With 1.5 billion people projected to be using messaging apps by the end of 2016, the introduction of chatbots seems like a logical development for both brands and users alike. A chatbot (at its most basic), is a system that delivers a service within a chat interface, using a prescribed set of rules for automated interaction. Brand communication isn’t one way, and it hasn’t been for a while – chatbots allow the conversations between brand and user to scale in a way that enhances user experience.
The trend has been snowballing for some time now. Look at the increase in the popularity of digital assistants (think Siri and Viv) and ‘smart learning’ platforms such as IBM’s Watson; we are making huge strides towards truly useful, intelligent machine interactions. Alongside this, Google's push to load web versions of apps within browsers marks a changing user trend to creating a more seamless experience across services.
So, why chatbots, and why now?
Today’s dwindling attention pandemic needed to be met with a new way of encouraging user interaction. With most of us only using 4 or 5 different apps in a day, brands needed a way to bring their services to where the users are. For its two key uses, content delivery and service provision, this new approach has shown encouraging results.
Content delivery: Now-pioneers in their industry, Quartz used the chat interface to deliver news content to users. This allowed the user to curate their own news feed, instead of having to sift through an unpersonalised and noisy content stream – an attractive proposition indeed. Whilst not a 'true' chat system (the user responds to suggestions with a 'yes or no' or similar response), it was an exploratory foray into the use of chat interfaces for things other than ‘chat’. In doing so, they found a new way to deliver content in a way that felt natural for digital natives.
Service provision: Facebook have been leading the charge here, utilising their standalone messenger service to bring brands into chat. Notable integrations come from Uber and AirBnB, booking or checking availabilities upon request, directly within the browser. The usefulness of individual services may be up for debate, but housed together in one platform, the value proposition is infinite.
These app interactions are made to be seamless, aiming to make interactions with a service that little bit easier, particularly when managed by Facebook’s personal concierge service ‘M’. Bringing separate apps into the moments where the need for these services arises is an undeniably logical step; not just innovation for innovation's sake. As such, it won't take long for this to become standard process, as users transition from using these services independently to using their chat systems as a 'base of operations'.
Right now, it seems the value lies in the tactical execution. Our messenger platforms (or 'dark social' spaces) are the last hidden frontier from brands and publishers. A place we feel safe that’s free from the clutter and noise of the outside world; everything in our messenger platforms holds a relative amount of value to us because it's all generated by us.
So as brands start to creep in, do we begin to lose that personal-value connection? It's only valuable if we still feel in full control. If brands overdo it, even just a little, the messenger interface becomes cluttered, and visual real-estate begins to dwindle. The value here has to be drawn from how useful the service is at the key point of requirement.
Our perception of something 'useful' will only be as such until it isn't. Without a sophisticated setup, many chatbots are limited to specific, prescribed interactions. Is a chatbot the best way to provide a service if the user has to learn how to actually interact with it? You must learn to talk to a chatbot, instead of it knowing how to understand you. If there’s anything to learn from Microsoft’s infamous ‘Tay’, it’s that creating a machine that can ‘learn’ and a machine that can ‘think intelligently’ seem to be mutually exclusive.
What's interesting here on a larger scale is how we perceive the actual 'interaction' with these chat services. Our existing (direct) relationship with technology requires us to perform a task that results in a predefined action. That request is automated, and is therefore instantly granted (for example, pressing 'Enter' to send an email). This interaction is one-way, meaning that there is no dependent relationship on the process taking place.
With chatbots, whilst the process is still automated, the services are requested. I'm not saying that chatbots have the capability to decide whether they want to perform a function or not, but it's a fundamental shift in the way we interact with machines.
The vast majority of us will see this process consciously and will know that we are in fact talking to a machine, but if we look at the subconscious interaction, this will break down mental barriers for talking with machines in the future. It brings a slightly more ‘human’ approach to technology, like asking a friend for advice (but now that friend knows everything). Over time it will get less alien to ‘ask’ a machine to do something. Think Alexa, Siri and Cortana. Technology is no longer a button click and prescribed action. It's a relationship.
Kulvin Kailey is a data planner at Hugo & Cat.