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A Quick Chat About Chatbots


Michael Hay
Published on October 12, 2017
By Michael Hay

The Rise of the Conversational Interface

The 2013 movie, “Her”, starring Joaquin Phoenix, explored the idea of a man falling in love with his AI personal assistant. We’re not quite there yet, but perhaps it’s not too far-fetched.

Conversational interfaces are a hot topic right now. We’ve already become used to using voice commands with our devices by way of apps such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana. That’s great and it lets us keep our hands free, but some of these apps are now getting smarter and smarter, so that they can remember details, recognise the context of a question and generally act more human.

This conversational approach was a natural progression for voice assistants, but it has moved into our text based world as well, in the form of text chatbots. You’ll likely have come across sales websites that let you chat to a bot to find out some basic information, and there are now ways to convert basic web forms into chat interfaces so that the humdrum task of filling out a form is turned into a fake conversation.

Creative uses

It doesn’t all have to be about robots replacing customer service staff though. There are many more creative ways that chatbots can be used. One great example is Tina the T.Rex, a dinosaur chatbot that allows children to talk to it and ask it questions about what it eats or how big it is. This is a much more inquisitive, engaging and rewarding experience than reading about dinosaurs in a book. Children will remember the day that they had a conversation with a dinosaur.

The Channel 4 show Humans also created a fun chatbot to market the second series of the TV show. This was a great way to let viewers interact with one of the characters from the show and feel more involved in the show’s environment. 


Deeper implications

Obviously some people wonder where this will all end. Microsoft famously created an AI-bot that became a Hitler-loving sexist after less than a day on the internet. Either it wasn't a great AI-bot or perhaps it just held up a mirror to some of the most vocal people on social media. Another story involved a woman who created a bot that mimicked her best friend by inputting all of his old social media posts so that it could learn the nuances of his way of communicating. This idea has been taken even further in the episode “Be Right Back” of Black Mirror where a life-like robot takes the form of a similar deceased husband’s social media AI. They’re starting to raise bigger questions there. Does this help people to mourn or does it prevent them from moving on? We’ve certainly come a long way from the simpler AI such as Joshua that appeared in the (awesome) movie WarGames in 1983.

Relationships

As highlighted in the aforementioned “Her” movie, life is all about relationships. So, if we can make more of our interactions conversational and with personality then we will feel more of a connection with them. But we are finely tuned to relationships with humans. We can recognise every little human nuance and if something isn’t quite right it really stands out. At the end of the day it boils down to trust. Humans can develop trust based on very small conversational subtleties. So when building a realistic chatbot you have to think about building a relationship with your user in this way.


Chatbot Top Tips

Chatbots come in all shapes and sizes, from high-end AI to simpler mock conversations, but whichever method you use you have to be creative about the language and phrases used. It’s all about the details. Here are some tips:

  • Humour - A little joke or quirky comment here or there just adds some personality, and the human element.
  • Contextual memory - For example, remembering something that was mentioned earlier in a chat and referencing it later. AIs are able to do this more and more. Simple things like asking “Who is the President of the USA” and then being able to follow that up with “How old is he?” instead of “How old is the President of the USA?”
  • Time - When you ask a chatbot a question and it responds in one second with a five line answer, it’s obvious it’s a bot. Even if a human copy and pasted an answer they wouldn’t be able to do it that quickly. If you’re making a sophisticated bot, give it a few seconds to pretend to think about an answer. Have the ‘typing’ animation delayed by a few moments to give the user some anticipation. It’s a proven fact that anticipation makes the reward greater. In this case it also adds some smoke and mirrors to make it more believable that you are talking to a human.
  • Tone - Use a different tone of voice for different scenarios. You can make your bots concise and serious for crisis management and complaints, and funnier and more casual for more light-hearted requests. Copywriting will become more important. Perhaps each web dev team will have a copywriter sitting on the pod with them soon in order to make their bots more natural.

Some things can be quicker to do without a chatbot. The conversational structure can lock the user into a linear process that can feel limiting in some situations. So don’t rush out and add a chatbot to every part of your user experience. Pick and choose, and only add it if you think it will help with engagement.

At the end of the day it’s about striking a balance. Some people will want to learn shortcuts to input their commands to a bot using as few words as possible, and won’t want to go through the whole pretence of thinking they are speaking to a human. For others, however, the conversational language from the bot will make the whole experience more pleasant. For people who are not computer literate it’s certainly a great way to reduce the barrier to entry.

So, enjoy engaging with your next bot to have a more streamlined conversational experience, but next time you think you’re falling in love with a chatbot, just think about the software developer and copywriter that spent ages fine tuning those text responses.

(Chatbot interface built in-house by Umang Dokey, Senior Creative Designer, based on open-source Conversational Form concept code by SPACE10)


Tags: Digital

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