa will still call you an Uber. In other words, interface bots could direct our choices based on partnership or revenue-sharing agreements they have with certain companies.
Chatbots also can simplify the use of enterprise software, according to Nir Eyal in Medium. He writes, “Dashboards today pump out data and expect the user to do the rest.” Instead, he posits that an intelligent bot could point out the most relevant information and ask whether the user wanted to explore it.
Cuffed about Chatbots
Chatbots are at the top of the hype cycle right now, where mobile apps were five years ago. If you’re thinking about creating one, remember that design of the service and interface are more important than the coding.
Not every bot is a hit. According to VentureBeat, too many of them don’t really solve a problem, while others make a process such as ordering takeout more cumbersome instead of reducing friction.
Another VentureBeat article lays out two general guidelines:
- Integrate chatbots into existing applications, letting them pop up at the right moment, rather than asking users to launch a new application.
- Narrow the focus of the chatbot to automating one or two tasks that will save a business time and money.
Your bot will need domain knowledge, that is, a base of information relevant to its tasks, according to World Writable. For example, a pizza-ordering bot must include the different sizes and types of pizza, toppings, and other menu items, while a flight-finder must have access to airline databases.
You’ll also need to design a good user interface. That includes not only usability, but also creating a sense of personality, according to FastCo Design. The idea is to create a character, so some companies have hired comedians or folklorists to write their scripts. A good example is Insomnobot-3000, created by mattress maker Casper so that the sleepless would always have a buddy, according to CNET.
Chat With Me
Will chatbots replace human connections? It’s true that many customer-service interactions with real humans are annoying and/or disappointing. The trend is definitely away from human customer service and toward automation, according to Knowledge@Wharton.
However, there will be times when we’ll need to talk to a real, live human. Gartner says that in 2017, close to a third of all customer-service interactions will still require human intervention. On the other hand, Gartner added that by 2018, 5 percent of customer-service interactions will be directly initiated by internet-connected devices instead of by humans.
Maybe someday, all our machines and services will just talk to each other to solve problems and get things done, leaving us out of the conversation altogether. What would you do with all that extra time?