Chatbots represent a way for brands, businesses and publishers to interact with users without requiring them to download an app, become familiar with a new UI, or configure and update regularly. A number of companies — perhaps most notably Facebook — are touting chatbots as the way brands will interact with customers in the future. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently said chatbots will solve the current app overload problem.
We’re already seeing a shift: studies show people are using fewer apps, and much has been written about the difficulties developers face in today’s maturing app market. We spend more than 85 percent of our time on a smartphone, but 84 percent of that time is spent on five non-native apps installed from the App Store. While engagement is up, it’s heavily skewed toward our most used apps (Google and Facebook own eight of the top 10 mobile apps). Facebook Messenger jumped from 12th place to 3rd place in a single year, showing the rapid growing primacy of messaging in mobile activity.
In the spring of 2015, messaging platforms eclipsed social networks in their number of monthly active users. The size, retention, and usage rates and user demographics of such platforms are especially ripe for brands, businesses, and publishers because it’s a paradigm that users already understand – a seamless integration into an existing UI. Facebook Messenger, KiK, and Slack are creating their own bots to provide users with a one-stop-shop for all their needs, whether it’s shopping, paying bills, checking the weather and more. To allow developers and users to take advantage of their platforms, Amazon and Facebook are granting access to their respective APIs so anyone can intelligently take advantage of their platform and activate skills based on a bot’s natural language processing (NLP).
The evolution of messaging platforms and chatbots suggests another shift that brings us nearer to a post-app world: a preference for conversational UI (text and voice) over graphical user interfaces (GUIs). In one sense, conversational UI is the absence of interface – there is no dependence on graphic affordances, buttons, or menus. You simply ask a question or give a command, and the chatbot responds. Language is the interface.
As their abilities to search, connect, consume, and execute certain tasks grow, chatbots are poised to replace apps that perform similar functions in narrow verticals, such as requesting an Uber or ordering pizza. The challenge is whether chatbots can respond to natural language and parse intent across a wide range of use cases versus parsing that input only in the context of ordering pizza or an Uber. Once bots can handle many different potential scenarios, there won’t be a need for multiple apps. Until a cross-platform “killer bot” emerges, though — one AI-driven interface that can handle everything — platforms will continue to frame the next step in the chatbot evolution.
Getting a ride, buying a known commodity, and getting customer service are transactional use cases, but how will chatbots improve non-transactional experiences, such as playing a game or meeting people? Text or even voice AI might not be able to entirely address that need. There also needs to be a more sophisticated GUI on our platforms before we replace apps with chatbots for these interactions. WeChat in Asia is already implementing non-conversational UI through web interfaces and HTML5 menus for apps that work in its messaging platform.
By dispensing with the need to download and configure applications, messaging platforms and the chatbots that function within them will prove an irresistibly powerful channel for brands and publishers to communicate with their audiences and acquire customers. The AI at the heart of a chatbot also makes it capable of consuming and leveraging vast amounts of data, an ability that promises greater efficiency and productivity across the spectrum of our daily lives.
Unlike apps that dictate to us what their developer has programmed, chatbots can conform to the way we live and how we arrange and execute tasks. In doing so, they might replace apps, but there is quite a bit left to figure out. In the end, this too might be an intermediate step as both input and consumption are redefined through platform shifts in augmented reality and virtual reality.
Dash Gopinath is CEO of if(we).