Ever dreamt of having minions at your beck and call waiting, anticipating and responding to your every whim, fulfilling your every wish? Robots have always captured the imagination of humans. The first robot that I can remember from my childhood is Irona, the domestic help in the Riche Rich comics. Humanity’s collective infatuation with robots continue with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, the Bicentennial Man, Wall- E, Sonny in I Robot, and more recently, the witty Tars in Interstellar.
Our fascination with artificial intelligence has led humanity to a point where fiction is starting to meet fact. Different kinds of ‘bots’ have dotted the industry ever since the industrial revolution. Industrial bots are not new to the manufacturing, high tech and oil and gas industries. The landscape of consumer-oriented applications using artificial intelligence backed by the evolution in human-machine interaction is vast and diverse too. Driverless cars, unassisted service for consumer durables, assisted living in the healthcare industry, wealth advisory and basic front-office services are a few examples of where we notice bots beginning to touch the lives of consumers.
I would like to focus on a small segment of bots demanding our attention lately – chatbots. Their explosive growth is being made possible by conversational platforms. These platforms now enable chatbots to engage humans through the ubiquitous messaging applications. You can add chatbots to your chat window on Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram or Slack, just the way you would add your friends. These online helpers have seemingly endless uses – you can have them remind you of birthdays, help you send flowers, pay your bills, check your bank balance, manage your appointments, book your cab, check in to flights or even order pizzas.
The decline of the app economy
Chatbots are stepping into the spotlight where apps once stole the show. The app economy ensures that brands stay close to their consumers, helping them research, buy, sell and share their experiences while on the move. Apps allowed businesses to drive precision offers and campaigns that were optimized for the consumer’s preferences, context and geolocation. While the app economy continues to grow, it is now beginning to slow down. According to IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Applications Forecast 2016-2020, the number of app installs would see a 6.6% year-over-year growth between 2015 and 2020. The compound annual growth rate of direct, non-advertising revenue would grow by 10.6% over the same period.
The slowdown seems natural when you put yourself in the shoes of a consumer: they are increasingly becoming weary of downloading numerous apps on their smartphones, as they make the phones painfully slow. Navigating between apps is cumbersome. Alerts from overzealous marketers are annoying. Brands are finding it challenging to cut through the app clutter to get noticed and even more so in gaining adoption.
The rise of chatbots and the new brand experience
When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in a USD $22B deal in 2014, industry watchers understood the reach it gave Facebook – over 500 million users growing at a rate of 1 million users in a day! WhatsApp is an integral part of many users’ lives. Talking to family, friends and colleagues around the globe has never been easier. What remained a mystery, though, was how this free (or almost free) service could be monetised.
In April 2016, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the Facebook platform for building chatbots at a conference in San Francisco. Early movers like CNN, the Wall Street Journal and 1-800-Flowers were quick to unveil their own chatbots using this platform.
According to Ted Livingston, the founder of Kik, the real beauty of chatbots does not lie in the AI but in the simplicity of interaction. Experts now predict that chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers and chatbots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new internet. Some industry leaders who have made forays in with conversational platforms include Amazon, Telegram, Apple and Microsoft.
If apps simplified user interaction and task flows in comparison with websites, chatbots are miles ahead of apps in simplification of user interactions. Conversational platforms from the digital front runners make it simple to build chatbots. The chatbots make user experience beautifully simple, non-intrusive and intuitive to users.
Brands can leverage chatbots in having meaningful one-on-one conversations with consumers through a messaging window. This would be more impactful than mass media advertising, pushing offers through SMS, using mobile app or a navigating web-based user interface. These conversations will offer rich consumer insights to spur innovation and facilitate seamless co-creation of new products.
The interaction evolution
In order to design and build a charming bot conversationalist, most platforms offer APIs which enable a core set of capabilities. Some of them are:
- Natural language recognition, understanding and response
- Ability to search the right datasets and find relevant answers quickly
- Ability to integrate with other enterprise systems to map the user context
- Sensitivity to the user’s emotional state and nuances in communication
Technologists have always been grappling with the challenge of with how to make bots seem more human. Interestingly, marketers (who are known to be more human-centric) have also been struggling with how to make consumer engagement more human!
Before the evolution of machine learning and natural language capabilities, interaction design was confined mostly to the visual and kinaesthetic realm. Conversation patterns were rigid and limited to structured FAQs, the instructive IVRs, the dull filling out of forms or using guided navigation paths. None of the web or app interaction patterns are as satisfyingly intuitive as speaking with a person. The AI-backed conversation platforms have now made this possible!
Where will chatbots go next?
Creativity lies in enabling intelligent, empathetic and simple conversations within a small chat window. This requires a deep understanding of human psychology, user insights, business processes and of course, natural language capability. Chatbots will mature along the dimensions of the three ‘i’s – interaction, insights and integration. To stay ahead of the curve, digital organisations will need to keep up with the accelerating pace of the fourth and most powerful ‘i’, the (human) imagination, which has us besotted with bots!