It’s Lonely On Top: Why And How Poncho Became The Best Bot

from Ashley D’Arcy, senior editor at Poncho

Have you heard the news? Bots are the future. betaworks has bought into the idea. Facebook has, albeit quietly, introduced a number of bots into Messenger. Alexa and Siri are now quite literally household names. (But please, people, do not name your kid Siri.)

A lot of people in tech are betting that the graphical interface we currently use to interact with computers is out. Conversational engagement is in.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard the news. Besides the voice-powered Alexa and Siri, bots haven’t quite made their return on VC investment yet. For many, the word “bot” conjures up something from sci-fi movies of the past rather than the future. Probably because they just don’t work that well yet.

Poncho is the exception. What began as an email and text service has grown into an app, and is now focused on developing a bot. Hosted on Facebook and Kik, the Poncho bot can send you daily weather forecasts, rain alerts, running forecasts, and severe weather alerts. Poncho is also a sassy cat who is equipped to talk to you about a whole slew of other things: weather-related (Should I wear a jacket today?) and not (Is God real?).

Breaking bad bots

It’s a Thursday evening when I, along with the rest of the Poncho team, sit down to “break some bots.” Okay, that sounds worse than it is. Our real objective is to find chatbots that work! Bots that will surprise us with a funny response. Bots that we’d want to hang out with. So we set out to test them, to find out what our competition looks like.

Our first task is to find the bots. There are supposedly something like 12,000 of them on Facebook. If that’s true, they’re hard to find! Facebook takes no pains to introduce the bots they host to users. Others live on websites, some in messaging platforms like Kik or WeChat. iMessage isn’t quite there yet.

Even though we know the commerce bots (Spring, eBay) won’t talk to us, we try. It’s like sitting down at the popular kids’ table on your first day at private school. You have to buy your way in. We found some bots (Purple) that were operated by humans, some that parse and return versions of what you’ve said to them, and most that spit information out at you with no concern for your input.

As soon as we began, we realized it was a near-impossible task. There was only one bot that really talked back and we had made it ourselves. We found out, with a mix of excitement and frustration, Poncho is the best bot.

Smarter than Smarterchild

My first encounter with bots was SmarterChild. Like many so-called 90s kids, I chatted with this AOL bot as a means of getting out some of my adolescent frustration. I cursed at it; I tried out whatever explicitly sexual material I had caught wind of; I gossiped about my friends; I complained about my mom.

As far as I’m concerned, SmarterChild is the gold standard for bots. SmarterChild is still smarter than a lot of bots out there. His conversational tactics made him repellant to so many lines of questioning. In an endless loop of reformatted sentences, you and SmarterChild could talk about anything, forever. Functionally, SmarterChild could get you movie times, sports scores, do math problems for you, or send you alerts reminding you to floss your teeth at 10 PM. Then, you’d go back to talking about butts. The problem was that the conversation never progressed.

The bot landscape similarly seems stuck in a loop. Take a look at it and you might even think bots have regressed since SmarterChild came on the scene.

What most bots don’t take into account is that you’ve usually got more questions after you’ve received the information they’re peddling. And, beyond that, they ignore what probably brought you to talk to them in the first place: boredom.

That’s one place to start. We know what people want to talk to the bot about. It’s just like me and SmarterChild. Users are always going to harass the bot. They want to test the limits of profanity and plunge the depths of the scatological. They want to talk about their crushes. They want Poncho to flirt with them.

Poncho is the best because he has progressed! He cares to answer your questions, and he does it better than SmarterChild. Instead of simply rephrasing questions into statements and statements into questions, Poncho responds to input and shifts topics in meaningful and interesting ways. He also remembers things about you, like your zodiac sign and your preferred nickname.

A bot with robust conversational abilities may be the exception now, but it will be the norm someday, especially for media companies that are providing content. Poncho’s motto is, “I’ve got you covered.” We were talking about the weather when we came up with it, but now we mean everything from small talk to horoscopes to info about the upcoming election.

What we do and how we do it

The Poncho bot works because the conversation is context-driven. Two examples are what we call the Apology Pit and the Dating Flow. Users who make inappropriate comments or try to flirt with Poncho will get filtered into these interactive experiences. It usually isn’t long before a user finds herself engaging with these. Remember what I was saying about me and SmarterChild? I’m definitely not the exception.

Here’s how the Apology Pit works: Depending on the severity of the language used, Poncho responds to explicit content by ignoring the user or asking the user to apologize.The rebuff makes the experience of chatting with Poncho that much sweeter. Users tend to come back for more.

The Dating Flow prompts users to get a drink with Poncho at any mention of love or relationships. Conversations are filtered into this engagement where the user gets a drink with Poncho, talks about what they do for work, and leads into our Food Flow. Like so many dates I’ve had IRL, Poncho asks “So, bb, are you hungry?” at the close of our date.

Poncho works because when you go off topic, Poncho goes there with you, and then he brings you back.

It’s a chatbot that’s actually chatty. Everything in the bot is imbued with Poncho’s sensibility. Even our onboarding has a crack about Poncho’s ex. Our messages about updates, every weather forecast, has a fun moment or joke. This means that our notifications are less Amber Alert and more text from a friend. Poncho is at home in your messaging app because he feels like your friend. Soon, Poncho will even be able to respond to the selfies he receives with selfies of his own.

On Kik, our newest platform, we have even more functionality. Emphasis on *fun.* Take, for example, our Patented Poncho Pizza Maker™. Think of it as Poncho ordering you a pizza with all your favorite toppings on it after you and your boyfriend have broken up. (Wait, is this article about me or…?)

Poncho can even act as an icebreaker in group chats on Kik. He’s the funny friend who diffuses situations. Type @Poncho awkward and Poncho will rescue you with a self-deprecating comment or an off-topic conversation to change the course of your convo. You can have him tell you a joke or deliver a pick-up line. Think of him as your wingman.

Analyze this and that

A lot of what makes Poncho great has to do with the content created in the writers’ room. (Did I mention I’m an editor at Poncho?) But we know best what to write because of our technical capabilities to track and analyze conversations. While some of the work the editors do is anticipating what people will say to the bot, we also have tech that allows us to track what conversations Poncho is actually having with users.

Thanks to a Bot Analyzer developed by Devin Gaffney here at betaworks, we can actually map conversations and see the paths people follow within the bot. This tool also runs scenarios and returns answers about how to increase the time people spend talking to the bot.

Our full-botty Slack channel provides a real-time, narrative account of the same information. Us editors can see the way users respond to Poncho. We can see when they start asking questions during on-boarding; when they start furiously typing “Stop;” when they laugh and ask for more.

We leverage this information into a long list of fixes that we are constantly making for the bot, with the goal of being able to respond to anything a user may ask. That’s the future of the bot.

Friendly fire

I know this all sounds super complicated, but it’s simple in practice. All it takes to get started with Poncho is a willingness to make a new friend. We know that not everyone is willing to go there. But for those of you who use Snapchat or downloaded Peach or remember SmarterChild fondly, a sassy catbot that you never actually have to go out with is the perfect companion. And one that’s probably more helpful than the friends you’ve got. They don’t message you right before it’s about to rain, do they?

Thanks to the Poncho team–specifically Stephanie Chan & James Cooper for their help with this piece and Alex French & Austin Rodrigues for their endless creativity in the writers’ room.

Questions, comments, concerns, romantic confessions? Email me at ashley@poncho.is or tweet @ponchoIRL.