If you make a point of keeping up with tech developments - and probably if you don’t, too - you’ll be well aware that 2016 is being billed to be the year that chat bots make real strides to revolutionizing the way we think about our smartphones’ utility. Headlines like ‘Get ready for the chatbot revolution’ have been common, and tech’s most influential giants are all creating their own incarnations, presumably for fear of being left behind by the competition if the technology catches on.
For years now, brands and publishers have used tactics of retention - trying to get users to stay within the ‘walled gardens’ that are mobile apps for as long as possible. But the app landscape has become increasingly dominated by a handful of favourites - users will have a couple of chat apps, their preferred social media, a browser, Uber, their preferred news outlet and not much else. 80% - 90% of apps are used once then deleted by users. This presents a challenge for apps to be immediately engaging and immediately useful.
In the hunt for user retention, Microsoft, along with other major tech companies, has bet big on conversational intelligence with its acquisition of Wand Labs, a company that specialises in chatbots and messaging apps. Facebook, for example, has already launched chatbots, but user reviews have been largely poor, with many reporting bugs and third party platforms not functioning properly, according to Tech Times. Google’s announcement of Allo in May follows the same trend, and it was one that focused on the fact that it would integrate AI into its functionality, something it hopes will give it an edge over the likes of Facebook Messenger.
Asia, though, has led the way in the chatbot experiment. WeChat, with its 700 million active monthly users, has been one of the key drivers of the technology. New Chinese businesses will often create a chatbot before they create a website, and many operate exclusively through a chat app. Chinese laws mean that a WeChat-based app could see its public account, along with its user base, wiped away under vaguely defined ‘offensive content’ legislation - the fact so many businesses still opt to base their model on it is testament to its effectiveness. Berlin’s Telegram, too, has thousands of available chatbots - they don’t require downloads and you begin the interaction simply by messaging them as you would an ordinary user.
The positives are numerous and are, in some ways, persuasive. The monumental user base of messenger apps gives chatbots an absolutely huge initial group to target. Facebook Messenger - likely to see more, improved, better promoted chatbots in the near future - has some 900 million monthly active users. Perhaps the clearest benefit for these users will be the lack of a need to download and install an app - instead, just finding the chatbot and messaging it will be enough. The argument that this will aid retention is slightly bogus, though, as chatbots will become as lost in the ‘inbox’ as apps are on the home screen.
Users are also limited in the number of apps they can store. For example Twitter, despite its 140-character limit and relatively limited functionality, is 72MB. The bigger the app, the more likely users are to delete them when clearing out their devices and the less likely they are to even download them in the first place. Smaller apps would benefit from a move toward chatbots, with users more ready to have a conversation open than download an app - initial user attraction would, at least, benefit.
Having said that, chatbots have serious and fundamental drawbacks in their current form, some of which could take a long time to remedy. The borderline irritating demonstrations in which companies ask users to type things like ‘Hello Pizza Bot’ expect users to engage far more with the notion that they’re speaking to a sentient being than most will. Users will quickly find the quickest way to have the chatbot perform the function they need, at which point the chatbot needs to become a facilitator for concise demands - users won’t want a back and forth for a relatively simple request - something they’ll need to be sophisticated to achieve.
Chatbots are essentially skeuomorphs - new apps presented in a format that makes them accessible. Presenting an app as some kind of chat system offers no greater functionality than an ordinary app, it simply - and needlessly - makes them conversational in tone. For menial tasks like booking a taxi or buying a movie ticket, the utility makes sense. For more complex or more expensive tasks, though, browsing and refinement is what users expect - something a lengthy conversation with a chatbot only makes more onerous. Assuming that the popularity of messaging apps is a signifier that users want all actions to be taken within them is like assuming I’d prefer all my travel to be done underground because I spend a lot of time on the tube.
The issues surrounding apps in their current form are far more easily - and more effectively - solved by instant apps, Google’s pledge to remove the need to download anything to use an app in a stripped down format. It allows users to adopt an app temporarily, as and when they need it. In the strive to make the app ecosystem more fluid, more competitive, it’s instant apps that are the future, not chatbots.