Tell me more about talking about chatbots

In our dev meeting this week, Alex talked about chatbots. Bots are a massive shift in how we interact with computers – but to some extent they’re still a solution looking for a problem. Bots are conversation driven – and developers typically have never dealt with conversation! There’s a lot of existing support for English language bots that comprehend language reasonably – but there’s far less support for non-English bots. There are libraries and services to help with this – for example, Microsoft Cognitive Services provides endpoints that pick out from the users input what the user is asking, and even what their emotions are. However, these tools are probabilistic – they will say “it’s 90% likely that the user wants this”, rather than “the user definitely wants this”. Bots can get confused – because the bot will typically maintain state so it can refer back to earlier elements of the conversation, it may sometimes lose track of where it is – and needs to be reset. However – this is adding complexity to what is supposedly an intuitive interface; and users may not understand the underlying complexity.

You need to think about the platform that you’re deploying to, in terms of how you develop your bot and what capabilities you expect it to have. Slack bots, bots responding to SMS, Facebook bots – all have different characteristics based on the capabilities of the platform they’re running against. This also shapes what users expect in terms of level of communication – no-one expects lengthy complex sentences from an SMS bot, but they might do from a Slack bot. Discord bots have an expectation that they’re used for gaming, because of the assumptions of the Discord culture. Facebook bots have more in the way of graphics and buttons – so they’re moving to “Monkey Island” style user interfaces, whereas other bots are more similar to an old-style text adventure user interface or a Twine (and Twine is good for developing bots).

For bots, uptime is critical – so the bot should always be available. However, it’s not essential that they respond immediately at machine speeds – in some ways its better to pause a few seconds, because it may feel more natural, as well as helping deal with load. Cloud hosting is useful for bot development to help with this availability and coping with load. Also tracking user responses is important.

Given these complexities – why bots? It offers a high engagement rate, because it’s the same way of communicating as people are used to using with their friends. Bots can be proactive – if a user looks up an event like a concert, then the bot can prompt that the user might want to buy a ticket for it. Bots can be more engaging for users who are unfamiliar with technology. Bots are new and exciting – it’s immature and in flux, and there are no great settled ways of doing things, so it’s good for experimentation. There’s lots of space for exploration – like creating a Twitter bot that offers to sell wine to people based on their tweets of wine bottles. They are a new space – and we should think about ‘how can a bot benefit you’ – like using a bot to collect orders to buy drinks at the bar. Go forth, and make the next Flappy Bird of bots!