Surfing with Chatbots

Chatbots can create deeper one-to-one relationships with your customers than you can. Bots reach more people. Bots are at home where your customers are spending most of their time. Bots provide insight into customer needs and behaviors that you cannot see. They remove friction in the customer experience. They allow for deep personalization and opportunities to introduce anticipatory design. They are genuine expressions of your brand and provide opportunities to engage and delight. They can be the most contextually relevant point of interaction you can make with your customer’s journey today.

Am I supposed to drop a mic or something now?

My colleagues and I have been heavily involved in conversations, designs and initiatives around AI, chatbots, Alexa skills, machine learning, and all aspects embodied in the conversational UI experience topic for awhile now. The wave of excitement and energy around the subject is huge, and it’s time to grab your surfboards and jump into the deep end of this vast ocean of possibilities!

Chatbots are fascinating little critters. They are easy to build and easy to deploy. They can be up and running in a few hours and be out on that wave trying to stand. The challenge for many is, these poor little guys don’t even know how to swim!

When we hear the technical buzzwords that are so attractive to us in the digital space — artificial intelligence, natural language processing, machine learning — we get watery eyed and drooly and think out loud in our most convincing zombie lust, “must have BRAINS!!…I mean CHATBOTS!!” But, like so many other early adopters, we sometimes forget to question why? What is our purpose in this endeavor? How will this benefit our organization and our customers? How will this solve a user need? What do we hope to gain? How can this move the needle?

Human-Centered Thinking at the Core

The solutions provided by this transformative technology is useless without a laser-like focus on the customer’s experience. One must understand the jobs to do, the pains to solve and the gains to be made by our customers for these experiences to be valued and adopted. We must explore the benefits through a customer-centric lens before we throw them into the crashing surf.

We use a human-centered design, agile and lean approach to everything we do at Universal Mind. Conversational UI experiences are no exception. Here’s a lightweight framework we use to get started.

  1. Understand the customer journey and the frictions, gaps and opportunities within it. Define the question you hope to answer.
  2. Clearly articulate the borders of the sandbox you’re going to play in — start small, think big!
  3. Build quickly and get it in front of real customers.
  4. Gather data, listen, watch, synthesize and create your next hypothesis.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

Make sure you understand that you will trip on this. Just because you can publish a chatbot to Messenger in an afternoon doesn’t mean you should. Actually…it does mean you should! But you should with a thorough understanding of the business purpose and with the expertise of experience design at your side. You need to thoroughly consider, plan, build and iterate on, the most challenging element in this new medium — the design of the conversation. This part does not take an afternoon to thoughtfully create. This is the heavy lifting. Quality experience design is ideally suited to provide you with support here. Leverage it! If you don’t have it, ping me.

Back to the tripping point from above: If you’re not tripping a little bit, you’re probably not running fast enough. Facebook Messenger is the best MVP prototyping tool we’ve seen in a long time! (Not only for chatbot as a product but chatbot as a customer understanding tool.) Get out there and test the water! But as a sage man once told me, “if you’re going to fail, fail off-Broadway” (thanks, Jeff DeGraff) and I’ll add “in front of your friends and family.” Invite close customers to your experiments that will be honest but supportive of your efforts. Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward in your initial conversational designs. Take your time. Think through this part. It’s not easy. Get help if you need it.

Lastly, remember your chatbot isn’t a ‘robot.’ Your chatbot is an opportunity for your brand to build a deeper relationship with your customers. Treat it with the respect and effort you would if you believe the first paragraph of this post. And, for God’s sake, at least give the little guy a life preserver when you throw him out in the waves!

More conversational experience thoughts to come soon. Stay tuned!

Erik is not a professional surfer but he has been to the Jersey Shore many times and has seen people like Matt Kollmorgen surfing. He works with some crazy-smart people at Universal Mind where he gets the opportunity to help companies design and build digital experiences that make a difference in people’s lives.

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