Why conversational interfaces are here to stay and how to plan for your chatbot

Ronald Ashri

Feb 27 2017

Using a phone

There is a lot of interesting news and inevitably hype around conversational interfaces or chatbots these days. They are being hailed as the next big revolution for how people engage with organisations online and what will drive the next wave of digital commerce. Interest over 2016 has skyrocketed.

chatbot google trends graph

With anything this hyped there is always a slight sense of trepidation. Are chatbots just a fad destined to fade away or are we witnessing a real change in how digital engagement happens? In this post we explain what conversational interfaces are, why they are here to stay, why they should form part of your digital strategy and what questions you should be asking yourself in considering incorporating them.

We are conversational beings

Is there anything more natural to humans than a conversation as a way to communicate?

We converse before we navigate websites or interact with apps. We intrinsically know how to handle this interface. Any other interface we have to learn in an explicit way and we cannot trust it will remain the same (different applications put buttons in different places, icons are different, etc). Conversations, however, remain simple. Question, reply, response, repeat. From a human perspective conversational interfaces as a way forward are a no-brainer. It’s what we do all the time.

Conversational Interfaces

chatbot google trends graph

Conversational interfaces are digital interfaces where the main mode of interaction is a conversation – a repeating pattern of reply/response. It can be an entirely written exchange (eg within Facebook Messenger or via SMS); voice-based (eg with the Amazon Alexa service) or a hybrid (eg Siri or Cortana where we use voice but receive replies in a combination of voice and text). Conversational interfaces can also provide rich replies that mix text with media, or simplify the conversation by giving as a set of options to choose the reply from.

chatbot google trends graph

Such interfaces have been around for a very long time. Early adventure games were just that. They described a situation and invited us to type 'Go west or Kill dragon'. Even the command line interface where you type something and the computer posts a reply back is a form of conversational interface. Nevertheless, graphical interfaces eventually won because old conversational interfaces were too clunky and too hard to learn. A terminal command like 'cd ~/dev; ls -a' to navigate to a directory and list its contents is not something most people enjoy writing. Graphical interfaces are more immediate as they expose their state to us. They show us what apps are active or what folders are open or where a file is. Then we have to do all the rest of the work. In many ways, graphical interfaces actually avoid interacting with us. We manipulate them, they change and we need to figure out what is going on or what would be a sensible next course of action.

A conversational interface, however, that is able to have rich interactions and understand what we say using everyday language remains a game-changer. Indeed, a key measure of success is that we should never have to learn anything. If there is ever a training course in 'How to use a chatbot' we have failed. We might as well go back to standard GUIs.

The challenge is that we are the undisputed experts in dialogue. We get the intricacies of banter, irony, indirection, context and so much more. If we are using a conversational interface, we expect it to somehow match some of our expectations. For conversational interfaces to be interesting, they need to be able to guide us through choices in a natural way, derive as much meaning as they need to help us achieve our goals and be ubiquitous and always available, so that they become a real tool as opposed to a special service we have to sit at a desk to access.

The machines are catching up

Advances in a number of different areas mean that we are now able to build chatbots that can meet our very demanding requirements (in limited and well-defined contexts). There are four drivers that will make conversational interfaces an inevitability rather than a novelty.

  1. Mobile devices, IoT devices and ubiquitous connectivity – smartphones and a whole host of other hardware are everywhere, always connected and with enough bandwidth to support rich communication. The easiest way to interact with a small intelligent device that you might not even be able to see is to talk to it. Inputting text or talking to our phone is again natural and often the most immediate way to get something done. If you are driving the best way to get your car to order that pizza is to speak to it.
  2. Cloud-based AI-powered applications are able to receive input, process it and provide an impressively accurate understanding of what the user typed or said, as well as generate a response at a speed that feels natural to the user. While challenges remain with technologies such as NLP they are advanced enough to create opportunities today.
  3. Global social networking platforms resolve the identification and trust issue, allowing users and companies to easily connect.
  4. Messaging environments are becoming the dominant environment in which we spend time as we communicate with friends and family. Platforms like Facebook Messenger is where users are and this is where we should be trying to engage with them.

These fundamentals are not going to change and as such conversational interfaces and chatbots are here to stay.

The potential is there (if technology exploited correctly)

There are risks, however, in how we take advantage of this technology. Jump on the bandwagon too hastily and without enough thought and you may be left wondering what the fuss was all about. You risk disappointing your users as their expectations are not being met.

Conversational interfaces need to be approached with enthusiasm but also method. The right strategy and the right design is required so that users are delighted and excited to interact with a brand as opposed to underwhelmed and disappointed. Ultimately, this means approaching conversational interfaces as you would approach any challenging digital project. You need to ask yourself questions such as:

  1. Why you are doing it and how does it fit in with your wider vision and strategy?
  2. How does it fit with your overall engagement strategy? For example, how will it affect other efforts on social media?
  3. How will it be supported and maintained over time?
  4. What does it mean in terms of underlying tools and process for how you produce content overall?
  5. What are your success metrics?

The potential of conversational interfaces is immense. It can allow organisations to connect to users in the most direct way possible. In order to realise that potential, however, the approach has to be laser-focused. After all, a chatbot is the most literal digital personification of your presence and brand - in a much more direct way than a website or a brochure. Everything is stripped away and all that remains is a conversation.

Find out more about our chatbot build services or read our guide to Making Artificial Intelligence work for you.

Ronald Ashri

About the author

Ronald Ashri

Technical Strategy Director