Bots for the rest of us


So, apps have had it and websites are a thing of the past — the future is all about bots — Facebook have said so, therefore it must be true and actually, with Facebook’s backing — the development and adoption of bots does have a certain level of inevitability.

But what are they? What do they do? How do they work? How potentially are they going to change the entire way in which people interact with the web and therefore businesses and each other? And do businesses need to stop developing all other digital areas and focus on bots?

Let’s start with a little bit of web history (with a little personal bias and some creative writing) as an initial foundation to start to explain the bot..

Websites, websites, websites — everyone needed a website, right? In the early 00’s if your business did not have a website — your business was finished. Now, although not 100% accurate in many cases this was almost true. Your business might not be finished, but your exposure was reduced, your competition were gaining an advantage over you just by the fact that they had a website — the fact that it might be crap was secondary to its very existence.

Communication and engagement was still in the main, taking place over the phone, face to face and maybe email — the website was a complimentary customer channel.

As the 00’s progressed websites became more interactive and transactional, users could save, book, buy, sign-up, monitor, comment, video, post. These enablers drove the website to the front of the customer channel queue not just from a technical point of view but from a generational perspective new customers were growing up with technology in a very different way to in the past — more immersive — the web came to them (on their phones) rather than they having to go to the web (on a desktop, on a table in a spare bedroom).

So, tech was all around us, this influenced behaviour and it also changed our expectation of the web, no longer simply an information tool it became the only platform you ever needed to conduct pretty much every aspect of your life from shopping, to sharing, to watching, to meeting your future partner.

It became too big.

Apps were a solution to the sheer size and scale of the web. You want to just find out the weather in your town? There’s an app. Want to know the football or cricket scores? An app. What to know your train times, the latest deals from a favourite shop, the latest world headlines? Apps, apps, apps.

You choose, you take control. Complete the task that you want and move on. No longer do you have to go searching for what you want — it’ll come to you, onto your device in your pocket and you choose when and how you want to use the app. When you’ve had enough uninstall it (or more likely just forget about it and not use it anymore).

Apps are developed specifically for your phone — no need to load up a browser and pinch, scroll, resize — login every time you want to use it, perfectly developed just for your device and your need.

Apps compliment websites, they accommodate and recognise task driven users who use their phones all day every day. They allow people to get something done and get on with their day. They are another customer channel.

So to bots.

The underlying technological advancement of bots is the somewhat murky and mysterious world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — which has actually been in development for almost sixty years since the genius that was Alan Turing developed a computer that was able to respond to albeit simple questions from humans over the telephone — with the ultimate success measure that a caller would not know if they were talking to a human or the computer.

And this seemingly very simple (although clearly not in the 1950’s) objective is still very much the underlying principal behind AI and bots, although today no-one is hiding the fact that users are interacting with a computer.

Bots (also known as chatbots) are the next step on from Apps — but for a slightly wider type of use of the web, rather than specific task completion. They are being developed to respond to human interactions — in the form of questions and enquiries in a certain area of interest — be this an enquiry as to the delivery date of a package to directions to navigate around an unknown town or city.

As an example — take a look at https://citymapper.com/gobot . Here, the rather excellent (in my opinion) Citymapper have added to their already great product offering by allowing users to interact (albeit in a beta version) with them using a bot. As a user you are guided by the bot through the journey of identifying what city you wish to visit, when, what you want to see and how you want to travel before the bot presents a map and details of how to best achieve your travel goal.

Of course, this is a relatively early prototype for a specific type of enquiry — you could quite easily achieve the same on a website, an app or even buy a map. There are much more advanced bots being developed and some already in existence — Siri and Cortana to name but two — but developments that allow the understanding of different intonations, irony and even sarcasm are beginning to slowly see the light of day.

If you look carefully on https://citymapper.com/gobot you will see ‘Go to Old Web’ in the header of the page — a user can use the Citymapper website rather than a bot. This is an excellent example of where — as apps compliment the web, bots compliment both. I look upon bots as another communications channel with which customers can be engaged with a business and each other.

The creation of bots is the next step in the further integration of the web into everyday life. The challenge for developers in being able to integrate complex business systems (CRM’s etc.), business logic, social media interactions, human language and context into useable solutions that do not frustrate or condescend people is an incredibly difficult series of tasks — and one that will take a number of years to refine.

As a business I would suggest that you look upon bots as another channel with which to engage your customers — and as with websites although your business will not collapse if you are not an early adopter of the technology, beginning to understand how they will compliment your existing channel and mechanisms might just keep you ahead of the competition.

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