Getting familiar with chatbots

It’s a fair call to make - recent advancements in technology have made us accustomed - and more so attracted to engaging with screens rather than through direct face to face interactions, whether that be with friends, family, colleagues or customer service staff.

One field of technology that continues to assist this shift towards digital conversations are chatbots – programs that conduct textual and auditory conversations by either natural language processing systems or through using a database of keywords to create appropriate responses to users with the intention of mirroring real human interaction.

Chatbots are used by a variety of industries but each serve a universal purpose of providing engagement without the resource requirements of a real human being on the other end. So are we heading towards an AI takeover that will follow a similar plot to Terminator? Don’t sweat – while chatbots sure are getting more intelligent, we are a long way from perfection yet, and there is a mixed bag of public opinion about them.

So just where are we heading? To answer this question and get you more acquainted with the world of chatbots – we caught up with the digital team to get a sense of where we are now and what the future could look like with advancements in chatbot technology.

Where we are now…

The good

Chatbots have been picked up by a number of different industries, but after asking the digital team about the chat bots they have used recently and their attitudes towards them, it was clear that they carry a lot of novelty which tends to favour some industries more than others – particularly entertainment and fast moving consumer goods. One example here is Boost Juice’s recent promotion that utilised a Facebook messenger chat bot. After filling out a quiz, users were matched up to a fruit which they could converse with over the next week with the intention of eventually winning a trip to Japan. Additionally, chatbot technology has been used well in strategic mobile games like ‘Lifeline’, a text adventure where an astronaut has become lost out in space and you can only respond to him via message to try and rescue him.

But it’s not all fun and games – chatbots are great when it comes to efficiency and personalisation. Take for example survey tool Typeform which is standing out from the rest of the pack with a beta that sees users talking to a chatbot instead of filling out a form, making the process a lot quicker and easier. Chatbots also create a greater sense of personalisation – an advantage that retailer Urban Outfitters has taken advantage of recently, with online shoppers being sent status updates on orders through Facebook messenger. This creates a greater sense of immediacy between the brand and the consumer and ultimately reinforces that sense of a relationship.

Another major advantage of chatbots is the ease of access they provide. Take for example Woebot – a chatbot therapist for people with depression. Seeing a therapist or psychologist is no cheap exercise, so this technology is allowing economically challenged people bridge the financial gap and get the attention they deserve without the expense. Additionally, Woebot eliminates the need for waiting lists, with those needing to talk having immediate access at all times. And with face to face conversation being a struggle at times for those that are suffering from depression, conversing through type offers an effective alternative.

The not so good

As we’ve talked about in previous blog posts about digital transformation, it can be easy to get caught up with the glossy prospects of digital without taking the proper strategic steps to ensure that that technology serves a tangible purpose. The end result is digital replacement, not digital transformation.

When it comes to chatbots, like everything in this space, it’s about having the right amount of data plugged into it, and at present, that’s where a lot of brands are missing the mark. The technology is there and we’ve got the right places for it to be used – but it’s about getting the foundations right by feeding the right data from the organisation into the chatbot to enable not just relevant, but useful conversations with the human on the other end.

In order for new technology to be used – it should serve a greater purpose beyond what already exists, and at present, many of our digital team feel that the current range of chatbots don’t provide much value beyond what could be achieved by simply typing a query into Google.

One of the more commonly known chatbots, Domino’s ‘Dru’ which assists hungry customers order pizza by chatting back and forth is an example of this kind of technology that doesn’t really serve a purpose beyond what already exists. For most of us who have ordered pizza online, the process is fairly straightforward; Dru adds another layer of complexity that most of us really didn’t need. As we mentioned in our previous blog around digital transformation – if a problem doesn’t exist – why introduce an arbitrary solution? With the amount of ads on TV, we guess it’s purely for novelty and PR. It’s technology for technology’s sake.

What’s probably the most obvious flaw with chatbots at the moment is our inability to completely trust them because, well, they don’t really feel that human yet. Firstly, there’s the issue of sentiment. At the moment they can’t really pick up on the sentiment and emotional side of things, and that’s where a lot of the confusion comes from. They’ll misconstrue something that you’ve typed and the resulting back and forth creates a frustration that shatters the illusion of talking to a real, thinking, feeling entity.

Secondly, there’s the problem with continuity of conversation. Unlike humans that can easily recall the conversation they had with a friend a week, day or even a minute ago – chatbots haven’t climbed to such heights of communication yet. At present – once you click out of a chatbot – they are gone. They don’t remember the conversation that you held, or the progress that that conversation may have achieved, which can be pretty frustrating.

Where the conversation is heading….

So now that we’ve brought you up to speed with where we are at the moment in the world of chatbots, you’re probably wondering just what lays ahead?

According to Gartner’s hype cycle, which represents the maturity, adoption and social application of certain technologies – chatbots are on the climb. They are seen as something cool – but they don’t really have the right data or framework for success behind it right now. They have gone through a few waves of excitement and we can expect a lot of early adopters to pick it up again. It’s one of those technologies that will go through waves of innovation; the artificial intelligence side can get better, the speech recognition can get better – and when it does, we’ll be ready to accept it with open arms.

So what kind of AI and tech advancements would we like to see made? Sentiment and voice recognition are at the top of our wish list. Just imagine if a chatbot was able to sense the inflection of written language and the emotion attached all the while responding accordingly. If we can achieve this, we could see chatbots eventually filling the role of brand reputation managers on social media. Responding to comments online can be very time consuming, and when it’s a crisis, responding quickly and ushering users to go to the official support channels is a role that could certainly be filled by a chatbot.

While the future of chatbots is still yet to be decided, our digital team are certain that there are a few industries that could really advance with this kind of technology – primarily medical. One of the biggest issues of going to a GP is trying to book in an appointment based around their availability – so being able to have a quick chat with a medical chatbot would be great and it would free up the emergency department as well. But in order for this to be effective – the technology would need to progress to a point where there is no room for error, because in an emergency situation, time is of the essence.

In summary, the pros and cons that we are facing with chatbots now are likely be different to the pros and cons that we face in the future as technology continues to advance. But regardless of how you see them, chatbots are, for the moment, here to stay and their potential is too big to push to the back of the shelf.