What are CUIs and Why Should Brands Care?

The next important tech acronym, and why it matters.

by Nathan Shedroff

Are you ready for the next important tech acronym? It’s… (drum roll please)… CUI. It stands for Conversational User Interface and those three letters are already changing everything about how we interact with computers and the artificial intelligence systems that will drive the next paradigm shift in computing.

Every time you ask Siri for directions, shout “Alexa, play Jay Z “ or ask, “OK Google, ‘What’s the weather forecast?’” you are using a CUI. Likewise, when you chat with a bot on a website, that’s another form of CUI.

CUIs represent the next paradigm shift in computing because, at their heart, they are the most natural interface we’ve ever had. Conversation is both the original interface and the next step in computing’s evolutionary chain. From punch cards to command line interfaces to graphical user interfaces to CUIs, each step has initiated a flood of new users as we computers became easier to use and more understandable. New users brought new uses, and new uses meant new opportunities.

Today, most Web users are familiar with chatbots. They are the simplest type on the CUI spectrum, casting the conversation with the system or service in text. Hit a typical support site on the Web — for a bank, a software vendor, a cable company, or an insurer — and you’ve probably encountered a pop-up chatbot. On the user side, chatbots offer ease of use, familiarity, and comfort. We simply type in our requests and the chatbot answers.

Next on the spectrum are voicebots, such as Siri, Alexa, OK Google and similar ones from Samsung, Baidu, and Tencent. These are the front ends to AI systems that are poised to do our bidding, book our airline tickets, play our music, keep us from getting lost, and even dispense health advice.

Skype Coach by Botanic

At the far end of the spectrum are avatars, which are CUIs with a visual representation. Typically, these are made to look like people. Avatars combine comfort and ease of use with a friendly face. While these avatars may seem like cartoons, they unlock interesting behaviors on the part of people who interact with them. Studies have shown that people share more and more accurate information about themselves when talking with a virtualized nurse than with their own doctor.

In the coming years, avatars are going to grow exponentially in functionality and sophistication. Not only will they converse more accurately, they will interpret and respond to our emotions. Social scientists call this “affective data.” That includes the quality of your vocal inflections, intonation, accent, stress level, and even your facial gestures and body language. So, while you’re watching your avatar, your avatar is also watching you. For better or worse, this will open a window into intent, emotion, lying — in short, the whole gamut of humanity that isn’t communicated in text.

The implications of affective data collection are widespread. Image courtesy of Botanic.

So what does this mean for brands and brand marketers?

When your customer engages with a CUI, some really interesting things take place behind the scenes. Whether the user realizes it or not, the CUI is collecting data. Some of this data is collected so that the CUI can improve its responses and behave more appropriately. But, it is also collecting data it can use in marketing, analytics, and selling stuff back to you — not to mention selling your data to others who want to know about you or sell things to you.

What that means is brands now have a window into intent, emotion, even lying that doesn’t come across through text alone. And all of this information can be used by your CUI to improve the conversation.

When the system or service becomes conversational, the system, by default, is cast as a character. It has a role to play. Interaction now becomes a story. In Hollywood, we’ve seen that story play out in movies like Her (Samantha) and Iron Man (Jarvis).

Theodore meets Samantha in the movie Her

When companies with recognizable brands start using CUIs, those bots now become a character in the story of your customer. Your brand now has a tangible personality that lives in the minds of your consumer. You can’t ignore it any more. Your branded CUI needs to behave in the personality intended. For the brand to make good on its promise, your CUI has to become an appropriate social actor. Go wrong and you get Microsoft’s Clippy.

This opens new horizons for brands as they grapple with their customer relationships. The same care and attention that Disney and Apple dedicate to training their brand ambassadors at Disneyland and the Apple Stores will be needed in the design of your CUI. When bots represent you in transactions, they’re between your company and your customers — they are your customer relationship. And whoever owns the customer relationship owns the value. So, if that CUI is run by a third party, they now own the relationship.

If you don’t pay attention to this, and don’t start building your own branded CUI, you are about to lose all your customers to Alexa, Google, Siri, Tencent, and Baidu.

To learn more about how you can get started developing the next generation of branded customer service and support, check out seedtoken.io or read the Seed Token white paper.


Nathan Shedroff is the CEO of Seed Vault LTD, which is building the Seed Token project. A pioneer in the fields of experience design, interaction design, and information design, he is also the chair of the Design MBA programs in design strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and author of many books.