The 10 Commandments of Chatbots

By Jonathan Spooner

With the recent news that more than 11,000 chatbots are now running on the Facebook Messenger platform — and more than 23,000 developers are lining up to go to work — the summer of bots is continuing to heat up.

So who are these new agents? A chatbot is defined as a computer program designed to simulate conversation with a human via a text messaging platform. But they’ve been around since Internet Relay Chat and Live Person back in the day. Why now?

Chatbots aren’t exactly new to the scene, but earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg made a rather big splash at the Facebook F8 conference when he pitched the world on a decidedly bot heavy future. “We think you should message a business just the way you would message a friend.” And with that, the great chatbot explosion of 2016 was unleashed!

While the general narrative is that chatbots are powered by machine learning, in reality, most of these young bots are rules-based. While this belies what most consumers have been fed to believe, the truth is that rules-based chats can be made to feel not unlike their AI brethren.

As our activity in the digital world transitions from a graphical user interface to no user interface, we are entering a crucial change phase in how people communicate with businesses and brands. As you consider building a chat bot (and you should), take these 10 commandments into consideration.

1. Just give it a reason. Chat bots should be created with purpose and must provide value to end users; that is, a compelling reason to engage, whether entertainment, information, or solving a task. Small talk is a job better suited for your dentist.

2. Hello world! Conversations should begin with an introduction and a list of the bot’s basic commands. In addition to being engaging at the start, a chat bot should always speak in active voice to convey that they are present in the moment.

3. Keep things moving. Whenever another step is taken along the user’s journey, your bot should proactively suggest the next action. For example, a user mentions meeting somewhere, and FB Messenger inserts a “Request a ride” button to hail an Uber or Lyft.

4. Brevity is your friend. People converse in short bursts online and chat bots should be no different. Verbosity has no place in the chat sphere, so put those tweet compacting skills to good use. Don’t force users to scroll back in order to remember what to do next.

5. Help is [more than] a four letter word. “Help,” “Stop,” “Start over,” “Reset.” There should always be a way to pull up the intro overview during any phase of the interaction.

6. A picture’s worth 1,000 words but GIFs are so much more. FB Messenger supports GIFs, videos, and more for good reason: there are plenty of ways to communicate information outside of text. A great deal of emotion and personality can be conveyed with a well placed contextual emoji or GIF.

7. Stay on theme. There are likely to be specific interaction types that your users will gravitate towards (if you are a taco shop, users are not likely to ask questions about warranty programs). Your bot should be prepared to handle and coax users towards these thematic areas.

8. Keep it simple simulated-human. Natural Language Processing (NLP) is making huge strides on more expensive platforms, but for Facebook Messenger, keep the tasks to a core group of activities all triggered by textual interactions.

9. Reply speed matters. Consider the platform and its response speed when building your bot. If the bot will need CPU time to generate a response, include a typing indicator or timeout notice like “Hold on, I’m still thinking…” Without these clues that a response is forthcoming, users will lose interest and confidence in the bot and leave in droves.

10. Bot’s gots personality. Lastly, choose a bot communication style that aligns with your customers and brand. Consider adding multiple response versions to common questions (no one likes a one trick bot) and replying with emojis; imbuing your bot with a personality reflective of your brand.

As Facebook continues to dominate consumers “mobile moments,” the era of bots has likely only just begun. Does this mean we’ll never have to listen to hold music again?