It has long been the dream of science fiction fans everywhere to shout commands into the air and have an intelligent virtual assistant do their bidding. The likes of Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man and the omnipresent HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey have prepared us for a future where people speak effortlessly with computers to complete daily tasks.
While the technology is still maturing, voice control and messaging platforms like Amazon Alexa and Facebook Messenger have begun to create this future. These and other tools are setting the stage for what has been called the next big shift in computer interfaces: conversational user interfaces.
Conversational user interfaces describe a new method for communicating with computers and other devices by using natural language (i.e., full sentences) and having “conversations” with those devices to get things done. These conversations may be in the form of text or voice and may be powered behind the scenes by real people or by artificial intelligent “bots.”
As our clients begin delving into the world of bots and voice/text-powered user experiences, we have developed a strategic guide to help lead them through this budding technological landscape.
step 1: brainstorm use cases
The first step in building a conversational interface strategy is to understand potential use cases. Get those creative juices flowing and figure out just what could be. Examples of existing interfaces include automated text-based apps for customer support questions, quick ordering of products through messaging apps (e.g., iMessage, Facebook Messenger), or voice-controlled device assistants like Siri and Cortana.
An important part of this step is figuring out limitations and pain points that conversational interfaces can solve for your users. For example, if a user is driving home from work and would like to pick up dinner on the go, a hands-free, voice-based experience would be the safest and potentially quickest method of scheduling an order.
No idea is too big or too small in this stage. From easy wins to moonshots, look for out-of-the-box experiences where their users find joy and magic in interacting with an application. It is up to early adopters in each industry to set the standard for the future of voice and text interactions with their applications. No particular industry or technology has solidified just how far conversational interfaces can extend to help their customers.
As your team brainstorms the future of interaction with your application, don’t be afraid to dream big and suspend judgment. Our next step will help you make sense of all the ideas.
step 2: prioritize using business goals
The best way to champion new technological efforts is to connect the dots between user experience enhancements and ROI for stakeholders. In this step, your team can take the ideas generated from step one and correlate them with business goals and established brand identity. Without this step, new technological features can come off as simply flashy or just chasing the “next big thing,” and they can potentially alienate loyal customers.
Start by taking a look at your organization’s strategic goals. If one goal for an organization is increased online sales, consider how enabling at-home ordering of a new product using an Amazon Echo can add to the joy of purchasing a product. If another goal is better user loyalty, consider how an intelligent assistant could help customers find their way around a large product catalog.
In addition, look for opportunities to be the first in an industry. Companies like Domino’s and Uber have been quick to implement chat bots and other innovative interfaces to access their core services, giving them wide media exposure and access to potential new customers in different channels.
Finally, consider brand identity and existing “brand voice.” Conversational interfaces are a great way to make a brand feel more personal and help customers feel more emotionally connected to a product. They also present a great opportunity to connect a company’s digital experience with a physical one. For example, a restaurant app might create a voice experience where a virtual host/hostess could place a user on a call-ahead list and provide a fun or endearing experience that simulates a real-world restaurant atmosphere.
step 3: discover user context
Once you have generated potential use cases and filtered them against real business goals, you next need to answer a few questions about your target users.
Where are they located geographically?
What are they doing when they want to access your services—driving, waiting in line, cooking, etc.?
What devices do they have available in that moment?
All these questions will influence the implementation and marketing of a chatbot/conversational interface experience.
This step requires knowing the common behaviors of your user base. For one of our clients, we were able to leverage Google Analytics to demonstrate that 60% of their ecommerce traffic came from mobile phones. Using this knowledge, we were able to suggest that this client consider other mobile channels such as an SMS chat client or a Facebook Messenger app experience to complement their existing mobile presence.
After the figuring out where and how your target audience is interacting with your application, you can choose an appropriate technology stack for implementation.
step 4: select technologies to support user context
There are many different service providers and technology channels with which to build a conversational interface.
If the target audience is on mobile devices, there quite a few options:
• The Facebook Messenger bot system.
• Siri on iOS devices (available for third-party usage in iOS 10).
• Google Now on Android devices.
• Text-based SMS platforms.
Facebook Messenger and SMS provide standardized user interface elements and help facilitate conversation, while requiring external natural language processing and intent detection APIs. Siri and Google Now both provide custom APIs for intent detection that can be linked to functionality in third-party applications.
Auto & Home
Vehicular applications are another great use case for conversational interfaces. There are platform-specific options like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but their usage statistics are fairly low. Another option to consider is the built-in voice-to-SMS functionality included in many car electronics systems.
At home, the Amazon Echo and the recently released Google Home stand to generate the most user adoption. The Amazon Echo allows developers to create “skills” to teach its voice-powered assistant named Alexa. Google’s competitor product, Google Home, is a physical device for the home that is powered by Google Assistant (Google’s voice/text parsing service).
No matter where the user is, these solutions can all benefit from a common API for mapping user language to application behavior. Companies like Wit.ai, Api.ai, and Init.ai offer software-as-a-service models for user intent detection and conversation mapping that are very intuitive to use. In addition, there are companies who provide all-in-one solutions for conversational mapping and channel-specific implementations like Credera’s new product partner, Conversable.
Our advice at Credera would be to make use of one of these services to “let the experts be the experts” in natural language processing and intent-detection, and then build a domain-specific API that these services can call to execute your application’s functionality. This business logic is where we see the most value for our clients.
Platform-specific voice and text implementations may come and go, but a solid API ecosystem can be reused and shared across many different platforms.
Many of our clients can benefit from starting an early discussion with their product teams and managers about chatbots and conversational user interfaces. Conversational interfaces are a great opportunity to show industry innovation and provide fresh and unique user experiences. If you would like to learn more or work through a proof-of-concept for your organization, let’s start our own conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Image credit: Banner image – http://www.knowyourmobile.com/devices/apple-siri-speaker/23615/apple-has-huge-plans-siri-and-new-product-her-live-inside, Thumbnail image – https://dribbble.com/tfirdaus)