Beyond User Interface: The Age of Bots

22 December 2016
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Perhaps you’ve heard of Donut. Donut is a bot, and he (yes — Donut is male), pairs colleagues for coffee chats. He runs through the office chat app Slack, and he’s not in the bot pen alone. Slack, the messaging medium of choice for 3+ million daily users, hosts over 150 chatbots. Virtual robots that function through text commands, they offer everything from personalized health info to restaurant recommendations. Type in “offers for hotel.com,” and the Discount Hero bot will show you room deals. Enter the abbreviation “fins apple” and the investment bot Turbot will pull up Apple’s latest income statement.

Bots have quickly become the darlings of the tech world — and with good reason. They’re driving the future of mobile messaging, search engines, and task completion. That’s no small feat. Beyond Slack, which channeled $80 million in investment money towards bots in December 2015, tech giants and upstarts alike are vying for a seat on the accelerating bot train. There’s M, Facebook Messenger’s beta virtual assistant service; Watson, the IBM artificial intelligence powerhouse; Luis, Microsoft’s automaton; and new bot entrants like Assist, Magic, Operator, and x.ai’s email assistant Amy.

It’s clear that bots are the future. But what’s driving their success?

Interactions Made Easy

Users are demanding simpler human-tech interactions, and they’re not getting this need filled through their mobile apps. Too often, app experiences lead to frustration. Apps freeze, crash, hog storage space on users’ phones, and require regular system updates. Even when an app’s technology is seamless, users might not find its interface intuitive. And before users even open an app, they have to search through the overcrowded app store.

User-bot interactions, on the other hand, are as simple as text messaging. They require no extra storage space because they function inside messaging environments that are users are likely to have already installed. Built through natural language processing, bots allow users to find information and accomplish to-do’s in the most natural way possible: through dialog. Bot popularity is the surest testament to user demand for more intuitive interactions with technology.

Bots have fringe benefits for developers, too. While flaws inside apps might take weeks to emerge, a bot’s success depends on one variable alone: its responsiveness to user commands. A bot’s technical shortcomings might emerge as inaccurate answers to questions or unresponsiveness. It’s obvious when and how a bot underperforms, and with fewer variables at play, bots accelerate the feedback loop.

Is Personality the New User Interface?

If interface is no longer the differentiating factor in virtual experiences, what is? Many would argue it’s personality. Names for robots are nothing new — IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri are early examples of bot personification — but increasingly, developers are encoding their bots with friendly greetings, cheeky jokes, and even comeback lines. Ask Alexa, Amazon’s voice-enabled AI product, whether she has a boyfriend. She’ll crack a one-liner like, “I am attached. To the wall.”

The proliferation of bot personalities reveals an important insight about user experience: that users are driven to interact with technology in the same mode they interact with other humans. After all, we are creatures of communication.

The developer community understands the impetus here. In bot-building tutorials, entire chapters are dedicated to shaping bot personalities. The consensus is that bots should display character traits — up to a certain limit. Bot personality gets especially interesting when companies build or customize chatbots for internal use. In these cases, employers can leverage bots to foster camaraderie among colleagues — not only because bots make life easier, but also because they understand the company’s inside jokes and lingo.

The same applies to customer-facing bots. Say your e-commerce company is planning a Black Friday sale. Instead of encouraging customers to download your app for mobile shopping, you release a bot on Facebook Messenger to take orders. The bot sends high-five emojis to users who snag a great deal, tells Thanksgiving jokes, and handles customer service issues with aplomb.

When was the last time your app made your users smile?

A Product of Their Environment

Of course, user interface still plays a role in bot adoption. It’s arguable that one factor behind bot success is the simplicity of the environments bots populate. Slack has won awards for its interface and design, Facebook Messenger’s standalone messaging service limits the distractions of the News Feed, and text bots are accessible in iMessage.

On the other hand, bots still run within an environment — whether that’s a messaging app, email, or X. How will messaging apps’ UI enable or prevent bots from serving users.