On chat as interface

Alistair Croll
Feb 26, 2016 · 7 min read

There’s been a lot of talk lately about chat as an interface (something Dan Grover hit on first.) It’s fueled by the rapid adoption of Slack, and announcements that other companies, from Wechat to Facebook to Kik, are rolling out bots and opening APIs to let algorithms join us in chatrooms. Facebook’s building a universal personal agent dubbed M.

There’s been less, umm, chatter about how different chat interfaces are from traditional UI/UX, and what it’ll mean when this matures. Chat has some weird consequences for developer economics, but also for how we build and test user interfaces.

Here’s the short list:

  • The surface area of the interface is almost untestable.
  • The UI is the log file.
  • Every user interaction is also a survey.
  • Chat is a great interface for the Internet of Things.

And from there, maybe we can make some stupid guesses about the future of human-machine interactions.

Even a Dame thinks it’s a terrible conclusion.

Trust me, they’re pretty stupid. They involve talking to your bank account and David Hasslehoff.

Read on.

THE CHATROOM IS THE NEW APP STORE

Just as apps clobbered the Web — over 50% of all digital engagement happens in mobile apps — so messaging is likely to replace apps themselves. There are a number of reasons for this, from the cultural transience of chat versus posting, to the way notifications drive engagement.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what “chat as app” can mean. Consider these four examples:

The way I like to think about this is: Once, we had newspapers. And the moment the paper went to print was the end of the story: it was ink, on paper, going out to a million houses. Then along came the blog, and hitting Publish was the start of the story, as sharing and engagement and feedback occurred. Mathew Ingram, ever one to turn a good phrase, once called this publishing’s False Epiphany.

Now think about chat. The end of every transaction (conversion) is the start of a discussion about that transaction, whether it’s a shipment of goods, a cab ride, a bank withdrawal — anything.

The funnel and the, ahem, sprinkler.

For decades, sales teams online and off have talked about a funnel, leading up to a goal. But when you think about chat interfaces, the goal is the beginning, not the end.

If sales has a funnel, chat has a spout.

Or maybe a sprinkler.

Spray the second half of your product’s lifespan across your market, just like Stephen.

I haven’t worked that out yet.

Anyway, we need to start thinking very differently about app usage. Here are a couple of ways we’ll have to change.

TESTING IS HARD

What do you mean, you don’t know “bird”? You just told me there was one singing in the distance!

In a point-and-click interface, the designer creates the vocabulary. There’s a finite number of buttons on a screen. But in chat, that’s not true.

There are over a million words in the English language alone; multiply that by the number of languages out there. The surface area of the chat interface is almost untestable in normal ways.

When you control the UI, you can set up a test for each component. But when you don’t, you can’t test all possible use cases efficiently. (Sean R. Nicholson has a hilarious example of what Angry Birds might look like in a text-based interface.)

The algorithms behind parsing that language are getting better every day, but testing the app is going to be hard. Fortunately, debugging gets easier.

DEBUGGING IS EASY

Chat’s not like that. With chat, the UI is the log file.

You can reproduce every interaction from every user. You can replay exactly the steps that it took to get to a certain point. You can often learn synonyms, common misinterpretations, and other problems by watching.

This kind of content is known as Interactive Branching, and it’s common in call-center applications, customer support, and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) software. IVR and Interactive Branching technology is about to get a massive upgrade. What happens when it’s a standard part of Integrated Development Environments, and when UX experts borrow as much from screenwriting and dialogue as they do from design and layout?

USERS SELF-SEGMENT

That means every user interaction is also a survey.

Once you know how to listen, users will tell you what they’re after. Get enough requests for something, and you can try out a new market or product. Chat participants classify themselves into new niches and segments based on where and how they use chat, and what they ask for.

A BROAD LANDSCAPE

I guess the Blue Ocean of chat apps is group voice party lines.

The only real gap right now is the many user/out loud app, which we’ll probably see plenty of in VR environments; we already see it in gaming, and when bots join the conversation it’ll be chaotic and fascinating. Personal agents in business environments such as videoconferencing could get interesting, too.

THE LONG GAME: CHATTING WITH THINGS

Which brings me to the ultimate conclusion in all this: Chat is a great interface for the Internet of Things.

I don’t want to talk to my bank; I want to talk to my account. I don’t want to talk to my realtor; I want to talk to my apartment. What happens when we can chat with the things in our life? I don’t just mean asking the thermostat how warm it is. I mean having a real, dedicated conversation with your car, or your bank account, or your fridge.

Yes, that sounds crazy. Nobody wants to talk to their fridge. I must be mad.

But it’s a logical conclusion of all this: Everyone gets a KITT.

Talking cars. No big hassle.

Our car tells us when it needs oil, or when it’s time to change the tires. We ask it where it was last night, and who was driving. These are pretty open-ended dialogues. They’re also a logfile. A conversation with my car is an insurance record; a maintenance history; and a huge opportunity to sell me things. It’s also one hell of a sticky interface, likely to make me brand-loyal over a lifetime.

Yes, chat as interface is strange.

I’m pretty sure that tapping on an MP3 player seemed like a weird way to hail a cab, find a destination, order a pizza, and stream a movie once upon a time.

When we can chat with our personal agent, or our things, it’ll seem normal. When we can start a thread with friends who are going to a festival, and their bots join in, offering tips, scheduling, and generally helping out, we’ll wonder how we ever did without it.

Alistair Croll

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Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.