The Activate bot story

Part 1

By Adrian Austin

At Activate Media we like the idea of using a messaging interface as a design solution. We replaced a traditional shopping basket with a conversation in a software platform we developed in early 2015. In this instance the conversation was handled with a combination of replies sent to the user from our own smart bot and real people.

Messaging as an interface for all different types of common interactions is predicted to increase in 2016. Now that a number of messaging platforms have opened up their own ‘Bot Stores’ this trend is likely to speed up. If Facebook, as predicted, announce their own ‘Messenger Bot Store’, we could see a switch away from designing apps to creating bots. You will interact with brands through your messaging app rather than downloading a traditional app to your phone.

“arguably the most consequential event for the tech industry since Apple announced the App Store and iPhone SDK in March 2008”.
Tom Hadfield, CEO of Prompt.

This is going to open up a whole number of opportunities for us as a company that designs and develops digital products and services. Not only will we have a range of new opportunities to offer to our clients but it actually allows us to improve many of our own internal processes.

One platform to rule them all (for now)

We use Slack, one of the aforementioned messaging platforms, as our main interface to manage our communication both internally and with clients on projects. With bots we are extending this to time management and systems administration. Right now, we can see Slack replacing many of the software applications we use for internal administration.

For example, we had spent some time looking at time tracking software but nothing existed that fulfilled our needs. There was always something missing. To be honest getting everyone to transfer to another new piece of software was not something we really wanted to do. Adding a bot to Slack is an easy way to get users to adopt a new process.

“There’s no new app to download, no new account to create, and, perhaps most importantly, no new user interface to learn.”
Ted Livingston, founder and CEO of Kik.

We do need to be smart about this. In the future we may well move away from Slack, but our bots are written in such a way that we will be able to switch to another platform if we want. Our little bots will come with us.

The first step

Our first step was to create a simple bot that would post all items in our shared calendar to a ‘planner’ channel on Slack.

Andrea Falzetti (our superstar developer) implemented an integration layer with our calendars hosted on Fastmail using Node.js thanks to two open source packages: node-slackr and node-caldav. His improved version of the node-caldav package is available on GitHub. Using the CalDAV protocol he was able to read the events from the calendar and using the Slack Incoming Webhook API he was able to post a message into our #planner channel.

What next?

We are now working on a slightly smarter bot that will recognise what you type into Slack. If it looks like a date it will then ask you if you want to add this to the calendar. If you say yes it will do this for you. Pretty cool.

Want to discuss how you might implement bots within your organisation? Get in touch.

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