If you even remotely follow tech news, it is very likely that you have read outlandish claims like “Bots are the new apps”. There are way too many misconceptions around conversational products. Facebook Messenger already has over 11000 bots. Let’s add Kik, Telegram, Line and Slack bots on top of that. Now that Apple has joined the race as well, expect the bot explosion to get even more intense.
I’m building a simple bot myself (No, I wont start a bot company. And, no, it won’t replace an app). And, I can guarantee you, from both personal experience and research, that “normal” people do not care about issues being faced by the apps developers. If you are not a developer, investor, or journalist, chances are, you do not spend a minute of your day thinking about dwindling app store revenues, worsening app discovery problems, or the fact that an average person downloads no new apps every month. So, if the motivation behind building a bot feels like something your non-techie friends and relatives don’t care about, it is safe to drop the bot product altogether.
It distorts our vision of why a bot is needed at all
“If you can get people to take your price advantage for granted, you’ve won” wrote Sarah Tavel in one of the most insightful pieces I have ever read on consumer behavior and products. Most consumers do not like paying for apps due to sheer abundance of options. We can imagine the same happening with bots. So, let’s assume, the “price”, in this context, is the cognitive load of downloading, storing and maintaining an a piece of software. A large part of the narrative around the bots hype is that people will not have to pay this “price” since using a bot will be as simple as opening a chat thread to talk to a friend. But, as Tavel argues, price is a feature. Ultimately, it is about the 10x product. From a customer’s perspective, the reality is that one will only adopt a new solution if it is significantly better than the other alternatives, and not merely because it is a trendy thing to do. Again, most people do not care about what theme all the tech journalists are writing about these days.
It pollutes our understanding of what a 10x product will look like
A 10x product will be one of the following two things: 1. It will create an experience that apps or websites cannot offer. A truly AI-powered assistant that can handle and deliver on highly complex search queries will be a good example here. Imagine just telling a bot via your voice or typed words to find you a 2 bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a building that is in a 1 mile radius of NYU and has food spots in a 5 minute walking distance. Now, thats something. 2. 10x bot product will enable people to do something significantly more conveniently than existing solutions. A powerful example of this category would be bot solutions in countries like India. In India, an average person probably owns a cheap smartphone. Besides a set of core apps that one already uses, one will either not have enough data connection or local storage space to download a new app. Furthermore, the mobile web is slow and very few websites are optimized for mobile. Bot solutions in developing countries could become the best way of accessing the internet. Contrast this with smartphone usage in USA. Most people have unlimited or huge data plans hat are spend on countless hours of Facebook, Snapchat, Emails, etc on latest smartphones. Not wanting to download new apps out of “app fatigue” is significantly different than not being able to use new apps due to financial and technical issues. A good proxy for identifying a 10x better product in USA would be to see if a large group of people choose a bot for a use case over a well-designed app that serves the same purpose. Data plans and regular smartphones upgrades enable people in the US to use whatever apps they want to. The switching cost for opting for a bot over a website or an app is very high.
It simply instills a wrong mindset
Conversational products should not be made to replace apps. Apps stand for visual experiences. Bots, whether voice or textual, stand for conversational experiences. When we use “bots will be the new apps” mindset, we blindly try our best to convert visual workflows into conversational workflows to create new kinds of apps (chatty apps, if you will). This mindset will change. Eventually. We just need to wait it out. For a lot of use cases, conversational products are simply not feasible. At least not yet. Furthermore, regardless of how far we get with ML and NLP, some experiences are best suited to be visual. Textual and voice bots seem like good solutions for high-intent tasks like search and work-related tasks. Visual experiences are best suited for discovery-based, low-intent experiences.
It tends to ignore the reality that successful apps of our time
Popular apps weren’t built thinking “apps are the new websites”. They were built by unlocking the value of certain capabilities of a smartphone. Think Uber and GPS. Think Snapchat and camera. Similarly, successful bots wont be built thinking “bots are the new apps”. They will be certainly be built with a “bot-first” mindset by truly unlocking the value of deep learning, natural language processing and conversational interfaces.
It leads us to focus on the wrong thing
It leads us to believe that building a bot company is much more important than building an experienced-based, problem-solving company. Apps, websites, bots, etc are only distribution channels. Building a product that happens to deliver its value and experience on a messaging platform is different than building a product whose value and experience are designed after picking a messaging platform. It needs to make sense to have a messaging app as a platform.
It leads to wrong approach
The approach to bot-building does not necessarily apply to app-building. Besides social apps and apps with a social component, most apps are used by us on a one-to-one basis. We interact with one app whenever we want to for doing whatever we wanted to do. Sure, when you have a lot of people using the app independently and individually, the app developers get data effects to leverage for improving an experience. But, the experience is still in isolation. Think about how we use shopping and utility apps. The “bots are the new apps” mindset will lead us to craft bots that we use in isolation. Interacting with a bot one-to-one is not a pleasant experience in most use cases. A lot of great experiences can be crafted by building on top of an existing experience or workflow and summoning different bots for different use cases at varied times. This could be facilitated by organic discovery via leveraging social graphs and platform assistance.
It overlooks the fact that most people are visual learners
Playing around with a visual interface feels a lot simpler than figuring out conversational commands and, more importantly, remembering them the next time we use a product. With well-designed visual cues, a user does not have to remember a lot of things. That being said, “visual bots” or “micro-apps” with a lot of visual elements will be helpful. Both Apple and WeChat are headed in this direction.
It motivates us to optimize for a misdirected goal
If there is anything that successful bots will likely replace, it will be humans for specific tasks. Not apps. Bots, in the true sense of the word, fundamentally, stand for automation. Per this definition, Apple’s and a lot of WeChat’s visual services within messaging context do not count.
It leads to confusion
We confuse “apps are the new bots” narrative with the narrative of “providing services where people spend most of their time on smartphones”. This narrative is a meaningful and justifiable one. Having a messaging/social context as an environment is different than having it as a medium. WeChat, as Connie Chan and Dan Grover have explained, is the best example of this outside of USA. Apple is on the path of becoming an example of this distinction in USA.
I think changing our line of thought from “bots replacing apps” to “bots creating something new” would really help in making the bot trend all about consumers and not about developers. Ultimately, selfish people will be using these products.
And, no, chatbots wont fix your customer service.
P.S — The bot I’m working on will probably replace a newsletter. Not an app. So that’s different :)