Why we are about to experience the tsunami of chat

A dramatic shift in how consumers interact with brands is underway. While this felt like a minor development at first, we’ll all look back and recognize a key turning point. Over the next five years, rich, interactive chat will become the dominant means for most of us to interact with technology. As each domino falls, we tumble into a world of interaction with artificial intelligence, voice-activated operating systems, and even thought-based computer systems. Leading tech companies like Facebook, Slack, Amazon and Google have seen it on the horizon. Futurists and luminaries have been talking about it for years. It’s here. It’s happening. Get ready.

That giant wave up there is rich chat integrated into brand experiences. It’s literally a Tsunami of chat. Photo cred: scrivial.com

At the moment, chat is in its infancy. This is odd when you think about it. From the early days of the internet to IRC and AOL, through to Facebook Messenger, Google Plus, Hangouts, and now Slack, chat has been a fairly continuous part of the internet. Unless you count emojis and Apple’s insane “special effects” in their messaging app (which I don’t count), there has been little change in what they have to offer — the ability for humans to asynchronously communicate.

The current fad with chatbots — the automated logic-based programs that can respond with pre-programmed texts and actions — is a step allowing computers to take on some human tasks that involve communicating with users in a natural form. Yet this is no evolution in AI. In some instances, as different industries expose us to this novelty, they’ve oddly taken a step back.

This was an interesting concept, but it’s nothing more than a novelty in the end.

What chatbots still need to provide

This was an interesting concept, but it’s nothing more than a novelty in the end. Photo cred: Phone Arena

For example, Quartz’s latest app is a great example of a fun, yet failed, experiment. The app uses chat as the main UI for content discovery. It’s like asking your friend to tell you the latest news, except that they demand you play the role of journalist and ask ten follow up questions to get the whole story. It’s a dramatic step back from a traditional content feed. It takes more time. It narrows the experience rather than enhances it, all while throwing in condescending emojis to show how hip they are.

However, consumers have a real desire to interact with the digital world in a more intuitive, natural way. Why should I struggle to learn your user interface? Can’t I simply tell you want I want? Brands would love to say yes. Here’s what will help.

Personalized experience

The chat interface needs to offer true personalization for each consumer. Native language provides a very clean way for people to express their preferences, rather than interacting with a complex user interface or a large set of controls. Thus we can understand what the person wants, expressed in a simple manner.

Human-level comprehension

Chat requires a human-level understanding of context and input, which is somewhere around 95 percent of what is said. When we type something to a brand, the system needs to understand it as well as a human would. Logic-based systems and AI that respond directly to queries can handle some communication, but it is critical to start with a baseline of human understanding at first. The uncanny valley is evoked very easily in chat, with even the slightest awkwardness on the part of a chatbot or AI response.

Interactive elements

Brands need to be able to include their rich product offerings and choices directly in chat. Chat is not just about text, colorful background animations, or emojis. It’s about being able to integrate real products and offerings into the user experience to help speed decision making and transactions. This means that flights, real estate properties, products, content, and payments should all be woven into chat to offer a truly useful interface.

Where we will go from here

Here are a few examples of what the future will look like. Companies poised to make the best use of this technology have a high transaction volume or an involved customer support operation. Where there are many levels of detail, integrated chat can lead to a more efficient sales process and a smoother resolution of customer service interactions.

Some industries that will initially move quickly in this space will be airlines, real estate, cable providers, and ecommerce. Editorial content and search are also interesting; however, there is not an immediate change to their revenue model, so this will play out over a longer period. Outside of the Quartz app, there has been some editorial success in the area, such as the Wall Street Journal’s work with Facebook Messenger.

1. Airlines

Let’s take a look at how the airline industry is going to be overturned. Give it up to Kayak for making it possible to fine tune your search with a myriad of filters to find the right flight. If you can remember what it was like to book travel via a human travel agent, even a very competent and friendly one, you know that the advent of online travel engine has made life for travelers so much simpler and quicker.

Yet the process of finding the right flight is still somewhat bothersome. There are numerous steps you have to go through, many fields you have to input information into, and countless filters to set depending on your situation. Even with this level of added search detail, you are still sent back a large set of options that you must filter through. Maybe you need to go as cheaply as possible, maybe you only do non-stop flights. Maybe you have to leave in the morning to catch a meeting. All of these little details make 90 percent of the results from a basic search worthless.

That’s a lot of filters, all on kayak.com.

Instead of using a barrage of filters, you could type: I’d like a flight from New York to Atlanta next Thursday morning. Need to get there before 11AM. Returning the next day.

Oh, you only want to fly Delta because of your Platinum Medallion status? Just add the text “on delta.” Only want to look at first class? Add “first class.” No layover? “No layovers.” And so on. The point is you can have endless customization simply by adding a word or two. For the user, it’s simple. Behind the scenes, AI handles the task of managing a complex system of filters.

2. Real estate

Buying a house is a very personal experience, and the process is anything but simple. Your home search is a constant job of filtering through option, narrowing those options down, seeing in person, then opening up the search again. This back and forth process is very hard to capture in a standard user interface. The intuitive nature of chat is perfect for this type of engagement.

Rich interactive chat can radically transform this process. The nuance of the home-buying process can be conveyed so much more succinctly via text than in a hard, defined user interface. It also makes it easy for real-estate agents working with you to understand what you are really looking for in a home, as if you were having an informal, in-person discussion with them. An agent couldn’t easily glean the same information working backwards from a list of homes you liked.

3. Customer support

Social has made a huge impact in how we interact with brands and how brands think about and address customers. More innovation is coming in this space. Think about brands that people love to hate, like Comcast. Then, think about how a good chat system could make it a breeze to find the right cable and internet plan, and how quickly you could modify or change on the fly. A well-designed system could open up a whole avenue to stop cord cutting.

4. Ecommerce

Imagine the ability to order any item simply by typing that item out: “Buy Kleenex,” “Get me an Amazon Echo,” “We are out of toilet paper,” “Order Vietnamese dinner for my wife and I.” This strange new world is definitely on the verge of being a reality. Most people believe that voice will be the next big thing, but we believe chat will be a much better intermediary here that is far more comfortable for people than talking out loud to a device.

Cue the AI and vocal OS revolution

Brands that get this chat phase correct will be led directly into the voice-activated AI future that we know is coming. By creating the process for humans to interact with AI and logic-based systems, these companies are forging a model that will allow them to interact with consumers directly via their voices, and later their thoughts. The technical and logistic complications for voice and AI are much more intense than people think. Chat will be the natural bridge that allows companies to move in this direction, and excel into that new world.

It won’t be websites or app interfaces that mark the new world. It will be people directly communicating with brands, and brands responding. Brands that don’t prepare for this new world will be left behind as major interactive paradigms change.

There is a massive opportunity right now to get ahead of the competition and future-proof your organization. The need to interact with customers in a new way will become very apparent as we move away from desktops and phones and into more natural user interfaces. Chat is a perfect place for brands to learn the pitfalls of this new communication and interface paradigm. There is a bunch to learn, and brands should prepare now.

This article originally ran on VentureBeat on October 26, 2016.

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