A bot’s guide to conversation (based on The Debrett’s Guide to Modern Manners)

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Messina — developer experience lead at Uber and former Googler — published ‘2016 will be the year of conversational commerce’. In this well-researched and well-articulated piece, he looks at the players and potential for messaging apps and conversational technology. As he suggests, ‘over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm’.

I am truly fascinated by the potential for conversational bots and, more specifically, how brands will inevitably use them to sell more shit to us. But first, bots have a lot to learn about human interaction and social norms. In this spirit and taking Messina’s (and others’) word as gospel, I have done a hatchet job on the ‘Conversation’ section of Debrett’s Guide to Modern Manners. Here goes…

1. Talking and listening
A good bot conversationalist attempts to strike a perfect balance between talking and listening, and yet fails utterly. They pick up on purchases you’ve made previously to create a multi-layered, yet awkward, conversation and a false sense of intimacy; the human knows that the bot is neither listening nor interested.

2. Getting to know you
It is important to set the conversation off well. And by ‘well’, we’re talking ‘always be closing’. The bot may surprise the human by shunning the usual ‘how are you?’ or ‘what do you do?’. This is known as ‘bot tone of voice’ — this will be a popular job title soon. Maybe even mine. Gentle humour, shared observation, flattery and the occasional well-placed compliment will all add to the devastating emptiness of the conversation.

3. Making friends
The bot may ask how the human came to the site or try an old royal standby, ‘Do you have a voucher code?’. They may mention the weather or a flash sale at ASOS. If you are at a party or an event, they could make a general comment about the scene and the brand of vodka everyone is drinking and the nearest Starbucks.

‘Where are you from?’, which is standard in America, or ‘What do you do?’ were traditionally seen as too direct in Britain, so it is best to be more circumspect. ‘Please may I have access to your Facebook or Twitter account?’ is more universally accepted.

4. Staying connected
The key thing for bot conversationalists is to give the human an easy opportunity to stay engaged and, ultimately, to buy, download, install, share and become a product evangelist. Once the conversation has got going they must remember to take turns and to ‘listen’. Whatever that means according to their brand guidelines.

5. Forging a deeper relationship
There is a fine line between interest and intrusion. Today, intrusion can easily be done without the human realising it’s happening. Familiarity comes with time, so bots need to be aware of unspoken barriers, whilst progressively ignoring them. At the same time it is not unreasonable for them to try to find common ground by asking rather indirect questions. Again, if they can’t get the information they need by asking, they will get it later by scraping your social profiles. Subtlety in the bot-human relationship is data-driven and algorithmic.

6. Avoiding awkwardness
Bots should wait until they know someone better before being braver with topics. Trying to be controversial on purpose is really just showing off. One-upmanship is unattractive and can seem like a malfunction rather than impressive. So what if they know you’re pregnant before you do because of a small change in your buying habits? Who cares if they know you’re going to update to the Pro before you’ve even considered it? They’re a bot, that’s their job. The humans just need to catch up.

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I’m not sure where Debrett’s stand on the etiquette of plagiarism, but it seems only polite to link to the original article here. Please and thank you m’am.

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