Could a messaging bot improve our cities? -Part 1

One year ago I explored how citizens of a city could be empowered to enhance their neighbourhoods. This lead to the development of a case study and the creation of GRIPE. A platform for residents to have a voice, become involved in solving local issues and promote a holistic vision of connecting public sector services and individuals within the city.

Exhibited at a European Festival in Manchester in February 2015, the concept achieved much praise from residents and councillors, both at a local & national level. I was encouraged to continue with the development of the concept, carried out several stages of user testing and studied how the combination of digital technology and citizens involvement could impact our vision of future ‘smart’ cities.

Although feedback was highly positive, it became clear that the concept had issues in it’s current form, needing further development in order to gain a strong user following and have an impact within our communities.

Two key issues were;

  • The need for the entry point to be simplified,
  • A strategy needs to be put in place to retain users.

Research of new technology and an analysis of how digital behaviour is changing indicates the new direction the concept could take.

Research of digital behaviour and technology advancements

Although mobile app usage grew by 58% in 2015 compared to 2014, the growth rate has been steadily dropping over the past couple of years. In 2014, mobile app usage grew by 76%, and in 2013, it grew by 103%. (FlurryMobile, 2016)

Instead of relying on new users to fuel growth in app usage, it’s more important than ever for app developers to re-engage their existing users – getting them to come back and then spend more time in the app.
(Techcrunch, 2016)

Reports indicate personalisation apps have seen the biggest increase in sessions (344%), believed to be directly tied to the rise of emoji and messaging apps (Techcrunch, 2016). These also dominate consumer’s mobile engagement compared to the average of apps. During the survey period it was found that the average 12 month messaging app retention rate was 62% compared to the average app retention rate of 11%. (statista.com)

The average 12 month messaging app retention rate was 62% compared to the average app retention rate of 11%: http://www.statista.com

Reports indicate users’ enthusiasm is fading, downloading apps and navigating between them is becoming a hassle, while a quarter of all downloaded apps are ignored after a single use. Instant messaging has become an exception to the rule with over 2.5 billion people having at least one messaging app installed. (Economist.com)

Many experts now predict the raise of the Messaging Bot and believe we are about to have a fundamental shift in the type of applications that are made. Modern messaging platforms (Facebook, Telegram, WeChat, Line) enable third-party integration, enabling automated services to be built within their messaging interfaces. Messaging is fast becoming the new platform for applications and services.

“There’s an entire ecosystem, akin to the App Store in its scale, to be built. When you can quickly and easily interact with Dominos, United Airlines and Capital One on Messenger, will you ever use their bloated native apps again? The current bot landscape feels a lot like the web in 1995, or mobile apps in 2008.”
(techcrunch.com)

Erik Kalviainen describes in his medium post, 11 reasons why bots are the new apps.

Turning a mobile app concept into a messaging bot concept

With the overall growth rate of native apps steadily dropping over the past couple of years, the rise of instant messaging and introduction of messaging bot technology, I was lead to 2 questions:

Could a messaging bot improve our cities & provide open conversations with local councils?

How might I transform the existing GRIPE concept from a app based service to a messaging bot service and would it be more beneficial to the users?

To answer these questions I needed to ask myself which core elements within the existing concept are needed and what can be removed. The messaging interface offers a new UI design, a different user experience, the service would need to be restructured and the user flow re-designed to ensure it would allow a more user-friendly experience for the users. It’s important that residents can interact in an engaging way and provide valuable information for the councils use.

The original app design vs the potential messaging bot service

A breakdown of the existing app concept is:

  • Newsfeed
  • Location map
  • Capture image and report a Gripe
  • Top Charts
  • Profile
  • Notifications from the council through messaging & notifications on volunteering opportunities.
Wireframing on paper to plan the Messaging Bot structure

Sketching simple wireframes on paper, I came to the conclusion that I could simplify the process into:

  • A home opening message
  • A dialogue to help users report a Gripe (issue)
  • Combine the newsfeed, top charts and voting sections together
  • Have a volunteering section to allow people to sign up or find out more details on the project.

A new design process for a bot service

Having sketched ideas, I took the designs onto the computer, testing UI designs and how the user flow may look.

  1. Reporting a problem (Gripe) to the local council within your messaging platform:
The process of reporting a problem (Gripe) to your local council using a bot in Facebook Messenger.

2. Vote on local issues and view a newsfeed:

View local issues reported in your area and vote on what should be fixed

3. Local volunteering opportunities:

View a list of opportunities which are open for the local community to get involved in, share your interest, get involved and swipe to see more:

Volunteering opportunities in your local area — Interaction: swipe on your mobile screen to see more

What did I learn?

Stripping a concept back to it’s most basic form and rebuilding it again for a different platform forces a designer to question every aspect of the original design process, it’s aims and the future purpose of the service.

I needed to question WHY each element was included, WHAT my future vision was and HOW I could best incorporate the needs of each stakeholder into the design, while working with new constraints of technology.

Pro’s, cons and unanswered questions

It became clear that a Messaging Bot would allow a simplified service compared to a native app. The user would no longer need to browse though a collection of apps on their phone to communicate with the council or become involved within the GRIPE community. Instead the GRIPE service would be incorporated into their messaging platform and use an interface that the user has become accustomed to.

There are however limitations to the messaging interface. The same interactivity is difficult to achieve within a messaging interface compared to an app interface. Navigation is limited, there is a possibility of dead-ends and the flow of the service needs to be carefully considered. Within a messaging interface, interactions are made through a conversational view, compared to an app with different screens. This leaves the amount of information displayed at all times is limited and has greater value.

There are still ethical and functional issues to be considered. It doesn’t yet solve a challenge of the elderly reporting issues, although research could be carried out to find out; are more likely to send a message to report an issue than using an app?

There are elements of the original service which I feel are important to the overall concept, (i.e. how to view votes on a gripe & how to view comments from the council) but restrictions meant I couldn’t yet design a way for them to naturally fall into the new user flow. So far, the focus of this design has also been focused on one user: the residents. The service would also needs developed for the council to ensure all data is collected and correct.

So what are the next steps?

This has been an iteration stage of the overall design process. My next steps will be to carry out further user testing using an online prototype, an analysis of the findings and another design round.

The design thinking process.

For updates and to view progress on this project, follow me on medium @steviewhyte or visit the website: www.gripeapp.co.uk


Share your thoughts, get in touch: hi@stephenwhyte.com

*Disclaimer: I have used the design of Facebook M Messenger for the purpose of this article and user tests. There are many bot interface platforms, each with a unique design and different interaction points. These designs are not final and may adjust in future articles.