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Conversations with Bots

AcxiomJune 25, 2018

Most experts say the use of chatbots is expected to grow over the next few years. However, as with other user interfaces, some will provide great customer experiences while others will likely disappoint. Chatbots generally have a single purpose – for example, provide weather information. In this case, the level of conversation does not have to be too great. All that is needed is a few standard responses to questions like “will it be hot today?” Over time, developers will try to enhance chatbots so they can be used as virtual assistants.

In comparison, virtual assistants have multiple uses, and thus the necessary conversational capabilities are much greater. Imagine if we want to add the capability to make dinner reservations (as Google Assistant will do) to a weather bot. We would now need to add a conversation flow that identifies which task is being asked for. We would also need flows that clarified the requested restaurant, the number of people attending and the time of the reservation. Finally, we would need the assistant to confirm that the reservation was made.

Additionally, since our virtual assistant can report the weather and make dinner reservations, we would want it to say, “It’s likely to rain at the time of your dinner reservation, so you’ll want to bring an umbrella.” The virtual assistant I am describing is not a chatbot; it is a conversational interface (CI). Using this type of interface requires consumers to change their behavior.

As we explore the applications of CI here at Acxiom, our belief is that to increase chances of adoption, the interface needs to be human-like. People are used to talking to, working and playing with humans, not machines. Machine-like interaction was fine when the user was working with a mouse, but as we move into an era where the interaction is more conversational, the key is to act more human, resembling human behavior. Acxiom has identified some features that will make it a better experience for consumers. Based on a certain amount of research, CI needs three interrelated qualities to be human-like:

1. CIs need to be named.

Names provide a humanness and elevate the level of interaction. The first thing we are given when we are born is our name. Without a name we would be objectified, just “the baby.” Moreover, our names (first name, last name combination) make us unique.

2. CIs need to have a persona.

Without a consistent persona, you can’t build a sense of reliability. All aspects of the CI’s personality need to be defined before it is built. Our research – not to mention the examples of Siri and Alexa – indicates that female personas are more approachable. However, there are other aspects of the persona that need to be considered. For example, is she funny? If funny, how funny? Are there times when she shouldn’t be funny? Is she personable? Does she know your name? All these factors need to be defined in a personality profile at the beginning of the project.

3. CIs need to have conversation skills.

She can’t be boring and must be engaging. Make sure the conversation has a certain amount of randomness in the CI’s responses. When co-workers meet in the office, they don’t say “hello” the same way every day. There is some natural variety – “hi,”, “what’s up?”, “how’s it going?”, “what’s going on?” are all potential greetings. A virtual assistant should be able to respond to all of them.

Additionally, she should be able to answer requests in many ways. The response to “please make a dinner reservation” could be “OK, please tell me where you want to eat,” “Sure, where are you going?” or “Happy to, where are you planning to eat?”  All the statements mean the same thing, but by varying the responses, the conversation remains fresh. Finally, knowing the user’s name creates a compelling sense of immediacy. As an example, the dinner reservation responses are improved when a name is included – “Ok, please tell me where you want to eat, Ray,” “Sure Ray; where are you going?” or “Happy to Ray; where are you planning to eat?”

The use of names, personas and especially more complex conversation skills requires more effort in scripting as well as programming, but the reward is a much more functional interface that is more fun to use and increases opportunities for adoption. With the rise of chatbots, voice and the like, we encourage marketers not to get enamored with the technology just for the sake of jumping into the new technology, but to remember it’s another communication channel for enhancing the customer experience.