How voice and conversational interfaces may spell the end of the website
Why Chatbots Are Disruptive
Everyone is talking about Chatbots at the moment. Big budget promotion means that the likes of Amazon Alexa and Google Home are starting to go mainstream.
Some people are even saying that conversational interfaces powered by bots will replace all apps and websites. Their argument goes like this...
Messaging apps are growing fast. Facebook Messenger for example is used by over 1 billion people every month and it is growing faster than Facebook.
If messaging apps become the #1 way that people communicate, then every business will need a way to engage on these platforms. There are two ways businesses can do this:
- Hire lots and lots of people to work a bit like a call centre, where real people are chatting online 24/7. This will cost of lot of money and 99% of businesses could never do this.
- Use chatbots to do the talking. Bots can respond instantly, have conversations with any number of people simultaneously, and at little incremental cost after the initial implementation. These are true examples of “scaling”.
If messaging apps become the #1 way people communicate, and every business needs a strategy to engage with people on messaging apps, and bots are the only scalable way to do this, then every business will eventually have a bot.
Until now, humans have had to learn how to use computers. We’ve learned to download apps and memorized the commands that power software applications. But the promise of AI is that computing will learn how to understand us. We will no longer reach for a mobile phone and follow a series of prompts for how to accomplish tasks. In this new landscape, computing is ambient, accessible, and everywhere around us. To draw from it, we need a guide—a smart conversationalist who can, in plain written or spoken form, help us navigate this new super-powered existence.
It’s worth considering that language is the most natural interface for humans to work with. We’ve been using it all our life whereas we had to learn how to understand the way that websites are organised, and sometimes it’s still not easy when we use a new site.
Instead of needing to constantly learn visual interfaces, bots will enable us to naturally use language, the first interface we were ever taught.
Chatbots and natural language interfaces are really an extension of our love for search engines. Google has become most people’s home page, and the page from which they explore the entire web. Already people don’t even have to visit a website to see the information from it presented to them by Google. Google remembers previous searches, and adapts current results to your location and what it knows you’re interested in. Google Assistant is basically your personal assistant (chatbot) for exploring the web.
In the future, talking to a bot will be like talking to a real person who has instant access to entire databases of information and can immediately process your thoughts and desires. In effect, all my interactions with a company can be with a single “person” (bot) who remembers all my interests, all my previous orders and interactions with that brand, and is available 24/7.
And so, what is the point of having a website or an app?
At the moment I have hundreds of apps on my phone. And most of them I almost never use.
If I could access all that functionality via a single conversation interface, why wouldn’t I? If I want pizza, I can go to Messenger and say “@dominoes, I want a pizza delivered”, and a conversation will start. If I want to know my projected sales to telco accounts, I can go to Troops and say “@salesforce, show me sales to telco customers this quarter. That’s so much easier than creating a report.
When Talk Is Cheap
Is this just the usual hyperbole when something new comes along? After all, visual interfaces are surely better sometimes.
The idea of a “Tinder you talk to” may seem fashionable but ignores the fact that people actually like using Tinder (although few will admit to it!). Far from being some arduous chore, Tinder is a game. A delightful distraction from engaging with real-life strangers.
Have you ever asked Alexa what films are showing locally? It’s a painful experience as it takes her several minutes to talk through a list!
Do you want to choose an airplane seat via a chatbot?? But wouldn’t you love to say to your microwave, “reheat this vegetable green curry” rather than press twelve different buttons through a dumb interface.
There are certain kinds of app that benefit from a clear and visible information architecture – for example, Spotify and Sonos. It makes sense to be able to navigate through lists in order to find the right playlist when I am in exploration mode. Of course, if I know exactly what I want to hear, I can just ask Alexa to play the early-80s electropop that I love. Or, I could ask Alexa to play based on a genre of my choice.
The Real Sweet Spot For Conversational Apps Is CONVERSATIONS
What chatbots are great for is … conversations. That’s why Dominoes implemented one. Using an app was easier than calling a guy in a pizza delivery shop and having a confusing and misheard conversation.
Ordering a pizza is a conversation full of options and offers. The conversation is useful - we just want that conversation to be with someone faultlessly helpful and intelligible.
My belief is that bots will most likely replace human conversations rather than visual apps. At Chelsea Apps Factory we recently built a conversational app that replaces a conversation with a human nutritionist. It works because a consultation is a conversation, with lots of branching possibilities, and most people don’t have access to a real nutritionist because of the expense. Using a bot allows you to scale nutritional advice cheaply and effectively.
Take another example: recruitment. Most large organisations have a dedicated recruitment function staffed by people earning about £40k. They filter hundreds of CVs down to a couple of dozen that are most appropriate. The repetitiveness of this job makes it feel like a website should have already replaced this job. However, using any of the websites that have tried to replace HR workers shows why companies still use HR employees. First you upload your resume, then you have to type out everything written in your resume into these obtusely organized text fields that are meant to serve every potential employee, from CMO to cleaner.
It is exponentially easier to apply directly through a conversation that can just ask about your experience as it pertains to the job you are applying for. This is exactly what the conversational AI startup Wade & Wendy created.
Instead of sterile, life-draining online forms, their bots ask job seekers to elaborate on specific parts of their job experience to better filter applicants for any given job listing. Since this is the bulk of HR employees’ workload, this can save businesses upwards of 50 percent on their current HR expenses.
X.ai have done a great job of replacing the need to have a PA to organise meetings. They provide a chatbot through email that can talk to all parties, have access to their calendars and find a time that works for all. It works rather well.
Chelsea Apps Factory (CAF) Case Study
Many back office processes are ripe for robotic process automation (RPA). Back office staff often spend lots of time retyping information from one system into another, such as training requests, or travel bookings. When new employees join a firm they have to learn the way their new company operates: what system to use for which task. What about if everything could be done via a conversational interface? Rather than sending an email with a training request, you could use a chatbot within Slack or Microsoft Teams. Using natural language just say what you need and the bot can offer options, note whether this is within your training budget, and update multiple backend systems including HR, finance and diaries all in one go.
This is not as complex as you imagine. Using RPA software, such as Blue Prism, and standard chatbot frameworks, CAF is doing exactly this at the moment, with large cost savings for our clients.
We believe that the most interesting application of bots is within enterprises where they will replace people in certain roles.
Bots can fit so naturally into people’s current workflow that users may not even realize they’re talking with a bot and not a person, much like X.ai was able to do with their call-scheduling bot Amy Ingram. Amy is so good at communicating like a helpful PA that most people don’t even realize that she’s a bot working for £39 a month and not an executive assistant making £50k a year.
Ignoring the current technical shortcomings, bots also offer many advantages over their current human competitors. Namely, they are hardwired to care, which is far more than I can say for the vast majority of customer service conversations I have with people.
A bot doesn’t have a fight with its girlfriend and then vent its frustration on coworkers. A bot isn’t distracted by the nagging feeling that it should have stayed in school to avoid the bleakness of their current job, in the middle of me talking to it. Users have a bot’s full attention, free of all the bias, pettiness, and forgetfulness that plagues conversations with humans.
Furthermore, it is just easier to replace a conversation with a conversational interface. When development teams are stuck with the troublesome task of converting human-to-human interactions to human-to-screen interactions, there’s a lot of guesswork that goes into figuring out what should work. It’s like needing to bike to your friend’s house with a blindfold on — you might have a general idea what the direction is, but you have to crash into a lot of walls on the way.
The Chatbot revolution is here. For some applications conversational interfaces make perfect sense. You can scale the number of customers or employees in conversation cheaply, increase productivity and slash cost, while also improving the quality and consistency of customer service.
However, whilst Chatbots are an infinitely useful addition to both our personal and working lives they are not a universal panacea. In many situations visual interfaces will always be preferable.
The biggest opportunities for Chatbots to add value is in their ability to replace repetitive tasks with conversational interfaces that manage processes more efficiently. Areas such as tech support, onboarding and HR support are obvious places to start.
BUT when considering Chatbots and their ability to add value to your organisation always start with Experience Design.
About The Author: Gerard Frith
A maverick of the digital world, Gerard skates across the boundaries of innovation, leadership, strategy, product and technology to deliver AI-driven change. With a first class degree in AI, Gerard has championed its potential throughout a 20 year career in management consultancy and entrepreneurship.
Gerard is CSO at the UK’s largest privately owned Enterprise mobility business, Chelsea Apps Factory and Chairman of Matter (a service consultancy that helps companies take advantage of the AI opportunity).
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