Conversational Interfaces and What They Mean for Brands

Conversational Interfaces and What They Mean for Brands

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Conversational interfaces are a simple idea with big implications. They force brands to re-think their entire UI/UX approach.

The evolution of computing can be interpreted through one key question: how do people interact with machines? The answer to this question denotes an unstoppable trend towards greater accessibility and intuitiveness. A shift from humans learning the language of machines towards machines learning the language of humans is evident.

In the early days, human/machine interaction was achieved through code commands. The transition to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) marked a revolution in computing. Desktops, files, trashcans, windows and the mouse cursor made it possible for anybody to use a computer and access content. The web browser marked another step forward, allowing people to operate the Internet through an easy system of addresses, links and tabs. Mobile saw the emergence of apps that created new ways to bundle and access functionalities distributed through a virtual marketplace.

Today, a combination of factors is bringing forward a new paradigm shift: the shift towards conversational interfaces.

What are conversational interfaces?

Conversational interfaces represent a simple idea: users interacting with digital applications through natural human language – text or voice. In essence, this means “discussing” with an online service provider not through a traditional website, not through an app, but through a chat window much like the one we use every day on WeChat, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Line and other popular chat applications.


Line


WhatsApp

Take for example a simple online action: booking a hotel room. Using currently available platforms, a traveller would have to access a website through a web browser or open an application. He would then have to perform a targeted search by date and place, select a room along with any potential additional options and proceed to enter his credit card information for payment. While UI/UX designers strive to make this process as simple and intuitive as possible, this mode of access is still at its core forcing the user to adapt to the machine by clicking through links, performing a search and combing through content that is mostly irrelevant.

In the world of conversational interfaces, the user simply “talks” to the brand through WeChat, Facebook Messenger or any other application. Using voice or text commands, he/she simply has to say “I want a room for tonight in Shanghai between 1000 RMB and 1200 RMB”. The brand can then refine search terms through simple questions such as “Would you want breakfast included?” before providing the user with the right option and proceeding with checkout straight from the chat window. At its core, this new mode of interaction is simply a different way for users to access content (case room inventory) and perform an action (book a room).

The benefits, however, are tremendous: the traveller can book a room in a much shorter amount of time and can do so much more easily than with a conventional website or app interface. She can also do so straight from the chat applications she uses so often. She does not need to learn and adapt to each different brand’s website UI. Her interactions with brands become as easy and as natural as her interactions with friends. The brand also greatly benefits from this new state of affairs: conversational interfaces remove costs associated with website design and do away with many of the traditional frictions that stand in the way of conversion, from misplaced buttons to bad mobile portability.

What is driving the rise of conversational interfaces?

Many factors are coming together to drive the rise of conversational interfaces.
 

  • Progresses in AI and machine learning: conversational interfaces are hardly a new idea. What makes them a viable alternative to traditional UI interfaces is the massive progress that has been made recently in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Simply put: machines are becoming much better at understanding human language (expressed through text or voice) and translating it into commands. What’s more, machine learning means the chat bots that lie behind conversational interfaces literally learn as they go, expanding their skills with each conversation and becoming exponentially better with time.
     
  • The domination of chat apps: from WeChat to Facebook Messenger, Line, Kakaotalk, Whatsapp, and even iMessage, digital behavior increasingly revolves around chat applications. WeChat, with its e-commerce platform, mobile wallet functionality, and open APIs for advanced applications is the poster child of these new “super apps” that increasingly resemble full-fledged mobile OS. These apps are pushing to become the central hubs for brand interactions with WeChat constantly opening up new APIs. Facebook, following suit, has just opened up the chat bot functionality to brands.
     
  • App overload: apps are inherently attractive to brands because they offer the promise of full, exclusive attention. However is it too often that brands’ app dreams clash against realities: most interactions simply do not warrant a stand alone app and consumers want fewer apps, not more. Labbrand recently conducted research about smart home adoption and found out that one of the key complaints people have is the need to constantly install new apps to control smart home devices. Conversational interfaces solve this issue: they are easier to access, do not require a cumbersome installation process and fit into an existing habit rather than force people to develop new habits.

It is interesting to note that we at Labbrand have been talking about conversational interfaces for almost 3 years. WeChat has indeed been an early pioneer in conversational interfaces with its autoreply and advanced chat bot tool that brands have embraced. China Southern airlines, for example, has made it possible over the past 2 years for travellers to look for flights straight from the chat feed using voice and text input. 

How can brands benefit from conversational interfaces?

Conversational interfaces offer many benefits for brands.
 

  • Lower acquisition and traffic generation costs: because they can leverage existing platforms (chat apps), conversational interfaces are easier to access for users. Simply put: getting somebody to follow a WeChat or Facebook Messenger account is a lot simpler and less costly than getting them to install an app or visit a website.
     
  • Better conversion rates and increased sales: as demonstrated by our hotel-booking example, conversational interfaces offer a more intuitive product search process and condense what used to be a complicated online purchasing journey into a few simple messages. If leveraged well, conversational interfaces can result in increased engagement rates and greater sales.
     
  • Better customer support: when it comes to conversational interfaces, customer support represents a low-hanging fruit. A well-designed chat bot can easily replace long FAQs, live chats and clunky phone operators. They can allow customers to find the answer to their problem much more quickly and easily and, most importantly, can do so on a huge scale at a zero marginal cost for brands.
     
  • Product innovation: we strongly believe that conversational interfaces represent the future of how we will control connected products. Rather than having to go through a complicated standalone app to control one’s connected thermostat, we see a future where consumers simply tell their appliances what to do and control them in the most natural and intuitive way – such as someone telling his air purifier “Go in silent mode from 10PM to 8AM”.
     
  • Proactive outreach: imagine you are talking to a friend on Facebook, setting an appointment for later today. Immediately, Uber sends you a notification asking you if you want to order a car to get there. This represents the ultimate potential of conversational interfaces: the capacity to extract contextual information from chat activity, geo-locations or other data points to proactively propose things that people need. Going back to our hotel booking example, the hotel could automatically send a message to the chat feed one week after my stay to inquire about my experience and ask me to provide a comment (which I can send directly in the chat feed without having to visit a separate website).


UBER

All in all, conversational interfaces are a simple idea with big implications. They force brands to re-think their digital eco-system and their entire UI/UX approach. Brands must methodically map their online interactions with consumers and determine which ones can be best achieved through conversations. The implications also carry over in the technical sphere with the need to link up social media to CRM systems, booking systems, product inventories, and more. Brands can optimize a clear starting point – such as simple interactions checking or basic customer support while they build up the capabilities to create more sophisticated conversational experiences, such as e-commerce.

Conclusion: a new era for brand relationships?

Conversational interfaces have the capacity to change the way we interact with brands in important ways. When brands start talking to us in the same setting, using the same language as our friends, we will naturally start humanizing them, lending them deeper personalities and maybe creating deeper bonds with them. The potential is great – but so are the risks if things are not done right. When relationships become personal, failures become all the more apparent. As with all innovative technologies, conversational interfaces will call for a cross-disciplinary approach that combines UI/UX, branding, analytics, marketing, customer service, and product innovation to release their full potential.