Bots versus Zapier/IFTTT — The Automation Thrilla from Manila

In case you haven’t heard yet, the Bots are here, and they’re coming to a smartphone near you.

Thanks to the tech blog hype machine, Kik’s Bot Store, and Facebook’s huge bot rollout at F8, I think it’s safe to say it’s for real this time (RIP Smarterchild). There’s plenty of reasons to be excited about what bots mean for the future — no more downloading single-use apps, easier commerce, and most exciting of all, better automation of services. While bots are getting all the love, services like IFTTT and Zapier have been providing automation services between platforms for years. (PS — Why aren’t we all salivating over Zapier (other than the fact no one really seems to agree on how to pronounce it?)) If automating things are what makes bots so great, are they better than Zapier at all?


Bots

I’m ashamed at how hard I laughed at this, but you get the point

One of the biggest selling points for bots is that they provide automation to end users, regardless of where that user decides to spend most of their digital time. If you want to use Kik, you can do that. If you want to use Slack, you can do that. If you want to text using good ol’ fashioned SMS, you can do that, too. Thanks to the addition of bots to Facebook Messenger, there are about to be a lot of people exposed to bots for the first time. Soon, you’ll even be able to order from Burger King without speaking to a human being at all!

The only problem with this set up is that ultimately, the bot creators are the ones that hold the keys to the kingdom. If you’re not a tinkerer by nature, this might be an acceptable trade-off — you can use the tools you’re already comfortable with and get additional functionality, all at no cost to you.

While the barrier to building a bot is slowly crumbling thanks to services like Prompt and api.ai, you still need to have some legitimate developer chops to make a bot work for you. This is one of the biggest differences between bots and tools like Zapier. This difference is also true when you’re thinking about building a bot versus merely using one. If you want to develop a bot, it’s a bit like Bear Grylls purifying his own urine to survive while using a bot is more like Bear Grylls when he’s laid up in the Holiday Inn Express.


Zapier/IFTTT

Services like Zapier and IFTTT have been around for a while and are pretty familiar to a lot of folks. One big advantage tools like these have over bots is the out of the box ownership they offer for the Technically Uninitiated. While I’ve kicked the tires on online code schools, like a lot of people, I learned how to build a little calculator and haven’t done anything else. With Zapier, that’s not a problem because while these tools require end user set up, they don’t require end user development. Granted, you are more limited with these automation tools because you can only plug in platforms that are already a part of the Zapier/IFTTT ecosystem. While both Zapier and IFTTT make it relatively painless to add your platform to theirs, it’s a limitation of these utilities all the same.

Though, having said that, these resources are much better suited than bots for individual automation. Since I’m not smart enough to develop my own bot, I rely on Zapier to automate a lot of the repeatable tasks in my life. The most recent example was a Zap I created to move Outlook calendar events directly into my Todoist instance. ReadyTalk is reliant on Exchange, and while I can’t plug that into Zapier, I was able to develop a workaround through a combination of Outlook rules and a multi-step Zap. Outlook invitations are forwarded to a Gmail account I have, Zapier combs that calendar, reformats the text, and drops it into my Todoist so my whole day is in one place. If I had to develop a bot to do that, well, it would be a long time in the making.

I love it when a plan comes together

To me, if bots are Bear Grylls, Zapier is a bit more like the Boy Scout summer camps I attended as a kid. It’s a good way to learn some neat stuff you might not have learned otherwise. You’ll have a chance to explore and make things better for you and your team, but at no point are you ever going to be too far in over your head with anything.


Bots and Automation Tools: When Worlds Collide

There are certainly a number of similarities between these two types of services, though. The biggest benefit they provide is the allowance for things to happen automagically for users. I couldn’t teach my Mom to use Zapier if both of our lives depended on it, but she could text a bot and have a pizza show up or book an Uber without an issue. Zapier lets people feel the automation power too, particularly if you’re setting up Zaps that affect your team. When stuff just started to show up in ReadyTalk’s sales team’s Slack channel, that was a pretty neat feeling.

Bots, like Zapier/IFTTT, are largely reliant on other services in order to provide value. While there are notable exceptions to this rule, including some, but not all of Slackbot’s functionality, more often than not, you’re touching multiple platforms when you book a flight through Facebook Messenger or do something similar. However, it is in this very connection between platforms that bots and automation services shine.


Not everybody is cut out to be Bear Grylls, and honestly, bots are probably going to be terrible at first. But as more and more things become automated around us, the bots will have their day in the sun. Until it becomes even easier to create bots, tools like Zapier and IFTTT are going to have to fill in the gaps for those of us that want to solve our own problems without spending hours learning a programming language. So for now, enjoy summer camp for as long as you can — bring the big tent and the air mattress.