I won’t order pizza from your chatbot unless…

Skype has bots. So does Facebook Messenger. And Slack. And Kik. And Telegram. And WeChat. And Line. Despite the fact that Google's new Allo doesn't even support third party chatbots yet, VentureBeat is already proclaiming it the most significant chatbot messaging platform ever.

Silicon Valley is betting the farm on chatbots. Apps just aren't cool any more, if you want to be a trendy startup you should build a bot. Preferably with some NLP and Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to keep the investors happy. Does it blockchain? It should probably blockchain.

Here's the thing: conversational UI just isn't a great fit for a lot of interactions. Matthieu Varagnat noted in his article Conversational interfaces — beyond the hype

Many providers of bot frameworks, NLP-as-a-service engines etc… use the example of purchasing a pizza as an example of how conversational interfaces could replace standard interactions. However this is a rather poor example, because it’s typically a case where it would be more cumbersome to type your request instead of clicking on buttons, looking at a list of images, and clicking on the one you want.

The irony is that chatbots are presented as a way of reducing friction for the user. When Kik launched their bot platform founder Ted Livingston wrote

Imagine... instead of spending millions to develop an app, the stadium had spent thousands to develop a simple, text-based bot. I’d sit down and see a similar sticker: “Want a beer? Chat with us!” with a chat code beside it. I’d unlock my phone, open my chat app, and scan the code. Instantly, I’d be chatting with the stadium bot, and it’d ask me how many beers I wanted: “1, 2, 3, or 4.” It’d ask me what type: “Bud, Coors, or Corona.” And then it’d ask me how I wanted to pay: Credit card already on file (**** 0345), or a new card.

This sounds about as fluid as going through interactive voice prompts with my bank. "For payments and transfers, press 3".

Transactional flows are inherently linear, and forcing them through the medium of a chat can easily make you end up making far more taps - and that's assuming you don't make any errors.

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So when does conversational UI get interesting? When you let me invite bots to group conversations. 

When you try to take a linear flow from an app and turn it into a one-to-one chat with a chatbot, you quickly run up against the limitations of the platform. But when you allow multiple people to participate in the chat, you can add a social layer "for free" on top of an existing transaction.

Facebook Messenger won't let you add bots to group chats. Skype will, although bots in group conversations only receive messages addressed to them. Other platforms have different levels of support.

Designer Isil Uzum created a popular video concept for a flight booking bot. Note first how many rich widgets like calendars, autocomplete, buttons and cards he uses to make the chat flow slick, and get away from the order-a-pizza fallacy. At this point, this is already far from the "simple text-based bot" described by Kik.

I'd argue where the demo gets much more interesting is when "Kathy" and "John" discuss the flight search results inline with the chat, and then split the payment between them. Try doing that with most flight apps.

If I have a chat with a group of friends, and we want to order an Uber, we might currently ask, "who's going to order the Uber?", then one person in the group will switch to the Uber app and book it. Replacing that interaction with a chatbot or Siri doesn't make things much faster. But if that person can stay in the chat app and message Uber instead, and we the whole group receives the notifications about when the Uber is arriving, now you've genuinely saved me some time and keystrokes.

Is this more technically complex? Yes. Are there more complex privacy and payment scenarios to figure out? Yes. Will it require much more thought and expense than a "simple text bot"? Yes. But the payoff is much more obvious than for single-user chat.

So, when you're thinking about chatbots, try to think group-chat first. What are some interactions a customer has with your current website or app, where they'd find it useful to consult with a friend?  This might not replace your app, but it could augment it. See AirBnb's recent iMessage app, which focuses on friends discussing and voting on different options.

It's not a chatbot as we know it, but it feels far more chat-native than yet another PizzaBot.

 


At ReignDesign we're building apps and chatbots for startups and brands like Porsche, Nike and Sesame Street. Get in touch to find out more about how we can help your company.

Matt Mayer

Matt Mayer is a founder at ReignDesign. Matt is from the UK and was based in Shanghai for ten years. He is now living in Bangkok, Thailand.

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