How the White House made a bot out of an empty box

The White House bot is boring, creepy, and reads like a rough draft. Still, it offers some insight into collecting personal info with a bot.

Sandi and I mostly look at a lot of bots where the product is the bot. In this case, the “bot” is better described as an example of a conversational UI, a means to an end that have nothing to do with ongoing dialogue between two parties.

This bot is the functional equivalent of a cardboard box with a slot in the lid and Suggestions sharpied on the side. You’ve seen a version of this box, probably sitting on a table in a corner somewhere, and you know how effective it is. (Not very.)

Can we expect more from this bot than we can from an empty box?

They announced the bot with a banner pic of the POTUS on a landline lol

Why a White House bot?

The core purpose of the bot isn’t to be a bot per se. It serves the more general goals of keeping the White House up-to-date with modern communication and letting citizens send feedback to their President.

Obama’s Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman wants the White House to “meet people where they are.”

Now, is this an effective form of political engagement? Please discuss this question anywhere except in the comments below.

Their choice is a strong comment on the perceived value of conversational UI and by extension both bots and messaging apps as platforms. If bots are a fad, then so are Twitter and Snapchat.

You will find the bot on Facebook Messenger. I see no word about future releases on other messaging platforms.

Interaction and design

The bot is meant to replace the existing web form with something more social, less intimidating. A fair comparison should weigh its merits against those of the current solution.

So let’s look at the form:

This forms lives on a website that you will never willingly visit.

It’s not a very good form, you might notice. It starts with the tedious identity fields (all but two marked Required) before asking what it was you wanted to say in the first place.

The bot gets an easy win by switching to the friendly interface of chat. But how different is the experience, really?

Does having split personalities count as structure?

The White House delivers both the best and the worst of bot design with the efficiency and bland cheer of a White House tour guide. Also, that guide is sizing you up as a prospective terrorist.

First, meet a relaxed and energetic note-taker

The bot leads with the value prop and good dose of energy:

The language is… basic? The bot strikes an informal, upbeat tone which is a welcome change from the sober gray and baldly practical web form. Yet somehow it carefully steers away from expressing any individuality, speaking as some anonymous “we” of an organization.

Who am I talking to, a subcommittee? The interns?

Other bots that use buttons or suggested responses have felt a little awkward or prescriptive to me, artificially limiting my interaction with the bot. Here I found them appropriate, perhaps because the tone is so impersonal.

Messaging platforms will release more and more of these interactive elements. My experience suggests that we should use them judiciously due to their effect on a bot’s “feel” as much as their success in getting the desired user response.

Editing your message to the White House

After collecting your message for the President, the bot asks for confirmation before sending it. We all say things in anger that we later regret, things which impact the relationship forever. And we can’t spell good.

Except you can’t actually edit the message. You can append another sentence or two (Facebook sets a character limit on messages), or you can start over.

Starting over means you return to the original welcome message as if you have never previously interacted with the the bot. I returned to the chat a few days after my initial chat and found that you once again “start over” even if you’ve sent a message successfully in the past.

Editing means starting over from scratch.

No technical limitation requires starting over, really. It’s a design choice and not a strong one. The web form doesn’t remember your name either but it does allow for editing a message.

Now time to meet the interrogator

But okay, I’m satisfied with my message. The experience was pleasant if not perfect, and stopping here would leave me feeling pretty good about the exchange.

And that’s when I remember that I’m talking to the government. The bot makes a jarring shift to interrogating me about my physical location and contact details.

The web form asks for the same details — it lets me see the entire interaction at a glance, asterisks and all, so I know what I’m getting myself into before typing a single character.

A barrage of questions over chat feels more like an ambush.

I get it. They need this information to secure the homeland. Unfortunately, the conversational UI becomes a liability because I begin to feel like a stranger wants to know where I live for unknown reasons.

Of course the government has this information. They won’t give me a driver’s license or the right to vote without it. The chat affordance makes it feel like a direct violation of my privacy and I suspect other users will have a similar response in a range of contexts.

Privacy aside, these interactions seem even more tedious and unfulfilling than they do in the web form. By a simple count, the majority of my exchanges with the bot come after I said my piece and discharged that energy.

Whew, made it. How does it end?

The final interaction with the bot is an embedded video of Obama discussing the value he gets from these letters. It’s nice and not too long. Obama’s own natural warmth counterbalances the generic character of the other interactions to some degree.

He actually reads a few letters aloud that express common public sentiments. If you had written something similar only moments before, I imagine watching Obama speak your thoughts would cause a powerful sense of connection.

Obama reads a passage from his diary.

The final message is a blushing emoji — the cute smiley that expresses warmth and affection.

I see their intention and yet it feels a bit incongruous after barrage of personal information.

Concluding thoughts

I expect the bot will simultaneously succeed in its goal and yet fall short of its mission just like the suggestion box at the DMV.

The conversational interface — I really hesitate to call this a bot — is a clear improvement over the form in discoverability, ease of use on mobile, etc. Submitting my actual comment is now much easier. But I never actually submitted a comment because the subsequent interrogation freaked me out.

The entire interaction has a three part structure: accept your submission, get your personal info, smother you with affection. I got a jangly, unsettled feeling at each of the transition points that had a net effect of lowering my confidence in the bot.

What’s really missing is the re-engagement. Every chat is the first chat. No attempt at follow-up. As a bot builder and a citizen, I have to say it’s a missed opportunity to fulfill its greater mission.

Obama will only read 10 letters from the public every evening, only a few of which originate from the bot. I understand the limitation — he deserves his sleep. Yet a more imaginative approach to the bot would yield so much more value.

For instance, comments could be aggregated and serve a rough poll of the concerns and sentiments of the public. The White House could then share those results back to me via chat, creating a feedback loop that might keep me engaged with both the bot and the government. Right now, they’re both a bit of stretch to say the least.

Nevertheless, the White House reached many thousands of people that likely would not have even thought to write Obama a letter through another means. A better title for this post might have been “how to reduce a bot into an empty box and have it succeed anyway.”

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