If you believed everything you read online, you’d end up thinking some pretty amazing things about chatbots. From a merely technological standpoint, there’s no doubt that they are impressive. Chatbots are sophisticated, unmanned algorithms that can talk to users at length and in depth about anything, order products for them, browse the internet for information, and even pull up relevant gifs or emojis.
SmarterChild they ain’t. Chatbots are a new breed, and some believe they will solve many “pressing problems” for businesses. According to Forbes, they will “make payments easier” by allowing users to simply type out (or speak out) their request. Heck, according to one chatbot developer, they “will completely kill websites and mobile apps.” After all, who needs a website or an app when you can just talk to a chatbot about what you want?
As someone who runs a digital marketing agency, I make a living designing, optimizing, and marketing websites for a variety of businesses. Personally, I don’t see a future where chatbots completely revolutionize the way we browse the web and, to be honest, I think a lot of the excitement surrounding chatbots is — at the moment, at least — hype. It’s true that they may become a bigger part of ecommerce as the technology gets better. However, they aren’t exactly the internet 2.0. They won’t “completely kill websites and mobile apps,” and there are several good reasons for this.
1. There isn’t a problem
Apps and mobile-friendly websites have only recently taken over desktop usage, and that trend looks set to continue, because people are perfectly happy using apps and mobile-friendly websites just the way they are. Nobody’s complaining. Nobody thinks that Uber is too hard to use (though the company does have other problems), or that it’s too hard to order Indian food using an app, or that it’s too hard to read the news online. In short, nobody asked for the ability to talk to their phone.
2. Science and technology aren’t the same thing
The fact that we are able to talk to our phones using a chatbot is really interesting, but it’s not necessarily revolutionary. App developers have stumbled across a great piece of science, but great science doesn’t always mean great technology. The discovery of the Higgs Boson was fantastic science, but it hasn’t lead to any life-changing, business-revolutionizing technology. Sometimes science is just impressive in its own right.
3. We already can order products by talking
Believe it or not, the original purpose of a mobile phone was to talk to people without a landline. I know, I know, it sounds crazy now, but it was big deal at the time. The first mobile phone was developed by Motorola in 1973. It weighed a couple of pounds and it cost thousands of dollars.
Since then, mobile phones have come a long way. Evidently, they’ve come so far that chatbot developers seem to believe that the notion of talking to someone to order a product or service is completely radical. There’s nothing stopping you from calling the pizza place or the shoe shop from your mobile and ordering that way. We’ve been doing it for years.
True, chatbots can read also text and take your order that way. You can download a business’ chatbot, talk to it by typing, and buy a product or service from them in moments. Still, you don’t necessarily need to talk to a chatbot to do this. Humans are perfectly capable of texting and typing. Live chat plugins can even be added to websites and manned by staff. Simply put, there’s nothing that a chatbot can do that a human with access to the internet can’t do.
4. Chatbots aren’t an improvement
It was business journalist Josh Linkner who said that a new product or service needs to be two of the following: better, cheaper, or faster. To claim that you’re all three is often rose-tinted thinking.
Are chatbots cheaper than buying from websites or apps? No. All of the options are free. Or rather, all of the options are the same price. That is to say, it’s a simple matter of Wi-Fi costs (or roaming data costs) plus the price of the product.
Are chatbots faster than buying from websites or apps? Certainly not. With the right app, I can order a pizza, a taxi, or book a massage in a matter of two or three clicks. Chatbots might be as fast, but they are certainly not faster.
Are chatbots better than buying from website or apps? That’s a matter of opinion. They might be better for some people, which is why I conceded that they may well have a place in the future of ecommerce. However, the buck stops there. Apps are just as cheap, just as fast, and, for many people, just as good. In fact, to say they’re “just as good” is being too nice….
5. Chatbots are riddled with bugs
When a chatbot works well, it’s about as good as an app. When a chatbot doesn’t work well, it’s a PR disaster. The fact that a piece of technology can just go rogue and accidentally order a dollhouse from Amazon without your knowledge is terrible enough — when it happens once. When it happens multiple times (because a news program reported on the issue, repeated the order on live TV, and caused every Amazon Echo within earshot to make the exact same mistake), the entire product needs a rethink.
Amazon Echo, and the chatbot technology surrounding it, has its roots in great science fiction. HAL, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a brilliant piece of technology — right up until the moment where it started killing its masters because it thought it knew best. I’m not suggesting Amazon Echo is going to kill anyone anytime soon. However, it’s probably going to order many more unwanted dollhouses before we really figure out the role that chatbot technology should play in ecommerce.