I just came back from New York where I spent the last week attending several Internet Week events as part of my self-imposed duties as a Webby Awards judge. The highlight of my week was without a doubt B2Bots, a panel of chatbot makers hosted by digital agency Gyro that explored the possibilities enabled by bots in the messaging space. The nine-hour drive from Montreal was definitely worth it as I got a chance to learn from and mingle with a few formidable people who are laying the foundations for this new exciting space.
As a new bot aficionado and former advertising copywriter recently turned conversation designer, these serendipitous meetings and encounters were not only insightful but also game-changing.
AI meets UI
You’ve probably read grandiloquent headlines on TechCrunch, The Economist or Wired recently claiming that bots are the new apps. Although it’s still hard to evaluate the full magnitude of the second smartphone revolution that’s underway, there’s definitely a huge gold rush in the chatbot space right now. Truth be told, I’m guilty of drinking the Kool-Aid and getting high on my own supply. Still, once you scratch the surface, you realize that the hype is real and built on substance. I strongly believe that the chatbot craze we’re witnessing right now is only the tip of the iceberg of a profound paradigm shift happening in both technology (AI) and design (UI) simultaneously.
This transformation is not only exciting for copywriters (whose popularity is restored), but for users and brands alike since it’s opening doors to engage on a whole new level.
Chatbots are not a new concept per se, but the stars are finally aligning for conversational software to become the prevailing customer service agents they’re destined to be. All the market forces seem to be driving the tech world in the same direction. The rise of artificial intelligence, the openness of leading multimillionaire messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and Kik, and the changing consumer behaviour of the mobile generation all add fuel to the frenzy.
In their simplest conceptual form, chatbots are connectors. Or to paraphrase Rachel Law from Kip, they are “a communication layer that links platforms together”. What is seemingly a non-innovation at first sight (chatbots have been around for decades) is actually a game changer, and we’ve yet to understand the full consequences. The beauty of chatbots resides in the fact that this thin communication layer magically binds together the most valuable parts of our daily Web experience and makes it accessible anywhere, anytime, on our preferred platform(s) of communications.
Are bots truly better than apps?
Despite the unprecedented hype, it’s important to acknowledge our current capacity as an industry. Chatbots are still finite in their capabilities. They actually work best when their purpose and utility are laser focused, or when they work hand in hand with human agents ready to take over more complex situations. Open-ended bots have been, for the most part, disappointing thus far. That’s why it’s important to see chatbots for what they currently are: powerful new tools that can help you achieve focused, repetitive, and predictable tasks.
Notwithstanding their current limitations, chatbots undoubtedly represent a tremendous opportunity for 21st century brands looking to engage one-on-one with their customers and service them on a whole new level.
Drawing from the insights of B2Bots panelists and our personal experience at Heyday, here’s a quick list of advantages that bots have over apps.
1. Bots are customer-centric and universally accessible
Chatbots can be used effortlessly and provide a seamless user experience. They get rid of all potential frictions that can hinder user adoption. Dennis Mortensen, CEO of x.ai, a virtual assistant that schedules meetings, summarized it best at the B2Bots event:
“With apps, the entire responsibility and burden are on users: they must download and install the app, sign up, figure out the new interface and functionalities, etc., whereas with chatbots all they have to do is start a conversation.”
The experience is built entirely around customers’ existing behaviours. No download required. No tutorial or walkthrough. The onboarding is therefore instantaneous and almost frictionless.
2. They provide a wealth of feedback and engagement opportunities
Marketers are obsessed with data. Problem is, the data is either too “big” or too broad to be actionable. Engaging with customers in direct conversations represents a winning opportunity for brands to get to know each and every customer on a personal level and gather small, personalized data that can then help the brand design a tailored customer experience over time. Opportunities for deeper storytelling also abound as brands get a direct channel to bring their personality to life.
3. They’re ever-learning & ever-evolving
We live in an ever-evolving world where consumer trends and needs shift faster than most businesses can adapt. Chatbots enable businesses to stay lean — always learning, always improving, always in beta. And the more conversations they have with their customers, the more responsive they can be to their needs and expectations. Plus, it’s much faster to edit a chatbot script than to change the design or coding of an app, so you can iterate as you go.
4. They favour brand integration over interruption
Every day, consumers are saturated with information and bombarded with a plethora of marketing messages. The popularity of ad blockers confirms the growing displeasure and disdain that people feel towards advertisers. It’s not that people hate brands. People only hate brands that interrupt them.
That’s why modern marketers must learn to integrate seamlessly within the context by providing utility and value, rather than interrupting people with a “yell & sell” approach.
Chatbots are tremendous tools that can help marketers transform conversations into conversions. When customers proactively reach out to engage in a dialogue, they’re much more prompt to give you their attention and their money (if the user experience is expertly designed, obviously). In the end, it’s just a matter of creating interactions that feel more timely and more human. Conversational UIs provide the right context to do that and that is their greatest appeal.
From writers to conversation designers
It’s a great time to be alive, especially if you’re a writer. In a world largely dominated by GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces), graphic designers have long been the most sought-after resources and the rockstars of product design. For the most part, writers were relegated to the background. Until recently, great copywriting was, at best, a time-consuming marketing necessity (short form for catchy headlines and long form for content and inbound traffic generation). Or, at worst, an afterthought. It was very rarely put at the center of product design.
As conversation becomes king, this suboptimal tendency may drastically shift. Writers are slowly becoming the new designers. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a manifesto that aims to pit writers against designers or vice-versa. Writers and designer do not have mutually exclusive skill sets. They are, in fact, quite complementary.
Great graphic designers will always be needed. But thanks to the rise of CUIs (Conversational User Interfaces), the very definition of “designer” may simply evolve and expand to become more inclusive. Writers may finally get the seat at the product design table that they deserve — and the overall user experience will be all the better for it.
The best of both worlds
It’s not a matter of choosing designers over writers, or writers over designers. Rather, it’s about taking the best of both worlds and integrating it to benefit the end user. As a matter of fact, the best chatbot interfaces that will emerge will likely incorporate the best of both. Action buttons, image carousels, GIFs, and emojis all have a role to play in making perfectly intuitive UIs. It’s the combination of both visual and conversational styles, rather than choosing one of the other, that will enhance the overall user experience.
We’re entering an exciting new age in product design… one that is profoundly more human, intuitive and useful. At the end of the day, the very purpose of design, in whatever form it takes, goes beyond clever words and pretty images. Great design is about creating value in people’s lives. This is the common denominator that will rally every designer — bot or not.