Are chatbots the future? We built UBot to find out.
United Baristas is built with coffee and code. In general, we want people to do as little as possible. So the heavy-lifting hero of United Baristas is, in fact, UBot. He syncs our platforms, posts to social, and keeps the humans informed and focused on what they need to do.
We’ve now released UBot for the United Baristas community to use!
UBot is now in the wild
This article is largely about our experience building (the public version of) UBot so coffee companies can learn from our experience. So you may wish to meet UBot now.
We wanted to see how easy it was to build a chatbot to help our community. There are several aspects to our thinking:
- We were curious about chatbots. How useful can they be? How easy are they to build? How expensive are they to run?
- Each time United Baristas grows, it gets more complex. Compounding the situation is that each of our services has two sides: buying and selling equipment; recruiting and finding jobs; promoting your business or finding an engineer. You get the idea. Most users need to know just half of the respective service.
- Reducing email. You’ve probably noticed United Baristas runs on email communications. It’s how people are commonly notified about new items for sale, job vacancies and Workshop listing feedback. We know email doesn’t suit all users and are interested in creating ways to keep our community informed without adding to the pile of mail in their inbox (on a side point, at present social does this poorly as an item or job that you are looking out for doesn’t raise to the top of your feed).
There are a bunch of new(ish) chatbot programmes and platforms. We opted for Chatfuel because a) it was built for Messenger (which we estimated would be around for the longterm), and b) Messenger recently announced that it’d be offering a website plugin, giving us that option to put UBot on unitedbaristas.com in the future, and c) it had some good reviews and we liked what we saw during testing.
We allocated six hours between three of us, divided up the tasks of sequencing (journeys mapped out on Post It notes), scripting (copywriting) and APIs (connecting stuff) and then hacked UBot together in a a little under half a day (about 12 hours work; why we ran over our original time allocation is below). We wanted our community to be able to:
- browse and search jobs
- browse and search marketplace listings
- find an engineer
and then expanded the brief for UBot to:
- help new users with onboarding
- update users with new jobs, marketplace listings and articles via Messenger (so they can opt out of email notifications, if they so prefer)
We cheated by using a Techcrunch chatbot template to set up some user journeys and to benefit from their pre-programmed AI responses .
United Baristas is build on a bunch of APIs, so linking them into UBot was easy. If you can build a bespoke website or are familiar with services like Zapier, you can set up a basic chatbot.
We experienced a steep learning curve around sequencing the ‘blocks’ to get the right notifications, the various opt ins and opt outs functioning correctly, as well as the ‘chat’ we needed. We had to rebuild these several times to get the functions we desired while simultaneously emulating a more natural conversation.
There’s no easy way to check user journeys in Chatfuel, so we had to manually test various options — and honestly, because we were moving so swiftly there are probably still a number of errors (do tell us if something unexpected happens and we’ll sort it).
Many coffee businesses have simpler user requirements than we do, so you could potentially build something more quickly. And if we were to do it again we could probably do it in close to half the time now that we know what we’re doing.
Is UBot useful?
UBot is competent and we’re a long way forwards given the time and financial investment (none, we used the free version of Chatfuel).
- You can easily navigate core United Baristas services
- Get UBot messages for updates on United Baristas services that interest you
- Get help setting up on United Baristas
We think that these are good functions to start with ✔️
However, UBot (and all the chatbots we looked at) are basically built on search APIs, RSS feeds and a bit of logic. So chatbots can’t do much in addition to what a user could achieve through a well-honed internet search (on-boarding and message updates are exceptions). And, because we haven’t built deep connections between UBot and the platforms, eventually, UBot has to currently push you to a website to perform the relevant function (although UBot sends you directly to the right page).
So while UBot may become the channel of choice for users that like chat, and particularly those that don’t like email, it’s largely just another way to search and navigate around United Baristas.
It was novel for us to interact with our own content in chat, and we imagine that many people will be surprised at the quality of the experience.
However, once we got into the hack, we quickly realised that chatbots have to be useful— that is, perform functions for user to provide their with a benefit. So we doubled our efforts and built the more intricate on-boarding and messaging services (we had envisaged building these at some point in the future anyway). We hope some members of our community will find these functions useful, and we’ll be monitoring to see what the uptake is.
Are chatbots the future for coffee?
Maybe, and even most probably; but there are not many obvious use cases for coffee shops and roasters until chatbots further develop and can be more readily integrated with POS so consumers can order and pay for coffee.
For many companies there’s probably not a lot of benefit outside of the novelty factor of jumping on the chatbot bandwagon at this point in their evolution. We think that United Baristas is a little different in this respect as it has a lot of user-generated content.
However, some ideas that could currently be easily realised include:
- How-to-brew tutorials (a step-by-step guide) with video, images, timers and Q&A
- Notifications of new coffees (RSS feed from your e-commence shop) (it’s easy, but a bit boring)
- Information about specific coffees (origin, process, roast etc) when a user asks. This should be interesting to facilitate consumer engagement and answer their questions, especially for busy shops.
- Notifications when online orders have been dispatched, for example a subscription (again easy, but boring)
- Coffee subscription control (pause, ship coffee now!, etc)
- Identification of nearby coffee shops serving your coffee (for roasters and chains), that sell or use your products (for brands), or which you have reviewed, as several easy to achieve examples. Chatbot have the potential of better engagement rates, are definitely cheaper and easier to build than an app; but obviously don’t readily have order and pay functionality.
If you’re already using chatbots in the coffee industry, do tell us. We’d love to see what you’ve built.
United Baristas offers a range of services for the coffee community. We’d normally tell you about them and direct you to our website, but it seems fitting for you to ask UBot 🤖