What are chatbots?
Most of us – even those who would regard themselves as relatively low-tech users – are familiar with the concept of chatbots. They’re the computer programs with human faces that pop up – often in messaging threads - to guide you through specific online interactions.
Although it feels like a recent phenomenon, the term ‘chatterbot’ was actually coined 20 or so years ago by graduate student Michael Mauldin to describe exactly this type of conversational program. Tens of thousands of chatbots are now available on Facebook Messenger as well as Kik and Slack, offering a wide (and sometimes wacky) range of services – everything from providing news and weather updates to others suggesting solutions to life’s problems.
Interacting with chatbots is as easy as messaging a friend and can provide effective ‘human-style’ contact for users looking for a fast and friendly route to an information source. It feels more natural than interfacing with a keyboard and can be more direct than navigating a conversation with a real person. Importantly, connecting with a chatbot is quickly becoming the norm on many platforms.
More human than human
Although chatbots are currently very obviously computer-generated, their makers are keen to emphasise their human-like qualities. Advancements in technology are likely to make it harder to detect what is human and what is bot – online, at least – creating a level of interaction that is virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing.
This developing is good news for people who aren’t comfortable with complex user experiences. Those who find themselves technically challenged could have their digital experiences transformed by the simple ability to ask human questions in an idiosyncratic way and be rewarded with answers. It’s already happening in homes up and down the nation, thanks to Siri and Cortana.
Transforming the user experience
From a business point of view, providing an intuitive, easy-to-use access point is a key component of delivering effective customer service. Even if chatbots are only used to facilitate some of the simplest interactions, they could have a significant impact on customer satisfaction levels – a quick way to input meter readings or update contact details, for instance.
Current automated alternatives include interactive voice response (IVR) technology which is seen as clunky and unpopular with customers, while the availability of real humans to communicate online can vary hugely, depending on circumstances - such as cancelled rail services – and lead to frustration. Platforms like Twitter are also often used by businesses to address customer service issues but can cause bad feeling if response times are slow.
If you’re commissioning a chatbot – or taking the plunge and building it yourself – consider what purpose your bot will fulfil. The two main options are informational bots (that simply provide information) and utility bots that are designed to solve problems via chat. Think about aligning your bot with your audience and brand and make sure you incorporate natural-sounding language that most closely matches that of your user.
Benefits and challenges of chatbots
Because machine-learning technology means that chatbots will have the capacity to remember previous conversations, they’ll also be equipped to respond to an ever-wider range of queries. Tech company IPsoft has created Amelia, an AI persona designed to automate customer services. It’s already being trialled by a London council to help residents find information and complete standard applications.
Naturally, privacy concerns will have to be addressed – as will the likelihood that the rise of more ‘human’ chatbots will ultimately reduce the job opportunities for real humans with mortgages to pay and families to feed. And when projects like Microsoft’s much-lauded intelligent chatbot, ‘Tay’, go badly awry, it reminds us that AI still has a long way to go. Perhaps the real potential lies in exploiting the synergy between bots and humans to create the ultimate customer experience.
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