The Rise of The Conversational UI : will the future be a Super App?


In a world where there are too many annoying notifications and the proliferation of apps is mind numbing, one company provides a sleek alternative to these problems, and has become the mobile hub for all internet activity. As one American venture capitalist simply states, it is “at every point of your daily contact with the world, from morning until night”. Notably it also provides business oriented services including chat, group calls, file transfer, project status tracking, expense filing and more. When you realize that the praise and panegyric is not directed toward Facebook, you begin to understand the significance of what the messaging super-app, WeChat, and it’s parent company, Tencent, have accomplished in China, and how it is strongly influencing the future of mobile.

#1: Messaging is more than a feature or an app

WeChat has evolved from being a “mere” messaging app to something which could accurately be described as a portal . For those of you not familiar with this super-app, let’s quickly highlight WeChat’s capabilities and numbers:

  • 800 million monthly average mobile users
  • Features include payments, e-commerce, advertising, chat, online — offline services
  • Estimated $1.8B mobile revenue
  • Estimated $83.6B evaluation (per HSBC, 2015)
WeChat summary table

#2: App fatigue is real

Even the most vocal WeChat backers acknowledge the differences between the US and Chinese markets. While Chinese government regulatory restrictions led to the development of a different mobile and app ecosystem, going forward the two environments seem more likely to converge than diverge. In fact although end users and app developers in the West have become well accustomed to “an app for that,” much recent data shows app fatigue in end user behavior. People are exploring, downloading, opening and using fewer apps. To the mobile generation, the messaging app has already become a primary, if not the primary app.

But replicating WeChat’s reach and primacy for western consumers however will not be easy. Wholesale copying of WeChat ignores key differences between the markets and end user behaviors. WeChat has been very successful creating compelling experiences, adding functionality, and providing simplicity that draws end users and keeps them engaged. The importance of simplicity in the user experience can not be overlooked.

#3: Conversational interface is heir to mobile home screen

For messaging apps to become the portal and the heir to the smart phone home screen, third party services and apps must integrate or embed their key capabilities into the messaging UI. Just today WeChat released their lite apps, which allow instant functionality without waiting for an app download. Examples of new and interesting integrations include integrations for payments, commerce, and other capabilities running within Facebook Messenger. Also the recently released iOS 10 iMessage micro apps deliver engaging capabilities within the iMessage UI rather than having end users navigate multiple across apps. Other important use cases include easy ways for ordering or shopping, making reservations, and calling an Uber as well.

Facebook Messenger Payments
Cash iMessage app available in iOS 10
Facebook Messenger Uber bot

The long list of this year’s announcements and product releases from WeChat, Google, Facebook, Apple, Kik, Telegram and many others, makes it easy to say that we have entered the Great Messaging Wars of 2016!

#4: Smart and conversational interface

In addition to messaging app integrations for payments, e-commerce, and communications, I have also been intrigued by intelligent and “helpful notifications”. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, when Apple Maps in iOS 10 automatically dropped a pin on the map to help me remember where I’d parked my car — genius! Along similar lines, the Google Now’s news and predicted commute times is super relevant content that should be part of this conversational hub too. Although I can imaging actively asking or searching for this information, having an open interface which allows this passively inserted but contextually relevant information will be a “wow” factor.

Lastly, we should expect some hits and misses. Chatbots have been all the rage in 2016 but given the state of natural language processing these bots do best when their scope is limited and narrowly defined — they should be designed to do one thing well.

#5: Necessity is the mother of invention

When David Marcus, VP at Facebook, expressed that WeChat is “inspiring” his plans to transform Facebook Messenger, he is joined by many other executives at leading western firms who are also closely eying this Eastern rival while attempting to imitate that success. The allure of WeChat is that consumers, advertisers, and merchants will richly reward the company that delights end users and simplifies how they navigate their mobile life and digital world. Personally, I am not convinced the successful formula will be an “exact clone” of the super app, WeChat, but the winner of this next frontier will alter the world of messaging, apps, app stores, and how end users interact with mobile devices. For sure, the prize and value for that will exceed WeChat’s $83.6B evaluation.