A Newbie’s Guide to Bots

Two pioneers share at #SXSW what they’ve learned in the Wild West of chatbots

Presenters Omar Siddiqui of Kiwi and Laura Newton of Kik

For starters, if you are over 18 years old you might need an answer to this question: What is a bot?

That was my first question to Omar Siddiqui, CEO of Kiwi, creator of a bot-building platform named Sequel. Omar’s co-presenter was Laura Newton, a product manager at Kik, a chat app with 300 million registered users. Their mind-bending South By Southwest panel this morning was titled “Best Bot Practices.”

In the hallway afterward, I recorded a brief interview with Omar. He defined a bot this way:

A bot is basically an interactive experience delivered in conversational format on messaging apps like Kik, Facebook, Viber. The experience itself can be natural language-based or UI (user interface)-based. People have this notion that a bot must mean that it is all conversational in nature. It’s delivered in conversation, but it’s a combination of UI and natural language as appropriate for each application.

I Skyped with my father, who is 90, this afternoon from the Austin Convention Center. He loves learning what’s new as much as I do, so I shared with him my understanding of bots this way:

It’s as if you are texting something on your iPhone, but instead it going to me or Stephie (my sister), it goes to an Artificial Intelligence robot that can do things for you or give you information.

Laura Newton at the SXSW session said there are bots for gaming, entertainment, and customer service. “Bots let you order a pizza,” she said. “They are conquering across categories.”

Since bots live on existing messaging platforms like Kik, you don’t have to download an new app on your phone to use a new one. Here in the Comcast social media lounge, I just created an account at Kik and added two of the bots that Laura and Omar mentioned in their session.

Tickers the Bot lets you play tic tac toe on your phone, which seems lame except that the bot adds snarky attitude to its moves. I chose easy mode and won the first game. Tickers’s text message to me, delivered in Kik, read: “I’m just gonna reboot myself and forget that you won.”

Romancenow, the other bot I tried on Kik, began by asking me if I dream of true love. Of course! The bot’s persona, named Paige, replied: “Well you’ve come to the right place to experience it all!” A story then unfolds in little bits, prompted by my choices. Is this the future of reading? Probably not, Omar told me afterward. But it sure is new.

“It’s the Wild West,” Omar said at the session. This means media coverage of bots has been all over the place. They will change everything. They are disappointing. He and Laura didn’t waste any time arguing for bots. They’re too busy helping to create the medium, learning what works and what doesn’t. Their panel was mercifully free of hype.

What they did share were four Best Practices that would be valuable to emerging bot creators, and there seemed to be a lot of them at the Marriott for the session. A room holding about 500 people was jammed to capacity. A guy with a French accent followed Omar and me out to the hall. He thanked the Kiwi CEO and said, “I’m developing bots in Paris.”

I don’t plan to create any bots at the moment, but you never know. I found the four Best Practices helpful in getting my mind around what this new thing is and where it might be going. Here is my summary, based on notes I took while liveblogging the session at thekindlechronicles.com:

1. Build for Conversations.

Since a bot interacts with people in an intimate space for friends and families, it needs to match those conversations in tone and content. The romance bot offers storytelling that might fit in a messaging space of teen girls and the occasional 66-year-old male tech writer.

For comparison, Laura mentioned Statsbot, a tool that can supplement team discussions in a professional environment. It sounds like a smart and helpful grownup, I assume.

If I created a bot for listeners of The Kindle Chronicles, I would have my community in mind — intelligent, curious, bookish, tech-savvy paragons of virtue. :-) That’s the tone the bot would have in its answers to questions like “Which TKC episodes have interviews with Jeff Bezos?” I need to not get carried away with this. Putting out the show each week keeps me plenty busy. But still…

2. Start Simple

“Don’t try to do everything,” Laura advised. “Do one thing well and you will get users. Creativity requires constraint.”

The Tic Tac Toe bot is a good example of the power of starting simple. It has attracted more than a million users.

“You can be creative and simple,” Omar added.

3. Know Your Audience

The bot has to have a target audience in mind. That means a bot on Kik, which has younger users, should be different from one on Facebook Messenger.

Omar cited as an example a bot created by J-14, a teen magazine I’ve never heard of. “The writing, graphics, and personality of their bot speak to teenage girls,” he said.

Laura praised CNN’s bot as the best of the news bots. CNN created one bot for Kik and another for Messenger, taking into account the different audiences. It doesn’t just feed headlines to its messaging followers. The bot’s content is quirky and educational.

4. Be social

Omar mentioned a bot that friends could use at a restaurant for deciding who will pay the bill. Another sets up a murder mystery and assigns different character roles to different people.

“If a bot enhances the fun we’re having, that’s stickier than adding another artificial character in your life,” Omar said.

What’s Ahead

Laura and Omar said they expect a bot ecosystem to emerge, a collection of bots on different platforms.

“You don’t have just one friend, or just one bot,” Laura said.

Omar expects bots to become multi-media experiences, as is happening with Alexa and Google Home. “Voice is emerging,” he said. “So will video and Virtual Reality. We will interact more and more in real time.”

“Start Exploring!” their final slide exhorted. “Over the next five years we will have a new way to deliver experiences to consumers,” Omar said.

The bot talk was the highlight of my second day here at South By.

Last year when I attended a session on bots it just gave me a headache. I left feeling old and bewildered. But that first exposure did instill enough curiosity that I began playing with Facebook Messenger and had tried the CNN bot before I arrived this year in Austin.

That opened a crack in my ignorance just big enough for Laura and Omar to drive a truck full of new ideas through.

Can the Kindle Chronicles Bot be far behind?

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