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Conversational User Interface: The Ultimate Breakdown
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Conversational User Interface: The Ultimate Breakdown

Illustrator: Adan Augusto
conversational interface

Conversational interfaces have become one of the echoing buzzwords of the marketing world.

Technological advancements of the past decade have revived the “simple” concept of talking to our devices. More and more brands and businesses are swallowed by the hype in a quest for more personalized, efficient, and convenient customer interactions.

The question is… Are conversational user interfaces really worth all the hype or is it nothing but a smokescreen?

Let’s dig deep to find out if a conversational user interface is worth your attention.

What is Conversational UI?

A conversational user interface (CUI) is a digital interface that enables users to interact with software following the principles of human-to-human conversation. CUI is more social and natural in so far as the user messages, asks, agrees, or disagrees instead of just navigating or browsing.

In other words, instead of searching through a structured graphical interface for information, users can tell the software what they need, and the software supplies it. It’s characterized by having a more relaxed and flexible structure than classic graphical user interfaces.

The main selling point of CUI is that there is no learning curve since the unwritten conversational “rules” are subconsciously adopted and obeyed by all humans.

Types of Conversational Interfaces

There are two branches of conversational UI — chatbots and voice assistants.

Chatbots

Chatbots are visual interfaces that exist for both desktop and mobile. The conversation between the bot and the user takes the form of chat bubbles in a messaging app. There are two different types of chatbots:

AI-driven

AI-driven bots use Natural Language Processing (NLP) and (sometimes) machine learning to analyze and understand the requests users type into the interface. An ideal AI-driven bot should be able to understand the nuances of human language. It should recognize a variety of responses and be able to derive meaning from implications instead of only understanding syntax-specific commands.

For example (the simplest of examples), such a bot should understand that “yup,” “certainly,” “sure,” or “why not” are all equivalent to “yes” in a given situation. In other words, users shouldn’t have to learn to type-specific commands so that the bot understand them. A chatbot employing machine learning is able to increasingly improve its accuracy. The more it’s being used, the smarter it becomes.

Rule-based 

A rule-based chatbot answers user questions based on the rules outlined by the person who built it. They work on the principle of a structured flow, often portrayed as a decision tree. 

Rule-based bots have a less flexible conversation flow than AI-based bots which may seem restrictive but comes as a benefit in a number of use cases. In other words, the restriction of users’ freedom poses an advantage since you are able to guarantee the experience they will deliver every time.

Voice Assistants

As opposed to chatbots, which can be considered text-based assistants, voice assistants are bots that allow communication without the necessity of any graphical interface solely relying on sound. VUIs (Voice User Interfaces) are powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and voice recognition technology.

When it comes to a voice interface, profound natural language understanding is even more pivotal than with text-based assistants, as it really puts us into a position of talking to computers instead of typing things into an interface.

Since the technology needed to create a viable VUI is so complex, voice assistants are in the hands of tech giants like Apple and Amazon. They not only introduced VUI to the world but are also working hard to improve it as it still has a long way to go.

Benefits of Conversational UI

Conversational UI use cases vary significantly, however, their benefits are easy to recognize and agree on.

24/7 Availability

Perhaps the most highlighted advantage of conversational interfaces is that they can be there for your customers 24/7. No matter the time of day, there is “somebody” there to answer the questions and doubts your (potential) clients are dealing with. This is an incredibly crucial advantage as delayed responses severely impact the user experience.

Save Customers' Time & Attention

With so many brands and businesses competing for our time and attention, these two little things have become valuable commodities.

One of the key benefits of conversational interfaces is that bots eliminate the time users have to spend looking for whatever they are looking for. Instead, they deliver curated information directly based on user requirements.

Automation, Better Distribution & Use of Resources

Chatbots help businesses automate simple tasks that would have otherwise taken up a signification amount of time (e.g., customer support or lead qualification).

For instance, if there is a bot that gathers basic lead qualifier data for you, your sales team avoids wasting time on the leads that are unlikely to pan out and can dedicate more effort to the high-scoring prospects. The same goes for customer service. Simple questions get answered immediately, and customers with the more complex ones don’t have to wait as long to speak with a human representative.

Bringing Brands Closer to Customers

Again, too many brands are fighting for our attention. A comScore study showed that 80% of mobile time is dedicated to the user’s top three apps. Hence, it’s much easier and more effective to reach customers on channels they already use than trying to get them to a new one. 

Chatbots give businesses this opportunity as they are versatile and can be embedded anywhere, including popular channels such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

Differentiation & Personality

Firstly, despite the hype, chatbots are still not that widely used. In some domains, they may even be completely unheard of. Hence, in many cases, using a chatbot can help a brand differentiate and stand out from the crowd.

Secondly, they give businesses an opportunity to show their more human side. Brands can use the chatbot persona to highlight their values and beliefs, but also create a personality that can connect with and charm their target audience. After all creating more personal and emotional connections leads to a better customer experience.

Firstly, despite the hype, chatbots are still not that widely used. In some domains, they may even be completely unheard of. Hence, in many cases, using a chatbot can help a brand differentiate and stand out from the crowd.

Secondly, they give businesses an opportunity to show their more human side. Brands can use the chatbot persona to highlight their values, beliefs but also create a personality that can connect with and “charm” their target audience. After, all creating more personal and emotional connection leads to better customer experience.

Shortcomings of Conversational UI

However, not everyone supports the conversational approach to digital design. Some point out a few relevant shortcomings.

Conversations vs. Efficiency

According to research conducted by Nielsen Norman Group, both voice and screen-based AI bots work well only in case of limited, simple queries that can be answered with relatively simple, short answers. Users seemed to have difficulty with anything a bit more complex.

Thus, one of the core critiques of intelligent conversational interfaces is the fact that they only seem to be efficient if the users know exactly what they want and how to ask for it. On the other hand, graphical user interfaces, although they might require a learning curve, can provide users with a complex set of choices and solutions.

Low Discoverability

On a graphical interface, users can follow visual and textual clues and hints to understand a more complex interactive system. However, with a chatbot, the burden of discovering bots' capabilities is up to the user. You can only know a chatbot can’t do something only after it fails to provide it. If there are no hints or affordances, users are more likely to have unrealistic expectations.

Practical Application of Conversational UI in Business

Conversational user interfaces aren’t perfect, but they have a number of applications. If you keep their limitations in mind and don’t overstep, CUIs can be leveraged in various business scenarios and stages of the customer journey.

Customer Support 

Providing customers simple information or replying to FAQs is a perfect application for a bot.

Usually, customer service reps end up answering many of the same questions over and over. Therefore, using these conversational agents to handle those requests can not only help the company provide better and faster service but also lower the pressure on customer support representatives.

Sales Assistance

Chatbots are useful in helping the sales process of low-involvement products (products that don’t require big financial investment), and so are a perfect tool for eCommerce. 

Chatbots can quickly solve doubts about specific products, delivery and return policies, help to narrow down the choices as well as process transactions.

sales assistant bot

For example, 1–800-Flowers encourages customers to order flowers using their conversational agents on Facebook Messenger, eliminating the steps required between the business and customer. After introducing the chatbot, 70% of its orders came from this channel.

Lead Generation & Qualification

Chatbots are particularly apt when it comes to lead generation and qualification.

The internet made business hours redundant. People can visit your website at any time. Hence, having someone there 24/7 is a big plus. A conversational UI provides a friendly way of interacting with potential clients and collecting their information in real-time. Since the process is pretty straightforward, it can ask the lead key qualification questions and help your sales team prioritize them accordingly.

Data Collection (Surveys)

Data collection speaks for itself. Since the survey process is pretty straightforward as it is, chatbots have nothing to screw up there. They make the process of data or feedback collection significantly more pleasant for the user, as a conversation comes more naturally than filling out a form.

Entertainment/Promotion

Not all problems a CUI solves have to be serious. Chatbots are fun, and using them as a marketing stunt to entertain your customers or promote a new product is a great way to stand out.

For example, at Landbot, we developed an Escape Room Game bot to showcase a product launch. It’s informative, but most of all, it’s a fun experience that users can enjoy and engage with.  

escape room bot

HR & Recruitment

Conversational UI is not exclusive to customers. It can automate internal company processes such as employee satisfaction surveys, document processing, recruitment, and even onboarding.

Conversational UI Best Practices

Before I wrap things up, it’s important to understand that not all conversational interfaces will work like magic. In order for them to be effective, you need to follow best practices and core principles of creating conversational experiences that feel natural and frictionless.

There are three main pillars of conversational design that are outlined in this article. Let’s sum them up:

  • Cooperative principle: effective communication between one or more people relies on the premise that there is underlying cooperation between the participants.
  • Turn-taking: if you have used a chatbot in the past, you might have experienced being sent message after message without being given the chance to respond. A good conversation with the user must allow for them to reply.
  • Context: to make people feel comfortable, you need to focus on the user’s physical and emotional context and the kinds of conversations that can serve them in that context. 

The Future of Conversational Interfaces

Does this hype around conversational interfaces have any future?

Scientists and tech leaders predict that language and understanding frameworks will ultimately blend with machine learning and big data creating an era where conversational interfaces understand not only the user but also their surroundings.

Despite certain shortcomings, there is a lot of potential in making conversational UI the perfect marketing tool for the experience economy.

While AI and machine learning are still far off and inaccessible to the vast majority of businesses, there are ways that allow you to tap into the rising potential today. Choose-your-adventure bots can be the conversational solution you can build and leverage today.

One thing is clear though — the bot is only as good as the conversation you design.

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