What are conversational interfaces good for?

Many businesses today are looking to build human or bot chat interfaces as new channels to engage with their customers. A key question to ask here is what are chat interfaces really good for? I spent some thinking about this question. In this post, I want to talk about 3 areas where I think conversational interfaces can really be truly better than existing solutions.

Chat as a way to help users choose

I recently had a great experience chatting with an agent at the Adidas web store through their embedded Intercom messenger. I wanted a specific kind of shoe which is usually a bit hard to find so I thought I might ask an agent for some help. I was looking for a pair of casual shoes that I could wear to work with jeans and tees. Not as casual as sneakers but still comfortable enough to wear all day at and after work. I gave a rough description of this to the agent and within a couple of minutes he gave me 3 great suggestions, one of which I actually wanted to buy.

A few years ago, at school we did a project for Facets multimedia — a non profit movie rental store in Chicago that deals primarily in independent and foreign films. Almost every customer we spoke to, spoke about getting great recommendations from the folks at the store and about relying on the board of recommendations that the staff put together each week to find the next movie to watch. I contrast this with the number of hours of my time I have spent looking for something to watch on Netflix despite the millions they have spent on their recommendations engine.

Humans are really good at understanding rough descriptions, connecting the dots and making great recommendations. Algorithms, on the other hand are terrible at this. These can be especially useful in fields that require knowledge and judgement like buying wine online, buying clothes that go well together or picking a movie to watch etc.

Chat as a way to help users get stuff done faster

I tried the Shopspring bot on Facebook messenger recently and there is one thing I came away feeling quite sure of — any scenario which requires or benefits from the user being able to browse through various product options is a terrible use case for a stand alone conversational UI. The shop spring experience on the messenger feels very restrictive and I feel like I haven’t seen enough choices to make a purchase decision.

In the demo of Viv at Tech Crunch disrupt, Dag Kittlaus showed some scenarios that are great candidates for a conversational interface. Sending money to a friend, booking a hotel that you have previously stayed at, picking flowers to send someone. He goes on to show how quick and effortless these workflows are through Viv.

One of the key components here is that the platform, Viv in this case, stores your payment information, addresses, contacts etc. Every purchase then could be as simple as finding the product, clicking ‘Buy’.

Scenarios where the user knows exactly what he or she wants or has very few choices to make before making a purchase decision can be executed an order of magnitude better through conversational UIs than the experience any app or website delivers today.

Chat as a way to make the user experience more personal

I recently reached out to United Airlines on messenger and asked them about my frequent flier number. Since I was on Facebook, the agent could trust my identity and addressed me by name. He only needed to ask me my date of birth to give me my frequent flier number. The whole interaction took less than 5 minutes.

A couple of weeks later, I messaged United again ‘Hey! Can you tell me the points balance?’. As you can see below, from the context of our previous chat history, the agent was able to answer my question right away without any further back and forth.

Interacting with businesses like this feels a lot like interacting with a person. They know who you are and remember what you have previously spoken about. Furthermore, going back to a website and finding there a history of your interactions with the business or a new message that an agent left for you after your last interaction makes the experience of visiting the website feel more unique and personal.

These are early days in the evolution of chat as a channel and we are seeing a lot of experimentation in both human and bot powered chat experiences. As an experience designer, it is exciting to experiment with and learn about what this new medium should and should not be used for. What experiences can be automated through bot chat experiences and what scenarios benefit from human agents.

I look forward to engaging in and contributing to this conversation.

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