Conversational UI, Conversational Commerce, Chat Interface: it seems like we are not yet ready to pick a name for a type of interaction that continues to grow in popularity. While the Chinese already use chat for a lot of their online communication (not limited to the contact with their friends and family), the West seems to only start to get it now. Chat is further evolving as an interface; are we really witnessing the birth of a new interface paradigm?
Throughout the development of software, we’ve seen a few eras in terms of dominant platforms. For some time I have had the feeling that we are about to move into a new paradigm shift when it comes to how we interact with software.
While still working in the Sanoma Innovation Lab, I had the privilege to spend considerable amounts of time researching future trends. One of the themes that has kept my attention ever since 2012 is the rise of conversational bots. Now it seems like 2016 will mark a turning point with some bigger players preparing to jump on the bandwagon. It’s not just conversational bots, it’s accompanied by a shift in design.
First, lets look back on how our relation with software has changed over the past few decades. There are 3 clear phases when looking at what happened since the 90’s: Desktop, web and applications.
In the ‘80s, our dominant way of using software was through the PC. In a world dominated by Microsoft, software was stored on Disks or CD-ROMs and bought in stores. You installed programs on your Windows PC and didn’t need to be online in order to get your job done. Software releases would be slow, as they were relying on physical carriers distributed through brick and mortar stores.
Since the ’96s the web slowly started to take over from the desktop. Initially with static webpages, but steadily offering increasingly more functionality then just a digital replacement of a flyer. Websites enable the owner to adjust the site on the fly, since the distribution of updates is done through the server.
Apple superseded the web trend with launching their App Store. It wasn’t before long that Apple and Google became the dominant players in reaching users. Apps have been the new 'gold' for some time now. It has brought us back to development for the client (phone), with improved ways of distribution through the internet.
Companies are feeling this change: successful news sites from the web era have the majority of their sessions through mobile for some time already, and behemoths like Facebook have worked hard to adapt to the shift to mobile. Companies that failed to recognize this change are on the way out.
Now that the scene is set, what can we say about the next big thing? While it’s still early days, we can already catch a glimpse of the next platform: messaging apps. Business Insider reported that messaging apps have eclipsed social networks in terms of monthly actives:
It’s easy to think that companies should increase the sizes of their social departments based on this development, and maybe they should. This rise in popularity could also indicate something else: a new paradigm is in the making. Talking to the machines might well be the next big thing, not just in Sci-Fi movies. One of the key takeaways from the Business Insider report:
Media companies, and marketers are still investing more time and resources into social networks like Facebook and Twitter than they are into messaging services. That will change as messaging companies build out their services and provide more avenues for connecting brands, publishers, and advertisers with users.
Breaking down the walls of mobile apps
If we follow this trend, we need to rethink how we build the services for our clients. Trends such as actionable push notifications, the adoption of the card design pattern or the design philosophy for wearables have all been atomising app functionality into isolated bits. Many applications already are different front-ends for the same backend. You don’t stand a chance if you still don’t deliver a seamless experience in 2016.
Like the web2.0 enabled us to take functionality from one website to another website without a lot of hassle, we will see services that we currently use as a standalone app pop up within messaging apps.
Signs of Conversational UI
Some people like to have concrete examples, so here are some of the best examples available to date.
Inspiration from China
Dan Grover wrote an excellent piece about the state of UI in Chinese messaging apps. It’s about a lot more than what I described above, but it contains very specific examples too. Mostly around WeChat usage, the most popular messaging application in China:
Many institutions that otherwise would have native apps or mobile sites have opted instead for official accounts. You can send any kind of message (text, image, voice, etc), and they’ll reply, either in an automated fashion or by routing it to a human somewhere. The interface is exactly the same as for chatting with your friends, save for one difference: it has menus at the bottom with shortcuts to the main features of the account…
Since December 2015 you can order an Uber ride from Facebook Messenger. Quite neat. See how the interface of Facebook Messenger now includes a card for ordering the Uber? I bet we'll see a lot more of these custom 'cards' pop up this year.
WhatsApp prepares new ways to communicate
Facebook owned WhatsApp removed the annual 99 cents fee and aims to enable better communication with businesses and organisations for users. This might mean new types of chats and new chat features:
Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you _want _to hear from. That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today — through text messages and phone calls — so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam.
Apps as Personas
Jonathan Libov collected quite a few text interface experiments in his article Futures of Text. He argues that Google and Apple should/would open up their messenger platforms for others in order to stay ahead of the competition:
The most obvious path for Google and Apple to beat one of the messengers to the punch is to open up their own messengers: Hangouts and Messages. That would entail disrupting their own models to some degree, but there’s yet another alternative that might preempt a runaway messenger: embed services within all text across the OS.
Apple already has done some integration, as it attempts to recognise mentions of dates in text, and allows users to take action on those mentions by making a calendar appointments. It's not flawless, as it recognises non-date related words too: the Dutch word for 'here' is 'hier', which is similar for the French word 'yesterday'.
Google has some integration already, albeit small. It recognises when you congratulate someone and triggers emoji in the chat.
WeChat owner TenCent invests $50m in Canadian Kik
With the current king of Conversational UI being mostly a Chinese party, the West still lacks a player to take that spot. One of the earlier entrants in the current mobile messaging arena Kik (275mln users) received a $50m investment from Chinese Tencent in order to become the WeChat of the West.
…today, if you start a new business in China, you don’t put up a website first — you open an official WeChat account. WeChat is the web.
Ted Livingston, Kik Founder and CEO
Conversational UI is far from here. While it looks exciting, there are many challenges that would need to be addressed in order for it to fit in with the way we use our technology. To mention a few:
- Apps: once installed, you have a fighting chance of winning over the users heart. Bots need to be found. In order to do so, we’ll need to find a way to discover it. Likely we’ll invite them into our conversation instead.
- If we invite bots to our conversation, they need to make sure they stay relevant, or we might forget about them.
- We can see a glimpse of what might come, but the ecosystem is still a work in progress. Will bots live in the platforms we already know and use such as Telegram, Slack, WhatsApp and Messenger, or will a new player rise to take the price?
Interested in what chat interfaces could mean for your product? Reach out to us.