UX Development & Design

Do you need a bot?

If you see the word ‘bot’ and think “BattleBots,” you’re not wrong, but it means you may have missed the recent hype surrounding one of the latest software trends. Bots are automated software programs for which your main interface is conversational in nature. Rather than clicking buttons or entering specific commands to complete a task, you simply converse with the bot using normal language.

So you could say, “Order me a large pepperoni pizza with extra sauce” as opposed to tapping through an app:

  • Navigate: Order -> Pizza
  • Select Toppings and choose Pepperoni
  • Select Large from the Size menu
  • Choose Special Instructions and type in “Extra sauce”
  • Tap ‘Submit Order’ button

Will bots replace apps? Some folks think they’re just a fad. Others think bots represent a major disruption to the app economy, especially given the supposed fatigue users have from having to download and manage so many apps these days. No matter where the truth lies about their significance, bots are just specialized bits of software that help users accomplish what they need to do.

So do you need a bot? Should you build a bot instead of an app? As with most such questions we get asked, our first response is: What’s the business problem you’re trying to solve? For a restaurant that only has a Facebook page and no website, a bot that is only accessible from Facebook might be a better engagement tool than building a standalone app. A shipping company might find value in building a bot to help customers get status information quickly, while the full app is used for setting up and placing orders. Still other firms may get no meaningful ROI or brand value from building a bot at all.

Depending on the task, it can be a huge time saver, or at least a less frustrating experience. X.ai is a new service I’ve started using to help me schedule meetings with other folks. Rather than spending my time trying to find open time slots on my calendar that coincide with other’s schedules, I gave X.ai access to my calendar, and then interact with it via email. Their bot takes care of finding a few open slots (based on any criteria I feed it such as “next Monday”), then emails each invitee to find a match, and once it does, it books the meeting. When I had a meeting run long, I simply replied to the email to say “Let’s push this back by 30 minutes”, and the bot notified the other parties of the request and asked if it would be ok. I emailed it to reschedule another meeting for another day, and the bot followed up to ask what times the other party had open on that day.

X.ai is impressive, which makes sense given the likely millions of dollars they’re investing in the technology. But bots can be much simpler than that, and will allow companies to automate many of their most common interactions in a place where the users are already spending their time, in a more natural way.

kaboompics.com_Facebook on mobile phone screen

We’ve already seen that kind of improvement with phone IVR systems, where you can speak commands instead of mashing buttons. Domino’s lets their customers order a pizza with an emoji via Twitter. Digit is a relatively new banking service that allows its users to completely manage their funds via SMS, while financial stalwart USAA is jumping into the bot arena to improve customer service for its 11 million customers. And Facebook just announced they’re going to enable companies to build their own bots for use within the Messenger app. If it lives up to its promise, it will be a boon to B2C companies looking to better engage their consumers, even if it’s just to provide better and faster customer service.

Imagine calling an Uber by sending the simple message “I need an UberX” from within Facebook. No need to open the app and go through all the screens, waiting on confirmations, etc. The Uber bot inside Facebook would already have all the necessary info, including your current location. And once a car is found, the bot sends you a message with the driver name, license plate, and ETA.

We’re excited to see where this technology goes, fad or not. Sign up for our newsletter if you’d like to keep up with our exploration!

By Greg Haygood