16 May 2016

Dan Grover: “Bots won’t replace apps. Better apps will replace apps.”

This recent “bot-mania” is at the confluence of two separate trends. One is agent AIs steadily getting better, as evidenced by Siri and Alexa being things people actually use rather than gimmicks. The other is that the the US somehow still hasn’t got a dominant messaging app and Silicon Valley is trying to learn from the success of Asian messenger apps. This involves a peculiar fixation on how these apps, particularly WeChat, incorporate all sorts of functionality seemingly unrelated to messaging. They come away surprised by just how many differently-shaped pegs fit into this seemingly oddly-shaped hole. The thesis, then, is that users will engage more frequently, deeply, and efficiently with third-party services if they’re presented in a conversational UI instead of a separate native app.

It’s that part which, having spent the past two years in my current job eating and breathing messaging, seems a major misattribution of what makes chat apps work and what problems they’re best at solving.

As I’ll explain, messenger apps’ apparent success in fulfilling such a surprising array of tasks does not owe to the triumph of “conversational UI”. What they’ve achieved can be much more instructively framed as an adept exploitation of Silicon Valley phone OS makers’ growing failure to fully serve users’ needs, particularly in other parts of the world. Chat apps have responded by evolving into “meta-platforms.” Many of the platform-like aspects they’ve taken on to plaster over gaps in the OS actually have little to do with the core chat functionality. Not only is “conversational UI” a red herring, but as we look more closely, we’ll even see places where conversational UI has breached its limits and broken down.

Dan Grover

Very – and I mean very! – long and insightful article about the recent ‘bot-fever’, including major initiatives from Facebook and Microsoft. The best case the author makes is comparing the number of taps needed to perform an action via a bot (over 70 to order a pizza) versus through the WeChat app (less than 20). And that’s assuming the bot understands your commands in the first place…

This notion of a bot handling the above sorts of tasks is a curious kind of skeumorphism. In the same way that a contact book app (before the flat UI fashion began) may have presented contacts as little cards with drop shadows and ring holes to suggest a Rolodex, conversational UI, too, has applied an analog metaphor to a digital task and brought along details that, in this form, no longer serve any purpose. Things like the small pleasantries in the above exchange like “please” and “thank you”, to asking for various pizza-related choices sequentially and separately (rather than all at once). These vestiges of human conversation no longer provide utility (if anything, they impede the task). I am no more really holding a conversation than my contact book app really is a l’il Rolodex. At the end, a single call to some ordering interface will be made.

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