11th October 2017

Is your business ready for chatbots?

Andrew Larking
Creative Director

If you are thinking about, in the process of, or instigating a digital transformation strategy it is very likely that you’ve heard about and been sold the dream of chatbots, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Automated agents who can speak to your customers, handle complaints, replace terrible forms, and maybe reduce the cost of running a call centre.

The reality is that while this technology is fascinating, it isn’t ready for many business needs.

Here are the ten main points to understand before you jump in:

1. The technology isn’t drag and drop.

The tech available from Microsoft, IBM, and Facebook makes building simple chatbots fairly easy. But the technology does nothing to help you design your bot, nor does it do anything to help you integrate into your existing business systems. Chatbots today resemble the first release of WordPress; a one click install to something fairly terrible. Making a chatbot unique to you is a lot of hard work, requires new thinking, and takes times.

2. Quick is possible, but not preferable.

Can you create a bot in 5 minutes? Yes. Will it be any good? No. 

Great things take time. As a rule of thumb, for a simple and ultimately linear story-led experience I would allow 6-8 weeks of pure narrative design time to reach your first milestone: a bot that is ready to test but can’t be considered finished.

3. You need to define your bot’s purpose.

In the same way that you strictly define the type of site you are building before you design it, you must decide your bot’s singular purpose before you do anything else.

Write it down and use it as your guide for every decision you make. Conversations naturally meander, and the possibilities afforded by this technology are boundless. You absolutely will get carried away unless you stick to a clear brief.

4. Personality is crucial.

Could you be friends with someone who has no opinions or feelings about anything? Your conversations would be pretty dull. The interest comes from having something to agree with or challenge – the other person needs to have a personality.

Bots are no different. Without a personality it will feel unnatural or disinterested, and will fail to engage people. Does this mean your bot will make friends of some while pushing others away? Yes.

5. Your brand needs to be ready.

If you have a weakly defined brand personality your bot will be bland, or worse: all over the place. The design team will tell you if your brand is not ready – listen to them. You may need to do the work to strengthen your brand first, but the good news is this will benefit your business in far more ways than simply helping you build an engaging bot.

6. Don't try to be too clever.

The technology is amazing but it's not on a par with humans yet. Keep the concept simple, release early, and build on it gradually. Chatbots get better with data so at some point you'll need to gather some. Your early bot will make mistakes, so accept this and plan for when they happen.

7. Be honest about what your bot is.

In the same way that a nervous public speaker can build empathy by admitting to their nervousness, a bot can gain empathy by explaining its limitations. By asking the user for help to improve, your bot may be able to turn skeptics into advocates who will forgive any peculiar answers more readily.

Whatever you do don't repeat Microsoft’s mistakes of fanfare, over-promotion, and ultimately failure.

8. Consider privacy and data protection.

Make sure you understand the privacy and data handling implications before you start. If you can't send data to Microsoft for Natural Language Processing for example, you’ll need to scale your bot concept back.

9. Talk to the people your bot will augment or replace.

They know about the types of conversations they have and the moods of the people they speak to better than anyone. Listen to them doing their jobs. And if you can’t find people who handle these conversations already, question what you’re doing and whether it’s actually needed.

10. Question whether your chatbot needs a gender.

I would say to be honest to the medium and people will respect it. Software doesn’t have a sex or place of birth and so while it may feel natural to decide that your bot should have a gender, ethnicity or any other defining but essentially human characteristic, you are potentially entering precarious territory.

Looking to launch a chatbot project? Watch the recording of our webinar Conversational interfaces: A guide to connecting with your customers for pointers on how to get started.