Hello conversational — farewell websites

With conversational interfaces, we use natural language to communicate with our computers, instead of graphical interfaces. This will be the end of the website as we know it. In this story I explain why.

This story is based on one passage of my longer story on conversational interfaces. If you enjoy this one, take a look at the real deal afterwards :)

We are now entering the era of conversational interfaces. Not as in “we’re just about to” — we’re actually in it. We’re standing in the figurative hallway, looking around to get our bearings. We’ve already seen the rise of the chatbot. Now you may order a pizza, hail a cab, get the latest news, use banking services and tons of other stuff by just chatting with a bot on Facebook Messenger, Slack or some other chat interface.

Beyond chatbots, we’ll see the widespread adaptation of voice-controlled virtual assistants such as Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and Alexa (Amazon). All the technology giants are already betting heavily on this technology and use is starting to pick up. In 2016, 20 % of Google searches were already made by voice.

All the signs pointing this way I go into more depth on in my long story on conversational interfaces, but the gist is this: conversational is here to stay. And as user behaviour and therefore expectations shift to “conversational first”, brands and their websites will need to change.

Cortana in a BMW. Yes, the virtual assistans will be everywhere.

Actually, the question I want to pose to you, is this: Will websites even be needed? Maybe not. Probably? But definitely not in the style we see them today.

Let’s dive into an example of how a typical task which I today perform via the graphical interface (GUI) of an app or website will be performed once optimized for conversational and voice.

Booking with AirBnB becomes a chat with Columbus

So I’m going to Prague, and I’ll use AirBnB to find a place to stay. For this I use the virtual assistant of AirBnB; let’s call him Columbus (he doesn’t exist yet but I bet they will name him something related to journeys and discovery, so why not name him after the discovery).

When it’s time to start planning, I won’t even need a screen. I’ll instead go into the kitchen, start preparing dinner and say “Hey Siri, go to AirBnB” to my HomePod. I chop onions and cry, while I describe my plan to Columbus. He lists my options:

“Samuel, I found 92 available places that weekend, what’s your budget?” he asks.

From there we’ll narrow it down. I’m cooking, chatting with him (“Does it have a balcony?” “No” “Okay then remove it from my list”), and then when me and my partner sit down to eat we take a look at the Ipad (“Columbus, send it to my Ipad screen”) to see which of the six remaining options look best. (We just tell Columbus to show us pictures from the different places; no need to touch the screen with our potentially greasy fingers!) And when it’s time to book, we simply tell Columbus to do it for us.

If I can talk to the H&M virtual assistant, the actual visual website will only be needed for when the assistant shows me the items I’m asking for. It’ll be a glorified slideshow.

As easy as that, I’ve booked a place to stay almost completely without using the GUI of AirBnB. My primary mode of interaction was through the conversational interface of Columbus.

In this future, Columbus obviously becomes an essential part of the AirBnB service, just as the voice assistants of other brands will become their most important respective touchpoints. For times when I can’t talk, the GUI will still be there. Maybe I’ll swipe through my options on my packed commute to town, only to get back to the conversation when I’m free to speak.

Talking replaces browsing and reading

As voice assistants become the primary mode of communication, the role of websites will change. For brands with strong visual components — a clothes brand, perhaps — the website will still be crucial to display visuals. But if I can talk to the H&M virtual assistant, the actual visual website will only be needed for when the assistant shows me the items I’m asking for. It’ll be a glorified slideshow.

For brands where visual is less important and reading and information is primary — I’m thinking along the lines of insurance, banking — the virtual assistants will be even more at the forefront of communication. Virtual assistants will spare me the reading and simply tell me what I need to know when I ask. It saves me both time and energy.

I could list more examples, but this should get your imagination going. We are headed down this path–and it’s more of a sprint than a slow trod, actually–whether we like it or not.

Here are 3 things people say to downplay conversational (and my reasoning as to why they’re wrong)

“But we won’t use voice when we’re around other people; talking to a computer in public is stupid.”

First: People won’t notice you’re talking to a computer; you’ll appear as if you’re on the phone since the language you’ll use will be so natural.

Second: Everyone around the dinner table sitting with bent necks staring down into a small screen, that is stupid. But it happens right?

Tech can alter our behaviour and expectations of what’s normal and not. We had no problem getting used to screens. Voice is natural. Voice will definitely have no problem fusing with everyday life.

Heads down, glued to the light. The new normal.

“Voice is inaccurate, I’ll just use my phone as I’m used to”

Sure, sometimes it’s inaccurate — right now. Or when last you used it, at least. Because if that was anything other than yesterday, chances are these voice controlled assistants have improved since last you talked to one.

No, it’s not perfect, not yet, but it doesn’t need to be in order for us to shift to having it as our preferred way of interaction — it just needs to be a tiny bit simpler for you than picking up the phone, opening the app and start navigating. As soon as it reaches that level, the shift starts for real.

Soon the brands that haven’t betted on conversational will be playing catch-up. We’ll be annoyed by services that aren’t optimized for conversational when our favourite ones are.

“I already know how to use interface X, I don’t want to learn the voice version”

I think you might, but fair enough, let’s say you’ll keep on using the classic Spotify app no matter what.

Even so, what about the next time you sign up for a service, which boasts to be easier to use via voice than by GUI (desktop or mobile)? When you’re going to learn a new interface, I believe you’d rather just talk to it than start learning what’s behind all the icons and menus. The learning effort required will be minimal with conversational.

This part is important: The conversational era will lower the bar for everyone to learn new interfaces, since the interface is simply our own voices and language. Nothing short of telepathic communication (which we’ll get to, but not just yet) could be simpler. Once people discover the power of this simplicity, the move to the conversational standard will be swift. Very swift.

Look at the future, with voice all over the place!

The story on conversational is so much bigger. Conversational changes how teams and brands must operate, it changes the nature of design and what skills will be needed in teams. That’s why I wrote a longer story on conversational and the power of it. So if you liked this short story, please take a look at The Rise of Conversational Interfaces and the Great Shift in How Brands Must Communicate. Or at least clap you hands and welcome our new voice assistant friends.