Is Chatbot Right For You?

Recently, Fred Wilson wrote a short piece on the current state of bots. The TL;DR is that he finds the current chat bots underwhelming, but remains optimistic about the future.

I believe that chat bots haven’t taken off because most use cases actually don’t lend itself to a chat interface. Before building a chat bot, it is important to understand the tradeoffs between a chat interface vs. an app/webapp interface.

Having just built my first chat bot, I have some thoughts on what use cases make sense for a chat bot interface. A good chat bot use case should satisfy all of these criteria.

1. It needs to take advantage of the natural language interface.

The appeal of natural language is that it takes advantage of an existing behavior. We already spend a lot of time on our phone chatting with other humans. This means a much lower cognitive load on the user compared to learning another app interface. If you find yourself repeatedly using structured inputs and output, then you’re not really taking advantage of the natural language interface. In this case, an app with buttons and images is a better option.

2. The context is best created and maintained in natural language (with the help of some embedded visual/audio cues).

We’re already seeing this, but I believe all future successful chat bots will be in the form of mixed-media communication. This doesn’t change the fact that text is still the dominate component of the interaction, which means that the context exists in text form (besides what’s in the user’s head).

A limitation of chat bots is that that you’re stuck in a chat window. It turns out a lot of use cases require a visual or audio context. For example, it’d be a terrible experience to play chess against a chat bot. If you find yourself using lots of buttons, sounds, and pictures, chat bot probably isn’t the right form. Remember that visual cues have a much higher bandwidth for communicating certain information. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is literally true here.

3. There is an emotional component to the interaction.

The use case should have an opportunity for the chat bot to improve the user experience through empathy. This is why I believe any purely task-oriented uses cases are ill-suited for chat bots. If I want to order some detergents, Amazon’s “Buy now with 1-click” works great. But if I’m frustrated and need my feelings addressed (common example being customer support), it’s for chat bots to shine.

The corollary to this is that make sure your chat bot has a personality! Humans have an incredible capacity to personify almost anything. If your chat bot has a coherent personality, people will project their feelings onto your bot in no time. When Poncho first came out, it had many performance issues, including slow response time or giving completely irrelevant answers. But guess what? Many people attributed that to Poncho’s sassy personality and liked it.

4. The interaction doesn’t require rigid pathways.

To say this from the other angle: the use case is a good one if it involves many context switches. This results from the fact that natural language lends itself to an infinite number of inputs. You can don’t have to fill out a box or click a button anymore. Just like a real conversation, I should be able to digress into a different and topic and then come back to finish the initial point. If you find yourself constantly forcing specific interactions to protect against unexpected user inputs, rethink using a chat bot.