If you’ve used the internet at all over the past twelve months you’ll have heard plenty about chatbots. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you for being sick to death of seeing headlines written about the things by now – and I apologise for adding another one into the mix.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not here to talk about how great chatbots are or how they’re going to change the web as we know it. Instead, I’m here to ask a serious question about where these things are headed.
Whether you believe the hype about chatbots or not doesn’t really matter. When 80% of businesses say they want one by 2020 you have to ask: is now the time to become a chatbot designer?
What’s all the fuss about?
Even if half the stuff written about chatbots is over-the-top marketing spiel, we’re not going to be able to ignore these things in 2017. They may not be the second coming many are hyping up to be but they’re going to be big whether we like it or not.
Messaging apps have overtaken social networks
Mobile users now spend more time in messaging apps than they do on social networks, marking a significant shift in user habits. It’s no coincidence chatbots are resurfacing as the hottest thing in digital marketing as this change happens.
Let’s remind ourselves that users already spend the vast majority of their time inside the same few mobile apps – increasingly of the messaging variety. Then we have the likes of Google and Facebook keeping users locked into their ecosystems for as long as possible, rather than sending them to websites.
Business owners have little reason to build their own branded apps anymore. Meanwhile, they’re getting less from everything they invest into their websites with every year that passes.
The tech giants want chatbots to take off
When Google, Facebook and the other industry leaders decide chatbots are the way to go, we pretty much have to go along for the ride. Take one look at the amount of money these guys are ploughing into the technology and it’s obvious they’re not going to let it fail without a fight.
The truth is there’s no reason for it to either. The web is moving towards a closed ecosystem where users never need to leave the app/interface they’re currently using. Chatbots are only going to help this by connecting consumers with brands from inside Facebook, Google, Amazon Echo or whatever their platform of choice is.
We’re already at a point where shoppers can browse, buy and even pay for products inside Facebook Messenger, thanks to chatbots.
Time to jump on board as a chatbot designer?
The question looming over all of this is how much longer will it be worth having a website? With the way the web is going, sites are going to play an increasingly small role in the consumer journey, even if they don’t disappear completely.
As long as Google and Facebook rely on PPC income (most of which still directs traffic to websites) this will have to be a gradual transition, but they’re clearly phasing out website traffic in their long-term strategies.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where we have to publish content via Google (you know, like AMP) and have to pay for conversions that take place inside its platforms (like Google Shopping). Essentially, we have to move with the times and integrate ourselves into these platforms as they see fit.
Chatbots integrate with the future web
As the Internet of Things (IoT) finally starts to take off, chatbots are the only obvious link between consumers and individual brands that fits into the blueprint. This is a web where people are connected via personal assistants (Google Now/Allo, Siri, Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana, etc.) that handle most of their online needs.
Businesses need to fit into the equation somehow and websites won’t be the way to do it. Catbots, however, will integrate seamlessly into these platforms in the same way they already are into Facebook Messenger and various other apps. They surely won’t be the only technology to do this but they’re the only option we’ve got at this early stage.
Chatbots will save firms a lot of money
I mentioned earlier that 80% of businesses want to be using chatbots by 2020. Why? Because they want to cut down on expenses and bots are seen as a way to slash salary expenditures across a wide range of service-based industries.
That’s right – why pay employees to offer crappy customer service when you can build a bot to do it for free?
In fairness, there’s a lot more chatbots can offer these firms than simple cost-cutting. Bots run 24/7, answer instantly and are capable of handling a huge amount of queries at any one time. They’re also pretty damn productive when you put them in the right setting.
Some of these chatbots are actually quite good
Okay, so I must admit the word gimmick always comes to mind when I hear about a new chatbot being launched but some of them are starting to look pretty good. The fact users can browse for products, get personalised recommendations and even pay for their order inside a messaging app is no small thing.
Admittedly, this doesn’t happen with the majority of chatbots but the technology is already there. Compare this to the arduous task of browsing through a website, only to find out the item you want is out of stock and then having to go through that hideous checkout process when you find something else to buy.
So retail is already shaping up as one industry with a lot to gain from some finely developed chatbots. Things are looking equally as promising for the travel industry, too. The likes of Skyscanner and Kayak are already on board, allowing users to search for flights, hotels, rental cars and other travel goods from inside Facebook Messenger.
However, my favourite so far has got to CheapFlights. I’ve got no idea how good the bot actually is at finding cheap flights but I love how it effortlessly handles this smartass user called John:
So it seems we could be edging out of the gimmick stage in chatbot evolution and hopefully this continues. The technology still has some growing up to do – even though it dates back to the bloody ’50s – but at least it’s finally making progress.
Chatbots are going to be a moneymaker
Whether chatbots are the future or a pointless fad, one thing is for sure: they’re going to be a moneymaker. Businesses are already queuing up to get in on the chatbot action and there’s going to be a ton of work for designers who can create the kind of intuitive experiences they need. There’s a genuine need for talented chatbot designers, too, because you have to minimise the risk of users running into dead ends or confusing the bot – like our mate John tried to earlier.
The challenge is building solid conversion paths and guiding users to a desired action, which no easy task – especially if you’re building an AI bot. Things are a little easier for scripted bots but you still need to design a watertight conversation where the bot stays in control and avoids any glitches.
The point is, chatbot design is an involved process and there’s a huge demand for the technology – more than the supply of specialist chatbot designers right now.
Time to take the plunge?
So serious question: is now the time to become a chatbot designer and leave behind the overcrowded industry of web design? If you can establish your name and build a reputation now, there’ll certainly be no shortage of work for the next few years (at least) and you won’t be held ransom to the culture of cheap web design.
More to the point, if these things are going to replace websites and apps (as many are predicting), perhaps the question is whether you really have any other choice.