The Basic Flaw Inside Every Chatbot


Chatbots are a relatively new addition to the tech landscape.  Last year at this time, they simply weren’t on the radar, for the most part.  Of course, Amazon’s Alexa has been around for a while, and Apple’s Siri for even longer than that.  Chatbots really took off, though, when Facebook released the API platform for its own chat service, Messenger.  That one act spurred developers to create over 40,000 chatbots in eight months.  They’re still making them, too!  And if you count those created on platforms such as Kik and Telegram, add thousands more to that figure.

The function of one chatbot is pretty much like that of any other — after receiving input from a user, it gives information to that user via a text message.  The aim of a chatbot, though, can vary widely.  Some provide beauty tips, some allow you to order food, and still others satirize political candidates.

How do you make your chatbot stand out from the rest?

Chatbots are mostly the same behind the scenes, as well.  They all do the same thing.  A chatbot accepts input, then provides information based on that input.  Thus a user’s experience in one chatbot is pretty much a duplicate of another.

So what makes a bot special?  Or more importantly, how does a developer create a chatbot that’s distinctively different than another?

An abundance of bots

This question is becoming increasingly important as more and more bots vie for users’ attention.  Forty thousand chatbots is a huge market to try and get a share of.  And that’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket, compared to the deluge coming.  The exact number can’t be divined, of course, but take a look at how they’ve taken off:  Since the number of chatbots has grown by roughly 20,000 in the last five months alone, it’s a safe bet that the number of chatbots will soon outstrip the number of apps available.

Ever heard that “There’s an app for that!”?  Pretty soon we’ll all be saying “There’s a chatbot for that!”

Chatbots scale very well

Say it’s Saturday night.  You open Facebook Messenger and visit the Uber bot.  You use it to order a ride for yourself and two friends.  You go to a restaurant and get the seat you reserved while you were on Messenger.  It’s exactly what you wanted — non-smoking, near the door, a table for three.  After you eat, one of your friends tells you about Louis Vuitton’s new fall fashions.  You open another chat, connect to Messenger again, and look up the company chatbot.  You start by looking at shoes, but on impulse you buy a new jacket instead.

This scenario is not at all far-fetched.  And you never have to leave Facebook Messenger to get it.  By now, messaging platforms are practically ubiquitous, so any brand can have one-on-one, personalized interactions with their customers.  And this can happen on an enormous scale.

Yet for this to happen — much less for it to happen well — there needs to be a richer experience for the customer.  Right now chatbots are menu-based.  And even though they provide a conversational interface, the actual exchange is anything but.  This circles back to the design of chatbots, their basic functioning.  Generally speaking, answers are scripted.  A user can’t type their own free-form input.  Instead they look at several structured answers, and choose one of those from within the chat message.

When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message

This leads to a certain sameness in the user’s experience, when moving brand-to-brand.  A lot of this is because of the medium.  By itself, text doesn’t offer much differentiation.  Take a chat from Telegram and it looks a lot like a chat in Facebook Messenger.  This is a real challenge for a brand that wants to make itself rise above the others by creating a unique experience for consumers.

Authentic conversations are the missing piece

But consider for a moment that the problem might not lie in the interface, but rather with the brands themselves.

The basic flaw in the chatbots available right now isn’t the fact that they’re not providing flashy interactions, or even that they lack the visual design possible with a regular web page.  Rather, brands are wasting the chance to engage their customers with one-on-one, personalized interactions.  Instead they offer tired interactions that are about as memorable as reaching out to your bank.  In other words, today’s chatbot interaction may as well be a menu-based, touch-tone call.

John Schwartz, Washington Post writer for science and technology, once said “That’s part of the reason that filmmakers like Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg shoot movies in black and white. When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message.”  Because chatbots lack the standard neat interactions and good-looking visuals, they force a brand into examining the thing that truly matters to an audience:  The conversation with the users.  More specifically, the content of those conversations.

Just selling things to consumers is so 1990s.  A brand needs to invest in the relationships it has with its customers.  A brand has to create affinity with themselves and their customers.  A consumer will be much more likely to buy from a brand they already have a relationship with.  And brand affinity is built the same way it is built with other humans:  Through personal interactions, through conversations.

And that’s the prime ingredient:  Conversation.  True conversation, as opposed to scripted, menu-driven “chats.”  And conversational content is crucial if a chatbot is to be effective.  Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google understand this.  They have hired multitudes of writers, including comics and novelists.  These people are helping to develop company chatbots so that each one has a unique voice, an individual personality.  These things are what make chatbots compelling; only by using voice and personality can they be good brand ambassadors.

It works both ways, too, which is a good thing for brands that lack a personality or a voice.  It is a chatbot’s duty to convey the personality of a brand, yet due to the hard work of the creative people that write their scripts, they may put more personality into the brand than might have been there in the first place.

Chatbots represent the next boundary in brand marketing and consumer engagement.  They give brands an exquisite opportunity to forge durable bonds with their customers.  But the first step is crafting an experience that is genuinely compelling.  Up until now, users have been willing to overlook the basic flaw of chatbots; they’ve been putting up with the boring interactions.  Now, though, it is time for chatbots to evolve.


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