Chatbots are having their moment. Slack bots are taking over the world, Facebook is launching bots on Messenger and Microsoft is launching bots on Skype. Suddenly chatbots are everywhere.

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It feels like we’re at the start of a new wave of innovation and I don’t want to miss out. So I decided that it’s time I had my first chat with a chatbot.

But where to start? Well Facebook just had the F8 conference and gave their Messenger bots a big push. So I went to their advertising pages and found that they recommend a few bots to showcase the potential of chatbots. (you can find it here: https://messengerplatform.fb.com/)

I picked Poncho, the chatbot cat that gives you “entertaining weather forecasts”.

What should I say?

When I opened a new chat window with Poncho, it was blank. I guess that makes sense, if I were to open a chat window with a person it would also be blank until I said something. But with a chatbot, it felt intimidating. What do I say? What would a chat-bot cat respond to? After a few minutes thought, I decided to try this highly original statement: “Hi”.

Chatbot cat 1

So far so good. It has a cute introduction with a bit of personality. It’s not clear from the screenshot, but the blue text are actually buttons. When the chatbot gives you a list to choose from, you can just tap the button rather than type a response. That’s a nice feature.

What I learned:

  • Unlike web apps and mobile apps, it’s not clear at first glance how to start using a chatbot so a good introduction is crucial.
  • Apart from the profile picture, chatbots are all about text. Good copy is crucial to give your chatbot a personality and communicate with the user.
  • Facebook Messengers auto response buttons are really useful.

It’s a lot of work

After telling Poncho my location, I tried to find out the weather.

I guess it did gave me some information about the weather. But it sure took a lot of typing to find out that it’s cloudy today.

I can’t imagine having a conversation with a chatbot instead of taking 5 seconds to open and read the iOS Weather App. The weather app also has much richer information.

Chatbot cat 1

What I learned:

  • Seems like weather will always be easier to read from an App than a chatbot. So when would a chatbot be easier than opening an App? Maybe a chatbot will be easier to use than an App for tasks that involve a lot of input, like filling out forms?

When it doesn’t know the answer it makes a joke

As I kept interacting with Poncho, it immediately became obvious that it was compensating for it’s lack of understanding with humour. This works about 10% of the time.

Chatbot cat 1

Here is Australia we call that “Bullshitting”. If you don’t know the answer to my question just be honest. I hate it when people pretend to understand something when they don’t. I’m not sure why a chatbot thinks it can get away with it.

What I learned

  • I’d rather chatbots honestly acknowledge when they don’t understand you. It makes it easier to find a phrase that does work.

It’s kind of delightful

Now here is the weird part. I genuinely like Poncho the cat, I can’t help it. It’s weird and I don’t know if it’s a universal response to chatbots or just me. But it’s like a conversational interface tapped into some social part of my brain and made the experience feel personal.

I’ve used hundreds of apps, and never felt a personal connection. Maybe that’s the power of chatbots? It barely helped me at all, and somehow I’m looking forward to speaking to it again.

What I learned:

  • Chatbots might be the first truly social technology

Even minor grammatical errors break the illusion

It didn’t take much to break the illusion of having a conversation. Even minor issues, like responding to my question with the wrong tense were surprisingly jarring. I wonder if the effort put into making the chatbot appear intelligent was a waste of time. With a chat interface, maybe 99% intelligent isn’t good enough? It won’t feel natural until it’s perfect.

What I learned

  • I’m not sure if it’s worth making a chatbot attempt to have a conversational user interface unless it can truly accomplish it. Sometimes close enough is not good enough.

Final thoughts

It’s easier and more effective to look at the weather app than chat with a cat. But I still found it oddly fun. Maybe it’s the novelty, but chatbots do seem promising.

It feels like a good technology, that’s still looking for a useful application. But it hasn’t found one yet.