Chatbots: Who do you think you're talking to?

David Robinson, Senior Strategist

Chatbots: Who do you think you're talking to?

Technology can be a powerful enabler for brands that want to make a difference. Using data, including contextual data, we can deliver smarter and more connected business solutions. At the same time, we can make the way we experience the world more personal and more individual. This is just as true for conversations internally as they are externally. Sometimes though, instead of wanting to stand out, you simply want to fit in.

These past few years we have seen a strong push into new ways for brands to communicate with their customers, with chatbots being one of the top trending topics. But do they really deliver on the promise, and how do they fit into the ever-changing landscape of communication?

It’s been a year since Facebook opened up Messenger, allowing developers to build on top of the platform, and connect with its 1.2 billion users. Currently, there are 100,000 active bots on the platform, and this number is increasing. But it would appear that whilst the majority of users would be happy to engage with a chatbot, more than 75% simply aren’t aware they exist. Another stumbling block is the public’s perception of what a chatbot can do.

Many may have used Siri or Google Assistant on their phones, or a home assistant like Alexa or Google Home. These devices can offer a polished experience, though all can come up short when pushed too hard. When a user expects too much, they will only be disappointed when the tech fails to deliver.

Facebook's own beta assistant, the all-powerful M seems to have hit a stumbling block. In order to fulfil a user’s needs when the conversation gets tough, and the AI routines can’t deliver the goods, it has a cunning fall-back. A human takes over and continues the conversation. The end user isn’t aware they are no longer conversing with a series of algorithms, and so the experience is seamless, but this is clearly not a workable solution in all cases, the staffing commitment would be huge.

A bot also needs focus. Giving the user too much free reign will quickly expose the limitations, and break the illusion of conversation. If you let someone think they can ask you anything, but you consistently don’t know the answer, they will quickly stop asking and disengage. If the experience isn’t enhanced in some way, be it the quality of information, speed, or ease of use, then the user is unlikely to embrace it.

Resultantly many of the chatbots on Facebook aren’t actually chatbots, they play out more like a 90’s point and click adventure game where users are given options to branch pre-scripted conversations. At this point in time, many chatbots are merely simple apps embedded into a chat interface.

That isn’t to say there haven't been success stories, or that the focussed approach isn’t the right solution.

The NHS are currently trailing a chatbot based alternative to the (often derided) 111 service, powered by Babylon Health. Whilst the service effectively replaces the scripted conversations a user would have with a telephone operator, it does so without the user being placed in a queue. This has a positive impact for both the service provider and the user, giving an instant reply at any time, with the user able to pause and continue the conversation at their convenience.

Yesterday I managed to try on various shades of lipstick thanks to the Sephora Virtual Artist. Had I liked any of them I was only a click away from the product page, and placing an order. Whilst their mobile app offers a deeper experience, this was all driven from within Messenger. I didn’t go on to make a purchase (it’s not I couldn’t find the right shade, I just don’t wear lippy) but the whole process was so simple from start to finish and show’s how even a scripted conversation can be engaging when the functionality is focused and simple.

Thington uses a conversational interface to solve a complex problem; setting up and controlling a myriad of so-called smart devices or to use their other name, the Internet of Things. Whilst other platforms offer a similar service, none do so in such a personal way, guiding the user step by step. Not only does the system use chat to configure and setup the devices, it asks the user questions which can lead to optimisations and energy saving as and when it notices trends and patterns in use.

Perhaps most inspiring is Christopher Bot, a simple homework task list wrapped up with a chat interface. It’s a simple yet elegant solution, and like all the best ideas, it came out of a real need. The app is developed by Alex Jones, a 14-year-old Canadian student! 

So, are chatbots really chatbots? Where is the line between chat and search? And when does chat become a conversation?

Right now, the future is uncertain, but there are some valuable lessons to learn when implementing these new interfaces.

  • Keep it simple. Don’t pretend to be cleverer than you are.
  • Guide the user. Use prompts to signpost the user, so they know what the bot can and can’t do.
  • Remain focused. Don’t try and solve too many problems at once, be a master of one. 
  • Let the audience dictate the platform. You might embed a chat interface on your own site or in an existing app, or integrate with an established platform like Messenger.

Through a series of blogs, TheTin is exploring how - through technology - brands are creating personal conversations, more intelligent business and are using tech for good.

Inspired by our visit to SXSW in March, we believe these are the key themes shaping our world in 2017.

As your brand and technology partner, we’ll create unique brand experiences for your customers, working flexibly to deliver technology solutions that are right first time.

We can help build your brand through technology, email [email protected]

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