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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.