Conversational interfaces have become the echoing buzzword 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 conversational UI is worth your attention:
- What constitutes conversational UI
- Types of conversational interfaces
- Advantages of conversational UI
- Shortcomings of conversational UI
- Conversational interface applications in business
- Future of chatbots
- How to leverage CUI today?
- Best practices and tips
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 “navigates” or “browses.”
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.
There are two branches of conversational UI: Chatbots and Voice Assistants.
Chatbots are visual interfaces that can appear on 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 bots use Natural Language Processing (NLP) and (sometimes) machine learning to analyze and understand the requests human 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 bot should understand that “Yup” “Certainly” “Sure” or “Why not” are all equivalent of “Yes” in a given situation. In other words, users shouldn’t have to learn to type-specific commands to “make” the bot understand them.
A chatbot employing machine learning is able to improve its accuracy. The more it’s being used, the smarter it becomes.
A rule-based chatbot answers user questions based on the rules outlined by its programmer.
The rules can be really simple or incredibly complex. However, unlike an AI chatbot, this kind of bot can never answer anything it was not hard-coded to do.
Writing rules for all possible scenarios is very time-consuming (as well as impossible) hence, users are quick to discover the shortcomings of a rule-based bot.
A choose-your-adventure bot is a “gamified” version of a conversational interface. The interaction doesn’t rely on AI nor machine learning. Instead, it provides the user with suggested responses in the form of quick answers, buttons, emojis or other visual media.
The dialogue flow is pre-set and branches out from response to response. Again, it can be simple and linear (A to Z) or quite complex and non-linear (A to D to B to M), it all depends on the conversation designer in charge.
Some publications do not mention this type of chatbot when talking about conversational interfaces as it doesn’t give the user complete freedom to request and react. However, the bot does use conversation as a mean of achieving a goal as well as abides conversational principles, hence should not be left out.
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 voice interfaces, profound natural language understanding is even more pivotal as it really puts us into a position of talking to computers instead of typing.
Since the technology needed to create a viable VUI is so complex, voice assistants are in the hands of tech giants like Google (Ok Google Assistant), Microsoft (Hey Cortana), Apple (Hey Siri) and Amazon (Echo). They not only introduced VUI to the world but also work hard to improve it as it still has a long way to go.
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 decrease your chances of lead acquisition.
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 to the user.
Chatbots help businesses automate simple repetitive tasks that would have otherwise take 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.
Again, too many things fight 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.
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.
However, not everyone is supporting the obsession with a conversational approach to digital design. Some point out a few relevant shortcomings.
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 interfaces, although they might require a learning curve, can provide users with a complex set of choices and solutions.
In his book “How to design everyday things”, Don Norman states that the two essential characteristics of good design are Understanding and Discoverability. Conversational interfaces lack both of these characteristics.
On a graphical interface, users can follow visual and textual clues and hints to understand a more complex 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.
UX designer Alex Mohebbi argues that graphical interfaces constantly remind users what they can and cannot do so they can evaluate a multitude of choices before taking any action. On the other hand, conversational UI requires users to specify what they want at every single step of the way.
Mohebbi further claims that GUIs formulate people’s needs for them and that, in the vast majority of cases, clicking on a button or icon to trigger a process is more efficient than typing o saying your intent.
Still, there is something about CUI that keeps people engaged and interested.
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 customer journey.
Here is a list of not all, but the best possible applications of conversational interfaces in business.
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 a bot as a “sieve” can not only help the company provide better and faster service but also lower the pressure on the employees.
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 e-commerce. Chatbots can quickly solve doubts about specific products, delivery, return policy, help to narrow down the choices as well as process transactions.
For example, 1–800-Flowers encourages customers to order flowers using their bot sales assistant on Facebook messenger eliminating steps between the business and customer. After introducing their chatbot, 70% of its orders came from this channel.
Concierge bots allow users to perform contextual and repetitive tasks like calling a taxi or a reservation in a restaurant. Such tasks are well within the capabilities of a bot don’t give too much space for error.
These types of bots can be a service in themselves or represent a single business.
Chatbots are particularly apt when it comes to lead generation and qualification.
The Internet made business hours a history. People can visit your business 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.
Data gathering speaks for itself. Since the survey process is pretty straightforward as it is, chatbots have nothing to screw up there. There is a chance to make data or feedback collection significantly more pleasant as a conversation comes more naturally than filling out a form.
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, Disney let fans chat with a bot version of Judy Hops (Zootopia’s main character) and help her solve small crimes. The stunt was a huge success. Though it was available only for 16 days, it generated millions of conversations as users turned into ambassadors and encouraged others to try.
Conversational UI is not exclusive to customers. It can automate internal company processes such as employee satisfaction surveys, document processing, recruitment, and even onboarding.
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 not only understand the user but also his or her surroundings.
According to the research vice president at Gartner, Van Baker, by 2020, over 50% of medium to large businesses will be using product chatbots. On another note, a Jupitor research predicted $0.70 per interaction cost saving thanks to using chatbots which would, by 2022, cut down business costs by $8 billion per year.
It’s undeniable that in the future, more and more businesses and different business models will get the chance to benefit from chatbots.
Indeed the future of conversation UI especially when it comes to AI seems pretty impressive.
But what about today?
In practice, AI-driven interfaces more often than not fail to live up to the expectations. The research from Alpine.AI sais that only 6% of users who downloaded voice UI apps actively use them the second week.
The truth is that AI-driven conversational interfaces still often lack the flexibility to accommodate the variety of user requests which results in error messages. Sometimes they are simply not engaging or simply fail to understand the question. Not to speak of the cost of developing such bot.
So, what can you do to start leveraging the advantages of conversational interfaces today?
Choose-your-adventure bots don’t only provide conversational experience, but they are also financially accessible and quite simple to build.
The market is booming with chatbot building platforms that allow you to put together a variety of interfaces for lead generation or customer support. The quick responses or button options also eliminate the need for typing or saying what you want out loud.
While the conversation flow is far more restricted and controlled than with the use of AI, it eliminates the design flaws pointed out by Alex Mohebbi earlier in the article. Thanks to these options, users are not forced to articulate their requests at every step of the conversation, improving the discoverability of the UI. Also, having greater control over the dialogue flow allows for improved efficiency.
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.
Purna Virji, Senior Manager of Global Engagement at Microsoft outlined 4 core principles of Conversational interfaces (the four Cs of CX):
Virji explains that there are two systems that define our decision making:
- Emotional and intuitive (Homer stage)
- Logical and deliberate (Lisa stage)
Maximizing conversations means focusing on keeping people in the “Homer stage” where everything is easy, frictionless and intuitive. If users enter into the “Lisa stage” the decision making becomes slower. Reason, skepticism, and even negativity start streaming in.
The clarity in conversational user interfaces is all about ensuring the users spend less time trying to guess what you mean and more time actually doing things they want to get done.
Always present clear choices and ask straightforward questions.
Virgi continues to point out that users prefer virtual assistants with an easy-to-perceive personality. Conversation requires and resonates with a persona whether you design for it or not. By deliberately forming a character of your bot, you ensure that the persona your users interact with is not dry but interesting and memorable.
The personality of the bot is heavily dependent on its intended purpose. The bot’s personality should never clash with your brand. Likewise, it is important not to try to trick people into thinking they are speaking with a human. It never works. A bot can have a great personality without having to sound human.
Though a bot is nothing more than lines of code, it’s still possible to give it some empathy. Virgi offers an example of a banking bot that warns users if they attempt to make a transaction that would cause them to go into overdraft, the same way a human would.
Another great way to give your bot a heart is to introduce some small talk here and there. It takes the edge off of things and makes the conversation more natural.
To ensure you are providing the best user experience possible no matter the mode of interaction (voice or graphical), every chatbot needs a default correction setting for when they don’t know how to respond or move forward.
However, it cannot be repetitive. Having the bot say the same thing over and over again is a conversational dead end. The correction should always offer a way forward.
Conversational UI is undoubtedly taking the marketing world by storm.
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.